DEATH BECOMES HER
Another classic Agatha Christie murder mystery has been skilfully revived
‘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