BBC’s The Witness for the Prosecution

witnessThe 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.

Jones' stringy ginger moustache alone deserves a Bafta for its portrayal of 'dismal face furniture'.

Jones’ stringy ginger moustache alone deserves a Bafta for its portrayal of ‘dismal face furniture’.

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.


That cat might look cute now…

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…

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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7 Responses to BBC’s The Witness for the Prosecution

  1. Yeah I felt the green fog and clock ticking was a bit much and the latter was copied from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. I think they have done Romaine’s character really well and the maid’s. The relationship between French and Vole has been added to a lot as the original story doesn’t make it a sexual one and I guessed I had an older image of Emily French in my head. Felt they went for a stereotypical approach to French and Vole relationship which was a bit disappointing as it becomes rather simplified. I’m interested to see what new twist they add on top of Christie’s own.

    Liked by 2 people

    • sbrnseay1 says:

      My image was Emily French more as an older woman and in the story there is nothing referred to their relationship as sexual but these days everything has to be sexual these days. I felt like the film was a disaster and the additions didn’t make the story any better. I didn’t care at all for the John Mayhew subplot or the “new twist” they added onto Christie’s.


  2. ravenking81 says:

    I think I’ll pass on this one. I thought ATTWN was already a bit of a mess and this looks even more melodramatic. I don’t understand why they need to make Christie darker anyway. Christie wrote books that can be enjoyed by the whole family, after all most people start reading her books in their childhood. What’s the point of adding swearing and dreary social realism to stories which were never supposed to be realistic in the first place? Clearly Ms. Phelps doesn’t understand the value of escapism, hell she doesn’t even seem to like mysteries at all. Couldn’t they have found someone better suited for the job?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. richmonde says:

    Mr Past Offences, I sentence you to read the original story, and watch the 1957 film… Phelps is right about Christie being darker than you think. ATTWN really confronts the evil that men do. Christie included a lot of social realism – it’s just that she observed middle class people with servants rather than slums in the Gorbals. And both she and her husband were marked by WWI. After it they just wanted to get on with their lives.


  4. Brad says:

    Since I had no trouble with Billy Wilder’s rich and funny adaptation of TWFTP, I can’t fault the BBC for going dark. I also can’t watch the damn thing until it either shows on US TV or somebody uploads it somewhere. So you Brits don’t mind holding off any further conversation for six-ten months, do you?


  5. Nordie says:

    I met a solicitor turned crime author last year (Guy Frasier-Sampson), who discussed practicing law pre-late 1980s. He said programmes like Life on Mars didn’t show the half of it, and he had experience of his clients arriving for interview having “fallen down the stairs, honest” etc. So it was interesting to see the portrayal of what was probably closer to the truth in terms of the English Juatice system, where you didn’t necessarily get to see your client before they were in front of the court, bribery and corruption were rampant etc. I have yet to watch part 2, maybe tonight or tomorrow


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