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.
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.