An­other clas­sic Agatha Christie mur­der mys­tery has been skil­fully re­vived

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - The Wit­ness for the Pros­e­cu­tion,

‘Most suc­cesses are un­happy,” Agatha Christie once wrote. “That is why they are suc­cesses — they have to re­as­sure them­selves about them­selves by achiev­ing some­thing that the world will no­tice.” Well, the great crime writer must fi­nally be con­tent. Her nov­els have sold more than two bil­lion copies, in more than 70 lan­guages, mak­ing her the most widely read nov­el­ist in his­tory. And al­most 100 years af­ter her first novel, The Mys­te­ri­ous Af­fair at Styles, was pub­lished she is be­com­ing even more pop­u­lar.

The highly suc­cess­ful tele­vi­sion who­dunits fea­tur­ing Miss Marple from Bri­tain’s Granada shrewdly repo­si­tioned the fran­chise for the Bruck­heimer/ CSI mar­ket more than a decade ago. And Miss Marple, the spin­ster sleuth, is still solv­ing Christie’s elab­o­rate puz­zles on dig­i­tal and ca­ble chan­nels around the world; they are fa­mil­iar sta­ples here on Foxtel.

The lively, un­apolo­getic makeover for TV of the spin­ster de­tec­tive with the un­canny in­tu­ition for mur­der co­in­cided with a re­assess­ment of Christie by lit­er­ary his­to­ri­ans who dis­cov­ered an un­con­scious, in­tu­itive fem­i­nism, oc­ca­sion­ing a con­tin­u­ing out­put of books about the so-called Queen of Crime. As The New Yorker writer Joan Aco­cella said, “We are deal­ing not so much with a lit­er­ary fig­ure as with a broad cul­tural phe­nom­e­non, like Bar­bie or the Bea­tles.”

Well, now she is be­ing rein­car­nated again, reimag­ined for a new gen­er­a­tion of crime ad­dicts with their ap­petite for blood­let­ting, ex­treme re­al­ism, ur­ban per­ver­sity, po­lit­i­cal crit­i­cism and so­cial com­men­tary.

It be­gan last year with the crit­i­cally ac­claimed And Then There Were None, which achieved rat­ings of more than eight mil­lion when it was broad­cast in Bri­tain and which ap­peared here on Foxtel’s BBC First. It was the be­gin­ning of a ma­jor re­set of the Christie brand af­ter the BBC ac­quired the rights to be­come the writer’s new pro­duc­tion home, an­nounc­ing seven adap­ta­tions.

Set in 1939 and cre­ated by writer Sarah Phelps ( Oliver Twist, The Ca­sual Va­cancy), And Then There Were None was the fiercely orig­i­nal adap­ta­tion of the 1939 Christie novel of­ten seen by lit­er­ary crit­ics as the ul­ti­mate mas­ter­piece of tra­di­tional de­tec­tive fic­tion.

What Phelps and her col­lab­o­ra­tors de­liv­ered was a mes­meris­ing piece of psy­cho­log­i­cal sus­pense per­fectly in synch with the new era of Scan­di­na­vian noir.

Now Phelps, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer as well as writer and re­united with many of the team be­hind And Then There Were None, re­turns with her two-hour ver­sion of The Wit­ness for the Pros­e­cu­tion, first pub­lished in 1925. Again, it is a long way re­moved from what hard-boiled crime writer Adrian McKinty called “the nos­tal­gic world of per­fectly lit Cotswolds vil­lages and beau­ti­fully re­stored steam lo­co­mo­tives” of tra­di­tional Christie adap­ta­tions down the decades.

“My take on it, and one of the rea­sons I find it re­ally sat­is­fy­ing to write for the small screen, is that the sto­ries are dark,” Phelps says. “One of the re­ally shock­ing and ex­tra­or­di­nary things is that there is 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.”

While she came late to Christie, she be­lieves that works in her favour as a writer be­cause she finds the sto­ries shock­ing. “I don’t have a child­hood fa­mil­iar­ity with the sto­ries and so I am acutely aware of the dan­ger, the re­ally un­nerv­ing, un­set­tling qual­i­ties,” Phelps says. “I re­ally like that; it ex­cites me and makes me want to push it that lit­tle bit harder be­cause I think that is what she wants.”

This time Phelps’s di­rec­tor is Ju­lian Jar­rold (one of the di­rec­tors of the highly plea­sur­able The Crown, and who also gave us the bril­liant Fred West crime drama Ap­pro­pri­ate Adult). His di­rec­tion is sub­tle and search­ing with a lovely if de­press­ingly ex­is­ten­tial sense of place and pe­riod. The strength of their ap­proach is in the way they fo­cus with a kind of film noirish in­ten­sity on what Phelps calls “the con­text of the times and how that might lead some­one to com­mit a ter­ri­ble mur­der” — some­thing Phelps did so well with And Then There Were None. As co­ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer James Pritchard, Christie’s great-grand­son, says: “She picked up on the fact that Christie al­ways set ev­ery story she wrote in the year in which she wrote it, and so be­came a voice for the so­cial his­tory of the time.”

It is 1923, Lon­don. Un­like the some­what myth­i­cal im­age of the Roar­ing Twen­ties, life for most Lon­don­ers is drab, hard and ex­pen­sive, the eco­nomic de­pres­sion not helped by the air of fis­cal in­com­pe­tence ra­di­at­ing from the cor­ri­dors of gov­ern­ment. Ser­vice­men have been spat out of the re­cent con­flict, dis­il­lu­sioned, re­turn­ing from the hor­rors to “a land fit for he­roes to live in” but un­able to pro­vide them with em­ploy­ment. The only escapes for Lon­don­ers are the va­ri­ety the­atres, which are un­der­go­ing a boom, pro­vid­ing es­capism to au­di­ences for only a few pence.

En­ter so­cialite Emily French (Kim Cat­trall), a glam­orous and wealthy woman, and the ul­ti­mate femme fa­tale, lur­ing un­sus­pect­ing young men into her boudoir. Th­ese mean­ing­less af­fairs are viewed with dis­dain by her house­keeper, Janet (Mon­ica Dolan).

French ap­pears to fall for a young waiter, Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), ini­tially pay­ing him £5 for the op­por­tu­nity to “ex­pe­ri­ence his com­pany”. The aim­less young man, a for­mer sol­dier, sees it as an op­por­tu­nity to per­haps be­come a chauf­feur; his older lover seems en­rap­tured and makes him the sole ben­e­fi­ciary of her will.

Sev­eral weeks later, blood stains the plush car­pets of French’s lux­u­ri­ous town­house, and her body is dis­cov­ered by Janet on the liv­ing room floor, skull opened “like a tin of peaches”. Janet knows ex­actly who to blame, she tells the po­lice: Vole. “He had a hold on her — I knew it from the first mo­ment he walked in,” she says.

Vole is adamant his girl­friend, enig­matic va­ri­ety singer Ro­maine (An­drea Rise­bor­ough), can prove his in­no­cence and con­firm he was at home with her at the time of the mur­der.

Tak­ing on Vole’s seem­ingly hope­less case is down­trod­den so­lic­i­tor John May­hew (Toby Jones). His only hope of pre­vent­ing Vole from hang­ing is to per­suade the enig­matic chanteuse to pro­vide that alibi. He is not helped by his King’s Coun­sel, Sir Charles Carter (David Haig), who sali­vates at the prospect of a sen­sa­tion­al­ist case. Carter, who en­joys a Dick­en­sian turn of phrase, con­sid­ers it a lost cause un­til he dis­cov­ers how wealthy the young man will be­come if he is found not guilty.

But is this mur­der re­ally a case of “ma­li­cious cal­cu­la­tion and pre­med­i­ta­tion”, as the pros­e­cu­tion so ve­he­mently sug­gests or is there some other ex­pla­na­tion? And just what role does the mys­te­ri­ous singer play in this sor­did story (Rise­bor­ough is mes­meris­ing in the role)?

Phelps and Jar­rold con­vey a wretched, claus­tro­pho­bic Lon­don, with no sense of the world out­side the frame. A red­dish smoggy air per­me­ates ev­ery shot — the se­ries is su­perbly lit by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Felix Wiede­mann — cre­at­ing a sense of dread, and the mood is light­ened only by the the­atre where Ro­maine per­forms.

What Phelps gives us are in­sights into peo­ple and so­ci­ety that are far more imag­i­na­tive and res­o­nant than the twists and turns usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with Christie. Aided by a per­fectly cast en­sem­ble, led by the chameleon-like Toby Jones as the woe­be­gone May­hew, Phelps de­liv­ers that mys­te­ri­ous com­bi­na­tion of in­di­vid­ual psy­chol­ogy, so­cial back­ground and hu­man re­la­tion­ship that re­sults in mur­der, and she does it in the most com­pelling and en­gag­ing way. 8.30pm, BBC First. Sun­day,

Kim Cat­trall, above, and Toby Jones with Hay­ley Carmichael, left, in The Wit­ness for the Pros­e­cu­tion

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