Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was rein­vented by last De­cem­ber’s bru­tal BBC adap­ta­tion. Now the same team have re­turned to tackle her dark court­room drama, The Wit­ness For The Pros­e­cu­tion. We join the cast on set for the trial of the cen­tury…

Crime Scene - - ON SET - BY AN­DRE PAINE

When Crime Scene ar­rives at a for­mer fire sta­tion op­po­site Manch­ester Pic­cadilly sta­tion on an au­tumn morn­ing, the city seems obliv­i­ous to the fact that one of the big­gest Christ­mas TV dra­mas is be­ing filmed in­side the cav­ernous Ed­war­dian build­ing, which has stood empty for 30 years. Be­tween takes, while the film crew come and go with equip­ment, An­drea Rise­bor­ough stands on the busy street, wear­ing 1920s dress, smok­ing and talk­ing on her iphone. Yet the gen­eral pub­lic have failed to reg­is­ter the star of the Tom Cruise sci-fi block­buster Obliv­ion, not to men­tion Na­tional Trea­sure and Bird­man.

Step­ping through a door and de­scend­ing the stairs to the hazy set of Agatha Christie’s The Wit­ness For The Pros­e­cu­tion is to leave mod­ern Manch­ester be­hind and ar­rive in London, circa 1923. Toby Jones ( Sherlock, The Se­cret Agent), in suit and wing col­lar, walks past us, singing to him­self, while a stern and smartly uni­formed cus­tody officer glances in our di­rec­tion. We’re ush­ered to­wards the for­mer coro­ner’s court that oc­cu­pies an­other part of the build­ing, to watch the next scene on a mon­i­tor.

A dra­matic con­fronta­tion is tak­ing place in the hold­ing cell, where Leonard Vole (Billy Howle) is await­ing trial for mur­der. When his part­ner, Ro­maine (Rise­bor­ough), vis­its him be­hind bars, their re­u­nion ends badly, with Leonard scream­ing her name as she leaves him to his fate. Un­for­tu­nately for Howle, the scene re­quires sev­eral takes.

“Poor old Billy,” says Rise­bor­ough, when we catch up with her in a trailer af­ter lunch. “I spat in his face about six times. I tried to hold off from hav­ing a fag be­fore­hand, but I just couldn’t. So I chewed a lot of gum.”

Ro­maine is the tit­u­lar wit­ness who is set to give ev­i­dence against her part­ner in this lat­est col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Mam­moth Screen and Agatha Christie Ltd for BBC One. Rise­bor­ough – her Ge­ordie ac­cent in­tact de­spite liv­ing in LA – be­comes

lyri­cal when she de­scribes this trou­bled and com­pli­cated char­ac­ter who en­dured “a re­ally hor­ren­dous time” dur­ing the First World War. “Like a live wire, vul­ner­a­ble, frag­ile, deeply dam­aged, sort of ethe­real,” she says. “I al­most imag­ined her float­ing in and out of rooms, hav­ing a soft haze around her edges, or there be­ing some an­gelic pu­rity. Quite tan­ta­lis­ing and ad­dic­tive.”

Screen­writer Sarah Phelps de­scribes Ro­maine as “clas­sic noir femme fa­tale” and even a “bitch” when Crime Scene catches up with her. “Ro­maine is very much an out­sider,” she says. “I’ve in­vented a back­story for her. In the short story she’s a Vi­en­nese ac­tress, but we don’t see her act. So what I’ve done is I’ve made the per­for­mance in the theatre very much part of the story, as well as the per­for­mance for ev­ery­body in the court.”

Fol­low­ing the huge suc­cess of last year’s chill­ing BBC up­date of And Then There Were None, Phelps re­turned to adapt and ex­pand Christie’s story, which con­cerns young Leonard Vole, who’s ac­cused of mur­der­ing an heiress, Emily French (Kim Cat­trall), in or­der to in­herit her money. The house­keeper (Mon­ica Dolan) will tes­tify against Leonard so he was re­ly­ing on Ro­maine to prove his in­no­cence.

“It’s English noir, be­fore Amer­i­can noir was in­vented,” says Phelps. “Ro­maine is es­sen­tially a great noir femme, work­ing out what is wanted, what is needed, what she’s go­ing to get out of it, and de­ploy­ing ev­ery­thing she’s got to make sure that hap­pens, be­cause she’s a sur­vivor.”

The court­room drama it­self is the fo­cus of the orig­i­nal story, the stage ver­sion and also the 1957 film star­ring Mar­lene Di­et­rich. How­ever, this BBC re­boot has ex­panded Christie’s short, sharp tale to in­clude a har­row­ing war se­quence, dur­ing which Leonard and Ro­maine meet amid the car­nage of the trenches. How­ever, their wartime bond seems to be bro­ken when, sev­eral years later, she’s set to tes­tify against him over the mur­der of French, who pos­sessed a sex­ual appetite for younger men – in­clud­ing Leonard.

As with the sex, drugs and vi­o­lence of the team’s up­date of And Then There Were None, Leonard’s se­duc­tion at French’s town­house didn’t fea­ture in the orig­i­nal short story. But Phelps is un­apolo­getic when it comes to her take on Christie.

“Is there go­ing to be sex and drugs? What do you think?” she rea­sons. “It’s an ab­so­lutely in­sane time. It’s like the end of the Ro­man Em­pire, they’ve been sated to the point of de­prav­ity.”

As well as por­tray­ing the roar­ing ’20s in graphic de­tail, Wit­ness also cap­tures the sharp style of the era, at least for the wealthy. Phelps, who’s also an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, proudly shows a photo on her phone of the gleam­ing His­pano-suiza lux­ury car she re­quested for the shoot. “It’s proper Mr. Toad,” she smiles.

The pro­duc­tion team are also em­ploy­ing a dis­tinct vis­ual style, in or­der to cap­ture the era. When Crime Scene is in­vited down into a base­ment that in­cludes sets for a tiled mor­tu­ary, pro­ducer Colin Wrat­ten ex­plains that the two-part drama is be­ing shot with a com­bi­na­tion of HD cam­eras, dif­fused light util­is­ing sprays and vin­tage lenses.

“It’s very much a film noir feel,” he says. “It’s a bit like Seven – that’s a par­al­lel that can be drawn to the at­mos­phere of this.”

Of course, the crown court and its be­wigged per­form­ers are a cru­cial el­e­ment of the drama. Crime Scene wan­ders past Toby Jones (as solic­i­tor John May­hew)

and David Haig (as a bar­ris­ter, mi­nus his wig), who are hud­dled dur­ing a tea break, as if they’re le­gal ea­gles rem­i­nisc­ing over old cases. May­hew is work­ing with Sir Charles Carter KC (Haig) on what ap­pears to be a hope­less de­fence for Leonard.

“It was an amaz­ing court­house in Liver­pool, huge Vic­to­rian wooded rooms, so the whole sense of theatre was great,” says Haig. “He’s the de­fence coun­sel and he’s a power player, re­ally. He en­joys a sense of his own bril­liance. One of those his­tor­i­cal 1920s, class-rid­den, sort of ho­mo­pho­bics – sex­ist, but be­neath this ap­palling ex­te­rior there’s prob­a­bly some­thing en­ter­tain­ing and warm, at some deep level.”

In the dock as Leonard, Billy Howle ( Vera, The Sense Of An End­ing) is at the sharp end of the court­room ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It was re­ally daunt­ing, ter­ri­fy­ing,” Howle tells Crime Scene. But he does at least have May­hew fight­ing his cor­ner. “I think one of the things Toby and I picked up on is, psy­cho­log­i­cally, there’s a sort of father and son dy­namic go­ing on.”

As the six-week shoot nears its end, it’s clear that the young ac­tor has en­dured a lot while play­ing one of his first ma­jor roles, in­clud­ing the afore­men­tioned scene in the cells when Rise­bor­ough spits in his face.

“I con­tin­u­ally re­mind my­self that it’s Ro­maine,” he laughs. “But yeah, it’s quite vis­ceral, very gritty.” At the end of the film­ing day he’s vis­i­bly ex­hausted. “I do look quite di­shev­elled. This suit was, at one time, quite beau­ti­ful – it was bought dur­ing my dal­liance with Kim Cat­trall’s char­ac­ter. It has been an in­tense day. I’ve just come out of a bit of a fra­cas with some prison guards. We did nine or ten takes, so I’m pretty tired.”

Al­though Howle found work­ing with Cat­trall to be a “won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence”, he did have is­sues with French’s doll-faced Per­sian cat, a fe­line ac­tor named Mimi.

“I some­times have al­ler­gies to cats so I was ap­pro­pri­ately doped up on quite strong an­ti­his­tamines in or­der to deal with it,” he ex­plains. It’s no spoiler to re­veal that Cat­trall’s char­ac­ter dies early on, in her plush town­house, which ex­plains why the ac­tor is no longer on set dur­ing our visit.

Phelps also killed off her top-notch cast in And Then There Were None, but at least some of the tal­ent in Wit­ness are set to sur­vive. It seems wrong to sin­gle any cast mem­ber out, though there is a sense that Rise­bor­ough is on a roll with Na­tional Trea­sure. “She’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­tor,” agrees Phelps.

Rise­bor­ough is an ex­tra­or­di­nary in­ter­vie­wee, too. She seems to trans­form her ap­pear­ance for each role, and in this pe­riod drama she has wavy blonde hair which seems to ac­cen­tu­ate her large, round eyes. She’s gen­uinely warm and down to earth, and when ques­tioned about her

It’s English noir, be­fore Amer­i­can noir was in­vented

char­ac­ter, she closes her eyes, thinks care­fully and never an­swers on Hol­ly­wood au­topi­lot. She also makes per­sonal con­nec­tions to the script, in­clud­ing the fact that her great-grand­fa­ther died dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Somme.

“When we recre­ated the Western Front, it was to­tally phe­nom­e­nal,” Rise­bor­ough says. “The strange thing about it was, ac­tu­ally, that it was some of the most joy­ful stuff that Billy and I did. Be­cause that is the mo­ment when they find each other. It’s the mo­ment when all the pain ends. They des­per­ately need one an­other. It’s that Nat­u­ral Born Killers love – this is so won­der­ful, let’s shoot our­selves in the head tonight, to­gether.”

Af­ter the war, the cou­ple end up in London, where Ro­maine makes a liv­ing as a cho­rus girl.

“What the war meant to me, as Ro­maine, was po­ten­tially gang rape, atroc­i­ties, hunger, learn­ing how to use her gift of singing as a weapon,” ex­plains Rise­bor­ough. “It’s us­ing the one thing that makes you re­ally happy and then turn­ing it into the one thing that’s go­ing to pro­tect you. I’m al­ways a bit scared about do­ing any of that in pub­lic. But it was re­ally nice to sing in this.” Rise­bor­ough also has a fond­ness for the theme tune to Poirot – she watches the show when­ever she’s feel­ing home­sick. But she’s clear that this Christie is a long way from David Suchet’s ITV drama. “I think it’s go­ing to be pretty dark,” she says. “Well, I’m in it! I’m in a lot of dark shit.” Wrat­ten sug­gests The Wit­ness For The Pros­e­cu­tion, di­rected by Ju­lian Jar­rold ( Ap­pro­pri­ate Adult, Red Rid­ing), will be even more dis­turb­ing than And Then There Were None. “I think darker with­out a shadow of a doubt,” he says. Will it be the dark­est Christie to date? “Yes, I think that’s fair to say.” Phelps is al­ready on board for the next adap­ta­tion, Or­deal By In­no­cence, the first of seven more to be screened on BBC One over the next four years. Death Comes As The End, Christie’s mur­der mys­tery set in An­cient Egypt, may be next in line, and there are plans to film the Poirot novel The ABC Mur­ders. Ken­neth Branagh is al­ready star­ring as the Bel­gian sleuth and di­rect­ing the movie of Mur­der On The Ori­ent Ex­press, while Ben Af­fleck is work­ing on a Hol­ly­wood ver­sion of The Wit­ness For The Pros­e­cu­tion.

Of course, it’s Phelps’ take on the story that fans of Christie will get to see first, and there’s huge au­di­ence an­tic­i­pa­tion.

“I think The Wit­ness For The Pros­e­cu­tion will be sur­pris­ing – it’s very cruel,” she tells Crime Scene. “I’ve made it re­ally cruel be­cause it’s about try­ing to find a way to live with the things that you’ve done. The rea­son I like the [ Christie] sto­ries that I’ve worked on is that they aren’t cosy en­ter­tain­ment. A ter­ri­ble thing has been done, a ter­ri­ble bloody crime, and there are all these high, hot com­plex emo­tions sur­round­ing it that make it dan­ger­ous, ex­cit­ing and fright­en­ing be­cause no one’s go­ing to come along and make it safe again. I like that – it feels dan­ger­ous, it feels sub­ver­sive, it feels un­set­tling.”

The ac­cused loses his cool in the dock. The house­keeper is on the pros­e­cu­tion’s side.

Will­ro­maine save or damn Leonard? Howle look­ing “quite di­shev­elled” as Leonard. Ro­maine is a “clas­sic noir femme fa­tale”.

Rise­bor­ough is read­ied for an­other take. Heiresse mily French [ Kim Cat­trall, be­low] lies dead.

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