For the second year running, the BBC gave us a Christmastime Agatha Christie adaptation via the pen of Sarah Phelps who — much as with last year’s And Then There Were None — had the common sense to keep the Christie bits that make it so clever and added only where addition was required. So, how was it?
Inevitably in bulking up a short story into two hours of television there must be some licence taken, but for my money a pretty darn fine job was done. Yes, there’s probably about 90 minutes of actual content in here, but it’s nice to see that the limitations of the source short story were acknowledged and no attempt was made to equal the three hours that ATTWN commanded. Slightly more context was given to Toby Jones’ John Mayhew — he’s given a home life, gas-damaged lungs from fighting in the First World War, and a tragic sense of decency and yearning following others events that affected him in that conflict, of which more later — and Romaine Heilger’s life as a chorus girl is sketched in using a wonderful sleight of hand that was made all the more interesting by Adrea Riseborough’s steady transformation throughout.
The much smaller cast gave a far closer scrutiny to the characters that ATTWN allowed, but they were played petty much note-perfectly: Kim Cattrall’s brief turn as Emily French was full of tiny, subtle moments that show what a shame it will be if she’s only ever remembered for Sex and the City; the solicitous asperity and hysteria of the maid Janet MacIntyre was actually close to perfect, with Monica Dolan taking what should on paper be a fairly thankless role and imbuing the slow crumbling of a devoted woman with something rather beautiful; and Billy Howle filled Leonard Vole with the hopelessness and fear necessary to make the role work, but playing the quiet moments with a careful intensity that it would be all too easy to miss. There’s a scene early on when Vole and Mayhew are meeting to discuss the case and begin talking about their experiences in the War — Jones is wonderful, of course, but Howle plays off him with a barely-contained grace that, in just a few lines, makes Mayhew believe in Vole in a way that the viewer completely buys; it might be the best scene of anything I’ve watched this year.
To get into a few things in a little more depth, there will be SPOILERS from this point on. I have no experience of the play or the movie spun from this story, so how much Phelps’ take overlaps with those I cannot say; if you’ve not seen this BBC adaptation, you’re better staying away from the following in order to remain unspoiled.
What I especially enjoyed was the way Romaine Heilger was built up through little flashes of leaving things unsaid: the conflict between her and the show’s ‘principal’ Christine at the start — ostensibly over Christine’s ‘man’ — then being turned into something far more sinister when Heilger is suddenly elevated to the lead and Mayhew meets the scarred ‘Christine’ to hear a version of how this came about. It turns out to be false, but for the uninitiated it’s a nice piece of subtle implication of what could have happened. Andrea Riseborough played Romaine’s steady changes with astonishing clarity and confidence: from near-wordlessness at the start to meekly practicing her testimony before the mirror to the moment she is undone by Mayhew in court and exits the witness-box with a disdainful “You men!” and then explodes into a calculated piece of fury. As with ATTWN’s Maeve Dermody, Phelps has provided a wonderful opportunity for a young actress here, and Riseborough like Dermody grabbed it with both hands by never overplaying a single note.
It all fit very neatly with the mood of the piece overall: David Haig’s Sir Charles Carter expounding to a roomful of legal men, a male judge, and a jury of twelve men that the man before them accused of murder was victim of the “perfidy of woman”, Mayhew and Carter encouraging Vole to plant the seed of suspicion with the jury that Romaine might have been a prostitute at some point in the past (“You don’t have to say that she was, you just have to say you can’t be certain that she wasn’t“), and Mayhew helping Vole with his tie before the trial — reinforcing the almost filial connection forged between the two men — while gently trying to encourage the apparently reluctant younger man to throw any muck he can at his former lover. I’m not going to go so far as to call this a feminist interpretation of Christie, I don’t think that would be accurate or fair, but it’s built up to become especially interesting when it transpires that these clever, plotting, morally superior men have had the rug pulled from beneath them by not merely a woman but a foreign woman at that — Romaine’s constant undermining brought to life by Haig’s brilliant delivery of the line “When the court hears actress they’ll think whore; when they hear Vienna…well, we all know what they’ll think then”. As a period piece that works within its period without hammering you over the head with how Post-First World War it is, this could serve as a textbook for anyone wishing to undertake such an endeavour in the future.
And then we come to the end: Romaine and Vole have conspired to get Vole off, Mayhew encounters them on their honeymoon, and is left doubting himself and his own motivations. Howle and Riseborough are suitably nightmarish here, and Phelps extends Christie’s own story by looking beyond simply the fact of Vole’s guilt and into its cause and motivation — “Murder? Just one life after so many…” — “We are what happens when you butcher the young; you cheat us, you lie to us, you expect us to be grateful just for being alive.” By this point we’ve had to endure the stretching of the material to a point where the plot has become lost and instead a happy montage has shown Mayhew’s ascendancy, but this payoff is worth it, and again Phelps worked it into the fabric of her 1920s setting beautifully.
Only really one false note remains, and in a way it gives rise to one of the best moments of this adaptation: Mayhew returning to his wife and insisting that everything he did was done for her, that his love for her was the motivating factor behind all his success — this might simply be the character breaking down, but it felt rather sudden and struck that lingering false note for me. But, oh, what a revelation awaits: Alice Mayhew, little more than the quiet and unhappy wife to that point, suddenly turns on her husband with a vengeance that tears even this out from beneath him. The actress Hayley Carmichael may not have had a great deal of material to work with up to this point, but crikey does she respond when required: this single scene pours out the frustration and rage and hatred that has become too much for her to contain any more following the death of their underaged son in the War. Holy crap is it ever powerful stuff, and Carmichael judges it perfectly — absolutely spot on, another commanding performance in two hours that delivers in this regard over and over again.
So, all told this is another very strong outing, and shows how Christie can be adapted faithfully, compellingly, and intelligently for a modern audience. True, it was a trifle over-directed and rather fond of camera filters and green fog, but the work done here in correcting the respect Christie is owed following the frank abomination of the later Poirots, the Marples that have Aunt Jane crammed into novels that didn’t contain her and were then altered beyond all recognition, and That Which Shall Not Be Named (P******* i* C****) is marvellous. Phelps and the production company Mammoth Screen have an understanding of Christie that can and should produce much fine drama for many Christmases hence — perhaps Crooked House next, guys?