Agatha Christie on TV – My Top Six

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A recent post by Simply Media has inspired me to select my favourite Agatha Christie adaptations (due to the parameters of this blog I’ll concentrate on television only).

06. Peter Ustinov in Thirteen at Dinner (1985).  I’ve a lot of time for the 1980’s American Christie television movies.  They may take liberties with the source material (this one, for example, is updated to the present day – giving us the odd sight of Poirot guesting on David Frost’s chat show) but you can’t help but love Ustinov’s idiosyncratic and entertaining Poirot.

It boasts a wonderful guest cast – David Suchet as Japp!, Faye Dunaway in a duel role with Bill Nighy, Diane Keen, John Barron and Jonathan Cecil as the ever-loyal Hastings offering solid support.  Certainly well worth a look.

05. Francesca Annis and James Warwick in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1980).  Prior to the 1980’s, Agatha Christie adaptations on television were a rarity.  This was due to Christie and later on her estate not wishing to see her stories distorted (although given some of the, ahem, more interesting adaptations during recent years I guess the copyright holders now hold a more relaxed view).  Therefore the early 1980’s ITV adaptations were something of a trial run – with Poirot and Miss Marple off-limits, ITV had to scrabble around amongst the more obscure corners of Christie’s catalogue in order to prove that they could do her works justice.

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Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? isn’t classic Christie, but it’s a more than decent mystery.  Annis and Warwick, as Lady Frankie Derwent and Bobby Jones, team up nicely (a few years later they’d return to the world of Christie as Tommy and Tuppence Beresford).  Evans has another cast to die for – a pre-Marple Joan Hickson, James Cossins, Madeline Smith, Eric Porter and an amusing cameo from John Gielgud.  It’s maybe slightly too long, but it’s still very agreeable.

04. And Then There Were None (2013).  I may loathe Sarah Phelps’ adaptation of The Witness for the Prosecution with a passion, but there’s no denying that And Then There Were None is a quality production.  The main problem I have with Witness is that it’s mostly Phelps with very little Christie showing.  And Then There Were None is more recognisably Christie, albeit with a few tweaks.  An all-starish cast helps to bring to life one of her darker works.

03. The Moving Finger (1985).  Whilst the debate about the best Sherlock Holmes isn’t clear cut, surely there can’t be much of a question about who was the best Miss Marple?  In every respect Joan Hickson wipes the floor with her ITV counterparts (as well as Margaret Rutherford – a fine actress, but no Miss Marple).  If Hickson is first-rate, then so too are the twelve BBC adaptations she starred in.  All-film productions, with high production values, they just ooze class and style.

With Roy Boulting on directing duties and some fine performances (always a pleasure to see John Arnatt and Richard Pearson, amongst others) The Moving Finger is one of the best of the early Hickson Marples.  It may not be the most taxing mystery Christie ever wrote, but it has more nuanced characters that we sometimes saw – for example, the relationship between Gerry and Megan is an atypical touch.

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02. David Suchet in The Third Floor Flat (1989).  The Suchet Poirots were clearly following in the footsteps of the Hickson Marples with a similar glossy all-film style.  That Suchet managed to film the entire canon is laudable, although it’s a little sad that some of the later adaptations began to veer severely away from the originals.  Possibly this is why I’m most fond of the earlier runs which began by concentrating on Christie’s short stories.  It’s true that some of them are a bit thin (Christie’s early short stories can be fairly perfunctory in some respects) but the television versions are nicely bulked out thanks to the sympathetic adaptations.

01. Joan Hickson in The Body in the Library (1984).  Back to Hickson for her debut as Miss Marple, broadcast on BBC1 during Christmas 1984.  Sarah Phelps has recently restarted the tradition of a “Christie for Christmas” – hopefully her next one won’t be quite so depressing though.

Allo,Allo! fans will be able to spot a pre-Crabtree Arthur Bostrom, Jess Conrad is perfect as the pearly-white Raymond Starr, Andrew Cruickshank is an intimidating Conway Jefferson whilst David Horovitch and Ian Brimble begin their careers as Slack and Lake – two police officers destined to always be at least two steps behind the elderly spinster who may look harmless but possesses a mind like a steel trap.

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The Witness for the Prosecution/And Then There Were None – Acorn/RLJ DVD Review

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The Witness for the Prosecution was an Agatha Christie short story, originally published in 1925.  Like many of her short stories it was written for magazine publication, only appearing some years later in book form (The Hound of Death, 1933).  Christie was never averse to reusing plots from her short stories and several ideas were later expanded into novels, but Christie elected to turn The Witness for the Prosecution into a stage-play, which debuted in 1953.

Although The Mousetrap is a theatre institution (running for sixty years and more), for me Witness for the Prosecution was Christie’s best play.  She expanded the fairly thin material very nicely, creating the central character of Sir Wilfred Robarts for example.  In 1957, the Billy Wilder film, starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power, hit the cinema screens and is for many the definitive version.

Sarah Phelps’ Christmas 2016 adaptation carried with it a certain weight of expectation then, partly because her work on And Then There Were None in 2015 had been so well received but also because the Wilder film remains popular with Christie aficionados.  Sadly, Phelps’ Witness is much more of a curate’s egg than And Then There Was None was.

It’s interesting that Phelps went back to Christie’s original story, rather than the play.  As the 1925 tale is rather brief and only features scanty characterisation, a large part of the teleplay had to be newly crafted by Phelps.  So whilst the Queen of Crime’s voice can be heard, it’s only very faintly.

And the foggy yellow filter on the camera was an interesting visual choice I could have done without …

But on the positive side, the core cast were impressive.  Toby Jones as Mayhew, a somewhat insignificant character at first glance, was faithful to the source material (albeit with a whole backstory created for him).  The character of Leonard Vole is key and Billy Howle was suitably bewildered and endearing (the story only works if the audience immediately identifies with Vole and takes his side).

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Emily French received something of a drastic makeover (a nice old lady in the Wilder film, a man-eating vamp here) but Kim Cattrall was entertaining enough and Annette Riseborough hit most of the right notes as Romaine Heilger.  This is by far the hardest role to play in the piece (previous actresses to tackle the part include Dietrech in Wilder’s film and Diana Rigg in the 1982 tv movie remake).

Julian Jarrold’s direction boasted some impressive sequences, none more so than the quick cut in episode one when Emily French’s dead body is revealed.  The traumatised visage of her maid and the way that her cat steps through the puddles of blood are both striking touches, and this section makes up for some of the more stodgy fare we see later.

Had it been a ninety minute one-off, it might have worked better, at two hours it rather outstays its welcome.  The Witness for the Prosecution is not without merit, but my preferred viewing option remains the 1957 Wilder film (certainly worth a look if you’ve never seen it).

The disc contains several featurettes, the most substantial being From Page to Screen (running just under 25 minutes).  This is of particular interest due to the way it highlights the differing expectations that may exist between a section of the audience (the Christie die-hards who know the original well) and the adapter, Sarah Phelps.  Phelps discusses how she enjoyed the process of extrapolating character development from throwaway comments contained within Christie’s story, although I’m sure that some will regard Phelps’ additions with a slightly jaundiced eye.

If Witness was a tad disappointing, then we’re on firmer ground with 2015’s And Then There Were None.  Originally published in 1939, Christie’s novel spawned several film adaptations, whilst she herself turned it into a successful stage play.

Eight people are invited to an isolated island by the mysterious Mr and Mrs Owen.  When they arrive, the place seems deserted apart from two servants, Thomas and Ethel Rogers.  And then they start to die, one by one, until none are left ….

Starring Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Noah Taylor, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Aiden Turner, Miranda Richardson and Toby Stephens, And Then There Was None has an agreeable air of star quality.  Unsurprisingly there are a number of deviations from the original, but what remains is a much more faithful Christie experience than Witness was.

The most eye-opening change must be Detective Sergeant Blore’s (Gorman) crime.  Here, he’s alleged to have beaten up a homosexual suspect to death, in the book he’s accused of perjury.

The ending is of particular interest.  When Christie turned the novel into a play, she changed the denouement (which for me made the piece less effective).  Phelps doesn’t attempt to mirror the book’s conclusion, which is probably the right move, although what she leaves us with – something of a mash-up between the book and play – works very well.

And Then There None contains a substantial making-of featurette, running to just under 42 minutes, which features interviews with all the main cast as well as key behind-the-camera personnel.

Sarah Phelps is now working on an adaptation of Christie’s 1958 novel Ordeal by Innocence, which seems to suggest that the BBC are keen to have “A Christie for Christmas” each year.  Hopefully this next one will lean more towards And Then There Were None than The Witness for the Prosecution.

Two by Christie: The Witness for the Prosecution/And Then There Were None was released by Acorn/RLJ on the 9th of January 2017.  RRP £29.99.  Both titles are also available separately.

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Ralph Richardson in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1982)

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You wait decades for a new adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution and then two turn up at the same time …..

Both the BBC and Hollywood are mounting their own versions, although the BBC’s is an adaptation of Christie’s original short story (hence the reason why it’s referred to as The Witness for the Prosecution) whilst the American film looks set to be a remake of Billy Wilder’s 1957 film.

The Witness for the Prosecution was originally published in 1925.  Although it was a brief story, the dénouement clearly pleased Christie as she developed the concept into a full stage-play (dropping the The from the title) in 1953.  Four years later it was filmed by Billy Wilder, featuring an impressive cast (Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton).  The film added the sub-plot of Sir Wilfred’s delicate health, but otherwise it was a fairly faithful adaptation of Christie’s play (including the ending, which she’d tweaked a little from the original short story).

Since the BBC are adapting the original story, presumably they will reinstate that ending, which would be a good move as it carries much more of a punch than the later play/film conclusion.  Or will they decide to tinker with it?  Time will tell …..

The 1980’s saw a rash of American TV movie adaptations of Agatha Christie stories.  Peter Ustinov reprised his big-screen role as Hercule Poirot, Helen Hayes made several appearances as Miss Marple (although she was always on a hiding to nothing, as Joan Hickson’s definitive portrayal at around the same time wiped the floor with her).   There were also a few one-offs (in addition to Witness, Bill Bixby stumbled his way through Murder is Easy whilst Anthony Andrews headed the cast of Sparkling Cyanide).

The 1982 version of Witness is a slight oddity – as it’s very much a period piece (set in the 1950’s).  Most of the other 1980’s American Christie’s were firmly rooted in the present day, which gave us some incongruous moments, such as Poirot appearing on David Frost’s chat show!

Witness clearly had a very decent budget, as they were able to close down a few London streets (or maybe they simply ventured out very early in the morning) and sprinkle the roads with a number of vintage cars, which helps to sell the period illusion.  Although to be honest, since the main location of the story is a courtroom it wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference if the story had been updated to 1982.

John Gay’s adaptation of the original film screenplay by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz doesn’t deviate a great deal.  Sir Wilfred Robarts (Ralph Richardson) is still tetchy with everyone, but especially with the formidable Nurse Plimsoll (Deborah Kerr) who insists that, following his recent heart attack, he shouldn’t overexcite himself.

A juicy murder case, defending the personable Leonard Vole (Beau Bridges), is just the sort of thing she means, but Sir Wilfred ignores her and takes the case anyway, although he seems to be backing a loser.  There’s only circumstantial evidence which connects Vole to the murder of Emily French, but it’s still very damaging.  Vole’s wife Christie (Diana Rigg) provides her husband with a solid alibi, but then she changes her mind and becomes a witness for the prosecution ….

The casting of Beau Bridges as Leonard Vole is an interesting one.  Director Alan Gibson was clearly following the path taken by Wilder’s film which had also cast an American actor, Tyrone Power, as Vole.  It’s easy to see why the original film (and indeed the 1982 tv remake) did so – an American lead would help to sell it in the US – but Bridges seems a little incongruous as the sole American amongst the British cast.

Ralph Richardson might lack the bite of Charles Laughton (Richardson gives his usual vague performance) but he’s still very watchable.  The rest of the cast are comprised of fine British players – Deborah Kerr, Donald Pleasance, Wendy Hillier, Diana Rigg, Richard Vernon, David Langton, Michael Gough, Peter Sallis, Peter Copley, Frank Mills – who help to enliven proceedings no end.

Sallis has the small role of Sir Wilfred’s loyal clerk Carter, but still manages to make something of it whilst Hillier is fine as Emily French’s loyal housemaid Janet Mackenize (whose testimony Sir Wilfred is able to ruthlessly disassemble).  Donald Pleasance and Richard Vernon are rather wasted, but it’s always a pleasure to see them anyway.  Diana Rigg had the imposing shoes of Marlene Dietrich to fill, but she was more than capable.  Given the theatrical origins of the play, it’s no surprise that Christine is a role that requires an actress to demonstrate their full histrionic range – although Rigg has enough self-control to avoid soaring too far over the top.

If you’ve never seen Wilder’s film, then this production should be an entertaining 100 minutes.  If you have, then it’s hard not to compare the two and decide that the 1982 remake comes up a little short (despite the best efforts of the experienced cast).  But having said that, it’s still really rather good and is well worth your time.

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