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…
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.”
Willromaine save or damn Leonard? Howle looking “quite dishevelled” as Leonard. Romaine is a “classic noir femme fatale”.
The accused loses his cool in the dock. The housekeeper is on the prosecution’s side.
Riseborough is readied for another take. Heiresse mily French [ Kim Cattrall, below] lies dead.