Contains some mild spoilers for episode 1, but not whodunnit…
One of the most aggravating things about recent screen adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels is that today’s generation of network executives seem to regard the source material as too old hat to trust on its own anymore. Instead, recent productions have tended to send up and spoof Christie’s canon (the early series of ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Marple was particularly bad in that respect) or make the stories outright comedies (the woeful Partners in Crime for example.) Even the widely regarded, long-running series of generally excellent David Suchet Hercules Poirot dramas lost faith and started extensively rewriting and reimagining the stories toward the end, usually only managing to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding about what they were dealing with in the process.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I worried about what the BBC would do with its 2015 take on And Then There Were None, commissioned as part of global celebrations for the 125th anniversary of the Queen of Crime’s birth. The book is a favourite of mine and is in fact the best-selling murder mystery of all time around the world, so you’ll forgive me if I’m henceforth hyper-sensitive about any disrespectful failings that I might find here.
I’ve known the story of And Then There Were None since my high school put on a production of it when I was 12. At the time I read the book and the stageplay (which are different in crucial aspects, as we’ll return to later) and I have seen multiple screen versions of it over the years: the 1945 Twentieth Century Fox film directed by René Clair starring Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Huston, still very much the go-to definitive classic; the groovy 60s-inflected UK remake starring Shirley Eaton, Fabian, Stanley Holloway and Wilfrid Hyde-White; and a bizarre 1974 Europudding effort set in pre-revolutionary Iran starring Richard Attenborough, Oliver Reed and Charles Aznavour. There’s also been an Indian version called Gumnaam and a Soviet production entitled Desyat Negrityat which I have to confess that I haven’t seen. Even if these are unfamiliar to you, the basic central conceit surely still will be thanks to having been repurposed by dozens of films and TV shows including John Cusack’s Identity. John Carpenter’s The Thing, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a feature-length pastiche episode of Family Guy and the entire series of Harper’s Island to name but a few.
In summary, the story begins with the arrival of eight strangers at a grand house on the remote Solder’s Island off the Devon coast at the invitation of the owners, Mr and Mrs UN Owen. It’s soon clear that the invitations made to each of the guests were a deception of one sort or another and that no one knows anyone else, and moreover no one has ever met the Owens – not even the newly-engaged servants Thomas and Ethel Rogers (Noah Taylor and Anna Maxwell Martin) or Mrs Owen’s just-hired secretary Vera Claythorne (Maeve Dermody).
After dinner, a voice booms out throughout the house accusing each of the ten people present of crimes of murder. The Rogers are said to have murdered a former employer to get hold of a large bequest; a child in Claythorne’s care drowned because of her negligence; Anthony Marston (Douglas Booth) killed two children through reckless driving and merely bemoans the inconvenience of a six month suspended license as a result; Justice Lawrence Wargrave (Charles Dance) is accused of knowingly sending an innocent man to the gallows; ex-policeman William Blore (Burn Gorman) beat a prisoner to death in a police cell; General John MacArthur (Sam Neill) shot his wife’s lover in the trenches in World War 1; Miss Emily Brent’s (Miranda Richardson) religious zealotry led her to fire her pregnant maid who then subsequently took her own life in despair; Dr Edward Armstrong (Toby Stephens) was drunk when he operated on and killed a patient; and soldier-of-fortune Philip Lombard (Aidan Turner) is accused of causing the deaths of 21 men during a regional conflict in Africa.
With the exception of Lombard everyone denies the charges levied against them by the voice, which is soon tracked down to a gramophone record unwittingly started by Rogers in accordance with instructions from the conspicuously absent Owens. But moments later, one of the guests is actually dead seemingly by poison; and overnight, there’s a second fatality which quickly rules out any suggestion of suicide. Clearly someone is killing the group off one-by-one in a manner suggested by the children’s nursery rhyme “Ten Little Soldier Boys” a copy of which hangs in every guest’s bedroom. To hammer the point home, a set of ten carved figures on the dining room table is being smashed one-by-one as their real life counterparts are terminated with matching extreme prejudice.
Christie herself thought that the finished book (which has gone through various outrageously politically incorrect titles before finally settling on And Then There Were None) was one of her most challenging and therefore particularly satisfying to write. She set up a scenario whereby the killer absolutely has to be one of the ten guests – there is no where else on the island to hide and no way on or off the island in the meantime – but still make it impossible to guess the guilty party even by the time we get to the last person standing at which point a simple matter of elimination would normally make the question moot. She pulls it off rather brilliantly but wholly believably; watch out for the ‘red herring’…
The good news about the BBC’s 2015 adaptation is that it treats its source material respectfully and seriously. There’s no arch satire here and no mucking around with the text for the sake of it. The first episode at least is remarkably faithful to the text on the whole with just a few alterations to allow for the change in medium with regards to how internal monologues and recollections are presented to the audience.
That’s not to say that this is some bland production with no character of its own, however. Writer Sarah Phelps, director Craig Viveiros and production company Mammoth Screen have made an overt decision to make this a very dark telling of the tale, in fact virtually a psychological horror movie right up there with Se7en. Well, why not – it’s got an imaginative serial killer right to compare with Michael Myers, Jason and Freddie, and worthy of inclusion in the Saw franchise. Moreover, we have more than just the killings to worry about as this adaptation also makes much use of how haunted each of the ten suspects/victims already are about their own past crimes. Worst afflicted of these is Mrs Rogers who practically jumps at her own shadow even before the playing of the accusing gramophone record, but everyone is having nightmarish flashbacks about what they did or didn’t do with Dr Armstrong’s by far the most bloody of them all. This sense of horror and haunting is missing from Christie’s book, who opts to things much more straightforward, clean and tidy. As a result, the book’s version of Mrs Rogers is described as almost ghost-like and makes no impression on anyone at all, but wanting to make the most of an actress of the calibre of Anna Maxwell Martin the TV production amps up her weirdness to give the character much more of an impact before her inevitable exit; Rogers is also made a significantly nastier, crueller figure than the book presented.
While I admired the seriousness and fidelity of the first episode as well as some genuinely gorgeous location filming, I did have trouble with just how cranked up the overwhelming sense of ominous foreboding soon felt. There are heavy string chords weighing down Stuart Earl’s soundtrack from the start, and everyone is looking grim and serious even on the original crossing to Solder’s Island when by rights they should merely be looking forward to nothing more sinister than a delightfully gay house party. The fact that the series opens on this oppressive sense of foreshadowing rather takes away the later impact of the gramophone recording and ensuing deaths – since the mood was already so dark from the outset, there’s no where new for the production to go at this point. The lack of variation of tone makes for an end result that teeters not only on the portentous but also the pretentious, and the unremitting seriousness almost – but not quite – ends up pushing the whole thing into unintentional laugh-out-loud parody territory almost as badly as Marple and Partners in Crime before it.
Phelps does manage to inject one original joke into the proceedings. When Mrs Rogers is found dead in her bed, Dr Armstrong offers his commiserations to her husband and then very thoughtfully adds that in the circumstances it would be quite understandable if breakfast were a little late this morning. In other words: your wife might have been killed but we still expect you to carry on and cater for the rest of us. It’s a beautiful bit of jet black dark humour delivered with complete solemnity that can’t help but make you laugh out loud in spite if yourself. (In case you’re wondering, this small matter doesn’t even cross Christie’s mind in the book: breakfast is served on time by Rogers without comment or acknowledgement by anyone present. Just a servant, after all.)
All in all, despite coming close the edge of being overcooked and overwrought at points, episode one succeeded in delivering a gripping first of three episodes. To my mind it could have done with being tightened up a little and a trim down to 50 minutes might have helped as it did feel a little protracted and slow in places; however that said the longer running time made it possible for the acting to breath and really shine, every one of the cast given a moment of their own to exhibit a look, a gesture, a shrug or a sigh that spoke far more than their given sparse early dialogue alone could conveyed. The performances were all exemplary without exception, from big established stars like Dance, Richardson, Stephens and Neill to younger stars Booth and Martin and talented utility players like Gorman and Taylor. Australian actress Maeve Dermody is alone in being entirely new to me but was very impressive nonetheless, even if she did keep reminding me of a young Keeley Hawes, while Aidan Turner continues his ascent to stardom with a show-stealing turn as Lombard (the nearest thing the story has to a hero protagonist) following up his breakthrough roles in Being Human, The Hobbit and most recently Poldark.
It’ll be interesting to see whether the show manages to maintain its fidelity to the novel for the remaining two episodes airing on consecutive evenings, and how it manages to capture the escalating sense of suspicion and paranoia that takes over as the suspect (and victim) pool grows ever smaller and the remaining cast fight to survive. Whatever else happens, I sorely hope they don’t decide on a whim to change the whodunnit purely to ‘mix things up’ as so many ITV adaptations have seen fit to do of late.
What will be interesting is which ending the 2015 adaptation goes for, because there are two available. The novel’s is impressively and utterly bleak, while the stageplay that Christie wrote for the theatre has a significantly more upbeat ending and is the one that all English-language screen productions have stuck with ever since. Given how dark and brooding the first episode proved to be – and no sign of anything lightening up in the remaining episodes – I have a feeling that there very well might not be a happy ever after to this one. But then I might be wrong.
At the very least, I’ll certainly still be watching at the end to find out.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
And Then There Were None continues on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday 27th and Monday 28th of December 2015 and thereafter for a month on the BBC iPlayer. The series is released on DVD in the UK on January 11 2016.