The BBC’s flagship Christie adaptation aired last night. They promised us dark and sexy – but did they deliver?
We are certainly a long way from Marple. It doesn’t look like an adaptation of a Golden Age story, and, for example, you can forget the traditional Golden Age depiction of the police. Forget courteous and stolid bobbies. This lot come with swear words and truncheons at the ready.
Star Toby Jones explains the setting:
…a world very much in recovery from the First World War. Everyone is in shock and picking up the pieces. Not just externally in society but internally and personally; physiologically everyone is reconstructing themselves and trying to establish what was broken. It’s those spirits that haunt the events of this film. It’s the ghost of war and all the effects of it.
Jones stars as down-at-heel solicitor John Mayhew, coughing himself to a slow death after a gas attack in the War, who spends interminable joyless evenings at home with his indifferent wife Alice. In an interview with the BBC, Jones explores this a little more:
John and Alice’s marriage is an interesting challenge; their relationship is clearly dysfunctional and existing on very low ebb. They’re little more than people who exist in the same space together and I suppose the challenge is to try and make it more than purely miserable.
Mayhew is introduced touting for business: meeting prospective clients in police cells. The first on his list is snoring in a drunken stupor, the second is vomiting noisily, the third is Leonard Vole.
Vole has been arrested for the murder of wealthy widow Emily French, who has altered her will in his favour after a passionate affair, and then discovered he is already living with another woman. Classic motive.
Kim Catrall (Samantha from Sex in the City) reprises her role as a cougar with Emily ‘I enjoy the company of young men…. I like their heft‘ French. She seduces Henry Vole, a seemingly hapless young veteran, after he loses his job as a waiter.
In her BBC interview, Kim Catrall says:
When she meets this gorgeous, vulnerable young man he is different from anyone around her and her interest is piqued. This is not simply about an older woman preying on a younger man, it’s more than just her gratification; she wants an adventure.
Her maid McIntyre, played with a Mrs Danversesque stony face by Monica Dolan, can barely conceal her contempt for Vole, spitting out bits of invective, dropping his hat and coat on purpose, and delighted to make him prime suspect when she discovers Emily’s body in a pool of blood. The police are certainly convinced, but Vole’s common-law wife Romaine Heilger, a music hall performer, stands between him and the gallows. As they are not married she can appear for the defence, and she can provide an alibi.
Writer Sarah Phelps explains that she finds it easy to make Christie darker than previous televisations:
My take on it [Agatha Christie], and one of the reasons I find it really satisfying to write for the small screen, is that the stories are dark. One of the really shocking and extraordinary things with And Then There Were None, as with The Witness for the Prosecution, is that there’s a really strong sense that to murder someone and to take their life is to tear a hole in the universe. The world itself changes and you are changed profoundly through your association with this terrible event. What I like is to take this general perception of knowing where you are with ‘cosy Christie’ and twisting it.
A tad heavy handed with the camera filters and slightly over-directed – the quiet scene dominated by increasingly loud ticking clock was a trope too far – but for all that there is some striking imagery. Emily’s fluffy white cat making bloody footprints in the carpet being particularly memorable.
I haven’t read Christie’s original short story, so I don’t know where the story is headed. Episode one ended with the appearance a new witness for the prosecution, whose testimony will hang Vole for sure.
I’ll be watching tonight, and if you didn’t see episode one I’d get on to iplayer quickly – you have exactly two hours…