JUDGE­MENT DAY

With the bru­tal jus­tice of And Then There Were None, screen­writer Sarah Phelps killed off any cosy im­age of Agatha Christie on TV. Crime Scene finds out what she’s got planned next for court­room drama The Wit­ness For The Pros­e­cu­tion.

Crime Scene - - AGATHA CHRISTIE SPECIAL - By An­dre Paine

For all the longevity of TV’S Poirot, the ap­peal of Miss Marple in her var­i­ous ver­sions, and the ’70s ex­trav­a­ganza of Mur­der On The Ori­ent Ex­press, per­haps the sin­gle most suc­cess­ful Agatha Christie adap­ta­tion was And Then There Were None on BBC One last Christ­mas. It was beau­ti­fully shot, fea­tured a strong en­sem­ble cast (Ai­dan Turner, Charles Dance, Mi­randa Richard­son) and – most im­por­tantly – it was ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fy­ing.

“I was thrilled by how peo­ple re­acted to it,” Sarah Phelps tells Crime Scene. The screen­writer known for Eas­ten­ders and The Ca­sual Va­cancy ad­mits that she came to Christie cold. “If I can be hon­est, I’d never read an Agatha Christie book be­fore I got sent And Then There Were None,” she con­fesses. “But I thought I knew what Agatha Christie was; I thought it’s mur­der but there’s a kind of cosi­ness be­cause some­body’s go­ing to turn up and solve it.” When Phelps read the novel about a group of peo­ple sum­moned to an iso­lated is­land, those pre­con­cep­tions were shat­tered. “The thing that stag­gered me about it was how bru­tal it was,” she says. “Here was a story of re­venge, of jus­tice, but of a jus­tice that is so cold. It was ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fy­ing be­cause there was no es­cape – and it ab­so­lutely thrilled me.”

It was a good start­ing point for a writer given the far from sim­ple task of launch­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of adap­ta­tions without alien­at­ing ex­ist­ing fans. Set on the eve of World War II, And Then There Were None fea­tured sex, drugs and swear­ing and yet still felt true to the spirit of Christie. “I get very ag­grieved when peo­ple say ‘Why is there sex and swear­ing and drugs?’ – that’s what peo­ple did back then,” says Phelps. “And I’d be let­ting loose vol­leys of An­glo-saxon if I was stuck on an is­land and some lu­natic was killing you all one by one.”

A con­ver­sa­tion with Phelps soon be­comes a dizzy­ing mas­ter­class in TV scriptwrit­ing, in­clud­ing plenty of in­sights into Christie’s fa­mous novel. “It re­ally is a foren­sic dis­qui­si­tion on the na­ture of guilt,” Phelps tells Crime Scene. “It’s a study of a psy­chopath and it’s also a book that I felt was very much about its time. You have 10 strangers, in the sum­mer of 1939, on an is­land where it feels like they’re on the edge of the world and some­thing ter­ri­ble and omi­nous is head­ing their way. I thought: my God, if there was ever a book about its time, it’s this book.”

Although the char­ac­ters have done ter­ri­ble things, an un­apolo­getic man like Philip Lom­bard (Ai­dan Turner) has an ap­peal­ing hon­esty. “You want them to be at­trac­tive char­ac­ters, [and] I ab­so­lutely fell in love them,” says Phelps. “Per­haps it’s that shame­less­ness of know­ing your­self and ad­mit­ting it that makes some­body very at­trac­tive.” Of course, hav­ing “the most amaz­ing cast” helped make Christie’s lineup of archetypes cap­ti­vat­ing on the screen.

There are also big names for Phelps’ next Christie adap­ta­tion, The Wit­ness For The Pros­e­cu­tion, a two-part BBC One drama set in 1920s London which has started film­ing in Liver­pool. Kim Cat­trall plays an heiress who’s the vic­tim of a bru­tal mur­der in her town­house. Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), a young chancer who’s been left her for­tune, is the sus­pect – but he in­sists enig­matic cho­rus girl Ro­maine (An­drea Rise­bor­ough) can prove his in­no­cence. It sets up a court­room drama in which Toby Jones ( The Se­cret Agent) plays the so­lic­i­tor on the case. “We’ve got an amaz­ing team again and it’s a real buzz,” says Phelps, who’s an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer.

Orig­i­nally a short story with a killer fi­nal sen­tence, The Wit­ness For The Pros­e­cu­tion was also a hugely suc­cess­ful play and 1957 movie star­ring Mar­lene Di­et­rich as a femme fatale. Phelps has de­scribed Ro­maine as a “noir hero­ine” – she has clearly en­joyed writ­ing her. “I find her kind of fas­ci­nat­ing. She is ab­so­lutely an out­sider,” says Phelps. “There was a de­tail in the story which is all these rumours and how in­trigued peo­ple are about her.

Ul­ti­mately, she’s an ac­tress, so you’re never quite sure what per­for­mance you’re be­ing given.” Christie’s Ro­maine runs rings around the so­lic­i­tor – but Phelps is shak­ing that up. “You’ve got to try and change that a lit­tle bit be­cause in the story you’re head­ing very much to­wards the twist – and the twist is bril­liant – but in a TV ver­sion you’ve got to go be­yond that twist,” she ex­plains. While And Then There Were None was a warped take on jus­tice, Wit­ness is about the le­gal process and at­mos­phere. “The lan­guage of The Wit­ness For The Pros­e­cu­tion is re­ally the lan­guage of the law and the lan­guage of the court – and it’s about twist­ing that up,” Phelps tells Crime Scene. “The tone of it serves that story. I slightly shock my­self some­times and go: ‘Is there some­thing wrong with me? What am I do­ing here?’ It’s so dark.”

As well as hav­ing its sin­is­ter side, this BBC show will also have com­pelling court­room drama. “You’ve got huge set‑pieces in the court­room; the bar­ris­ters are per­form­ing, the judge is per­form­ing, everybody is per­form­ing to get the re­sult that they need for the law,” says Phelps. “It’s quite glad­i­a­to­rial, and you start to for­get that there’s some­body in the dock who could be in­no­cent or guilty.”

Fol­low­ing the suc­cess of And Then There Were None, there is go­ing to be a lot of ex­pec­ta­tion for Phelps’ next adap­ta­tion. The screen­writer says she’s been “blown away” by the Christie es­tate’s en­cour­age­ment for her full-blooded take on the au­thor. “For me there is some­thing rather wild, sub­ver­sive and dark in her books, and I very much like the fact they’re let­ting me chase it,” she says. Hope­fully, when Wit­ness fi­nally airs it will be an­other unan­i­mous ver­dict.

And Then There Were None is out on DVD. The Wit­ness For The Pros­e­cu­tion is in pro­duc­tion.

In a TV ver­sion you’ve got to go be­yond the twist

Fea­tured: An­drea Rise­bor­ough.

The BBC’S And Then There Were None is a darker take onc hristie. The en­sem­ble cast day trip started well.

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