I know, I know: I time my Sherlock Week so that it completely fails to capitalise on the BBC Christmas Special, and only now – several weeks after the event, when everyone else is well and truly done with it – only now do I get round to the BBC’s rather excellent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s island-based murder-fest. Undaunted by my lack of riding the ever-shifting popular wave, there are some things I thought I’d write about. Suffice to say, SPOILERS of all manner and sort follow; if you’re even later than me getting to this, you’re probably better off not reading any farther if you wish to view it completely pure (which, really, you should). I’m discussing the adaptation here rather than the book, but they match so closely in all the key details that I’ll be ruining something for you if you’re hoping the book is massively different. It isn’t. And that is a wonderful thing.
Kudos is due all round: not just for Sarah Phelps’ faithful but not slavish script, but also Craig Viveiros’ effectively restrained direction, the superb musical cues and, of course, the wonderful cast. Far from wishing to tear it down in any way, I thought I’d use it as an example of just how well something like this demonstrates the appeal of the Golden Age puzzle plot, and how by both sticking to (and in some cases overturning) the often-derided conventions of such old-fashioned stories it became even more successful than might have been anticipated given the recent, er, non-success of P******* in C**** (full credit, I stole that from Puzzle Doctor).
Crucially, Phelps kept it simple. We do not need scenes putting these people in their context – of Wargrave passing down judgement from the bench, of Philip Lombard being moody and attractive in various situations – we just need them, as confused as us, as unknown to each other as to us, arriving at the island and straight into the trials to come, and that’s what we got. The smattering of flashbacks throughout, and the way these stories would bleed into the present, told us more than enough, and rightly trusted the audience to make the connections themselves. This focus on the situation – the murder, the theft, the disappearance – is key to most puzzle plots from this era. Rococo inclusions of character and background are a more modern convention, and thankfully everyone involved here was savvy enough to play this as a strength and realise that too much of it would have vastly upset the tone.
In this line, Phelps and Viveiros kept it about the situation rather than the murders: in much the GA style, there was no lingering over pornographic violence – you need to know someone is dead and their approximate manner, so you see MacArthur covered in blood or Rogers on the floor not moving with more than a hint of gore and then you’re moved on. I know the bloodlessness of classic detective novels is something people scoff at – cosy murder, et cetera – but the fact of the death is enough, is indeed the entire point. Someone dies, the odds shorten, the spring winds ever tighter. And the violence that we did see was kept for the situations the require it: for Blore’s savage beating of his prisoner, for the sheeted body in Dr. Armstrong’s flashback, for the wounds of a pregnant girl who threw herself under a train, for the clutching hands of an old lady smothered in her bed – in short, for the victims of these murderers, to remind us what they’ve done. And in being used in such a restrained manner it had all the more effect.
It helps that the cast was so uniformly excellent – you can see in Sam Neill’s entire being the emotions General MacArthur goes through in the moment of revelation and decision before his particular misdeed, and the extra air of the sinister that Miranda Richardson brought to the brittle, pious Emily Brent in her first flashback was a little piece of wonder. You have to feel a little sorry for Douglas Booth who, as Anthony Marston, has the job of getting on everyone’s nerves as a vacuous idiot before thankfully dying first, but even in such a small part he injected sly moments of bitchiness. And Maeve Dermody did a stellar job as a focus of unlikely sympathy in Vera Claythorne, making someone you know to be a murderer – someone slowly and steadily revealed as avaricious and selfish in the worst possible way – into a desperate, human presence at the centre of it all, and all without ever being someone you’re intended to root for.
It’s also interesting to note – and here’s the inspiration for the title of this post – how the attitude to the women committing crimes compared to the men was similarly carried over nearly verbatim from the source material. In all instances of the murders that have brought them to this reckoning, the men are far more active in the commission: MacArthur shoots a man in the back of the head, Lombard shoots plenty of people and burns down a village, Marston hits two children with his car, and so on. The women are all far more passive, or less active in the ‘involvement’: it is Rogers who smothers his employer while his wife stands guard (and she who is the one to immediately express if not quite remorse then at least regret), Emily Brent is simply guilty of inaction, and Vera Claythorne – while undoubtedly inciting the deed – only has to lie back and wait before pretending to rescue her quarry…in all cases, the death is out of their direct action, as if the fairer sex was to be spared the nasty business of actually getting involved in such undertakings.
In fact, the treatment of women in general tallies fairly well with what you’d expect from this era: witness Armstrong’s rebuke of Vera Claythorne after they’ve searched his belongings at her insistence – “Who the hell do you think you are? I’m a doctor, you’re a secretary”. If anything, this genteelification and removal of culpability leads to about the only false note in the entire thing when Emily Brent – perhaps short of quite the same level of thwarted justice as the others – expresses mildly anti-semitic sentiments that while in keeping with her petty-minded nature (the ‘four-minute egg’ is a minor moment of character genius) seem to be there for modern audiences to find her appropriately hissable.
Now, don’t misunderstand me – my exact point here is that it simultaneously feels authentic to the era while also playing to the need for modern understanding. And similarly the liberties taken by adding in swearing, drug use, and extra-marital sex really, really worked. No-one is going to believe that people would conduct themselves with icy detachment in such a situation, and it all rang true in a way that would both resonate with a modern audience and fit within the historical setting (witness Blore’s apology in the third episode after swearing in front of Vera Claythorne, or his attaching significance to Philip Lombard calling her “Vera”). These period interruptions form a perfect backdrop against which the contemporary need for closure or admisson of complicity – MacArthur’s reluctance at his actions and calm acceptance of his fate as just, or Blore’s repentant confession and re-imagining of his crime – work perfectly, and hit with a deeper meaning on account of the unexpectedness.
From what I’ve seen of the reactions to this, And Then There Were None was an unexpected delight to a significant majority of those who saw it, and it’s arguably these seamless mingling of these seemingly disparate and mutually exclusive themes and expectations that made it work so brilliantly. Dare we hope for more of the same? A faithful, gripping standalone Christie adaptation each Christmas would be a delight, provided they’re able to repeat the mixture of elements as successfully (and it’s done too consistently for it to be mere chance). Very few of the books remain, I understand, due to a lot of the standalones being turned into episodes of Marple, though I’d love to see these same people take on The Sittaford Mystery, The Man in the Brown Suit, or Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?.
Aaah, time will tell. But it is such a relief to see that these stories can be understood for what makes them so compelling and turned into exciting, urgent modern dramas without bowdlerising them or being embarrassed by their retrospective flaws. That has brought plenty of joy to my post-Christmas season, and the next time the BBC announces a Christie adaptation I shall live in hope at that the people dying in despair will be those on the screen rather than those in front of it.