The Witness for the Prosecution (BBC One)

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witnessNot long ago I commended BBC Daytime’s production of The Moonstone (which got a quick repeat over Christmas week) for its simplicity and clarity, and for telling its tale clearly and succinctly without being trapped and weighed down by the weight of literary pretension, portentousness and over-styling that so often afflicts its evening peak time counterparts.

An example of what I mean by the latter helpfully showed up on the Christmas schedules in the form of The Witness for the Prosecution. There’s no question that this was a high-class, top quality production from the BBC, a display of the very finest technical television craftsmanship with every frame immaculately photographed and a top notch script by Sarah Phelps who also adapted last year’s Christmas Christie treat And Then There Were None.

The problem is that The Witness for the Prosecution was originally a 23 page short story, which has been stretched here to two 60 minute episodes. It’s not the first time it’s been done – Agatha Christie herself expanded her story to the same degree for the stage, and Billy Wilder then filmed the longer story for his 1957 film of the same name starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton. But plays and films were much slower paced back then, and Phelps has to do even more major extension work to get the story to fill that running time in 2016. As such there’s a brand new red herring and all sorts of meditations on various forms of love and loss and loyalty, and on the social and emotional impact of the First World War on those who has just emerged from the nightmare of the trenches and who had been left wondering what all that death and destruction had all been for.

The original short story is largely set in the courtroom during the trial of Leonard Vole for the murder of wealthy socialite Emily French (Kim Cattrall). Vole (Billy Howle) believes his actress wife Romaine Heilger (Andrea Riseborough) will confirm he was at home at the time of the murder, but he’s in for a surprise. Meanwhile Vole’s solicitor John Mayhew (Toby Jones) believes he’s identified the real killer, French’s overly devoted ladies maid Janet McIntyre (Monica Dolan). But a brazen lie changes everything…

The short story’s court-set core occupies only around 15 minutes of the second episode, and it’s frankly overwhelmed by the newly invented story that Phelps has artfully created around it. There feels to be very little Christie DNA left in the final production, with the Queen of Crime’s famous ‘twist’ in the story rather lost and lacking the requisite impact, almost overlooked in the middle of everything else that’s going on. This new adaptation finishes with much the same ending as the short story albeit alloyed with signs and portents of something darker to come after the credits role; Christie herself hated the way the short story finished and made sure there was something much more dramatic and emphatic in the stage version, but that’s omitted here which is a shame: it might have been overly melodramatic, but it would at least have had an impact that’s missing here. 

Overall the dramatic approach that Phelps and the production team have taken with the story is quite similar to last year’s And Then There Were Done, and indeed long time Taking The Short View readers may remember that I was slightly against the one-note ominous foreboding tone that it took from the start. The difference is And Then There Were None was a full length novel with an intricate, solid structure and a predisposition to being presented as a grim horror story and hence was easily able to support Phelp’s fleshing out and exploration of its many themes. Sadly That sort of robust framework is inevitably missing from the wafer-thin The Witness For The Prosecution in which the plot was never more than a one trick pony to start with, and certainly was never intended to receive this sort of treatment.

As a Christie whodunnit, then, this was a bust for me. But as a period drama dealing with important universal themes, it was a production that delivered drama and emotion far beyond anything Christie would have conceived of herself. In a uniformly excellent cast, particular kudos has to go to Toby Jones who gives an astonishing performance as the chronically ill Mayhew who is mourning the loss of his son in the war and suffering the quiet collapse of his marriage to his beloved Alice (Hayley Carmichael). It’s perhaps the best of his career to date, and I’m a big fan of Jones’ work so that it really saying something. It’s slightly unfortunate that his performance rather overshadows the rest of the story, and also that it comes so close on the heels of his turn as Anton Verloc in The Secret Agent which had many similarities in terms of setting and character, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the superlative work he does here.

There’s much to be admired, then, but if you’re looking for a classic Christie whodunit then you’ll be disappointed. This has aspirations to be something more more deep, grand and serious than a mere courtroom dramatic twist, and as such I think I’ll go back to watching The Moonstone of the new series of Father Brown in the afternoon schedules instead. But maybe that’s just me.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

The Witness for the Prosecution is available on DVD from January 9 2017.

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