I expect many people complained this holiday season that there was very little to entice in the television schedules. Sherlock and Doctor Who’s specials were written about by Kenneth Longden in a recent blog for CST Online. BARB reports that for the week ending December 27th the most popular programme was, predictably, Mrs Brown’s Boys, closely followed by Call the Midwife and Stick Man. Coming in fourth on this list of BBC hits is the three-part adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None shown over consecutive nights on BBC One, again perhaps not too surprising given the enduring popularity of Christie’s work, its categorisation as period drama/ classic novel adaptation, and its cast of actors.
And Then There Were None helped consolidate the BBC’s domination of the holiday television viewing, and its final instalment attracted an audience larger than anything but soaps. Yet those who thought they were in for the usual ‘country house cosy’ may have been disappointed: this is one of the grimmest and most nihilistic of Christie’s novels and Sarah Phelps’ screenplay heightened rather than mitigated its bleakness.
As someone who started reading Christie novels (and other genre fiction) many years ago, I was always going to watch this new miniseries. While many TV reviews in the press mentioned that the novel is considered one of Christie’s best, and it has been adapted for cinema and television before, in various countries, there are obvious reasons why it might not have been considered suitable for a new UK television version in recent years. The most recent foray into televised Christie was the BBC’s Partners in Crime, a version of two Tommy and Tuppence adventures described by Julia Raeside in the Guardian as ‘Sunday night escapism.’
While the six-part series (broadcast earlier in 2015) did address some more unsavoury aspects of history, it generally played as light comedy liberally laced with period detail, a tone supported by David Walliams playing Tommy Beresford. The two most popular Christie detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, have also been successful on TV, with ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot running across four decades (1989-2013). This series made use of many recognisable Art Deco locations around Britain, featured a plethora of well-known and successful actors, and probably did more than any other television Christie to establish the ‘cosy’ formula. Episodes tended to negotiate crime with a light touch, having Poirot preside over romance as well as death, and always providing a reassuring explanation of even the most far-fetched crimes. The last episode of Poirot aired in 2013, so Partners in Crime marked not only the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth but also, as trumpeted in the Radio Times, ‘a new era for the BBC as the new home of Agatha Christie adaptations’ following a deal with Agatha Christie Limited, the company managing rights to the author’s work.
At first glance, 2015’s And Then There Were None might appear to be in the same vein as other Christie television adaptations. It ran, naturally, under the politically correct and inoffensive version of the original published book title from 1939. The story has a mysterious and unknown figure assemble a group of ten people in an isolated location and then picks them off one by one according to a rhyme. This offers viewers a combination of pleasures, from slasher movie game-playing and guessing the next victim (or the next disposal method), to the highly artificial and constructed situation that seems incredible even to the characters, to the stew of simmering tensions as strangers are forced into close proximity. These pleasures, notably, are accessible to different generations of TV viewers: as well as older people who may have seen many Christie adaptations, younger watchers familiar with Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity… and the Final Destination films can also recognise the structuring principles. Likewise, the cast of And Then There None’ featured prominently in trailers and advertising for the miniseries, included something for everyone. The ten ‘victims’ were played by a range of actors, from Douglas Booth (Great Expectations 2011, Romeo and Juliet 2013) to stalwarts such as Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson and Charles Dance (familiar to many from Game of Thrones), to heartthrob Aidan Turner (most famous for playing Ross Poldark in the BBC’s 2015 Poldark revival, though also known to more niche audiences as vampire John Mitchell from Being Human). The only one unknown to me was Maeve Dermody taking a lead role as Vera Claythorne.
Covetable period costumes and accessories (à la Mad Men), vintage cars, and impressive landscapes were evident in the opening of the first episode and along with the main promotional cast image suggested that this would be the usual melodramatic, spectacular, not-very-serious TV Christie fare.
Part of the BBC’s promotion for the miniseries was—obviously—Christie’s status and reputation. And Then There Were None is the biggest selling crime novel ever and was voted in a recent survey as readers’ favourite Christie. This may seem surprising, given its highly bleak tone, described by screenwriter Sarah Phelps, who adapted the novel for this 2015 miniseries as Christie’s ‘masterpiece, a brilliant, unsettling, forensically precise psychological thriller about guilt and paranoia, crime and punishment.’
Even the spectacle varied from the usual lavish Deco and decadence. Sophie Becher, production designer, comments that although ‘It’s well-known that Agatha Christie wrote the book around Burgh Island, which is a classically Art Deco house on an island’ this production offers something different. ‘Because there have been so many Agatha Christie adaptations set in 1930’s, and because this is a really dark piece, Craig Viveiros, the director, and I both wanted to move away from that very Art Deco feel and open this up a bit.’ Despite the prevalence of ‘period’ in the promotional images, therefore, the miniseries set its costume drama in a sparse and certainly bleaker than usual environment for a ‘country house cosy.’ The arrival of the majority of characters to the island by boat emphasises menace rather than picturesque pastoralism,
and the sequence where they walk towards the house—carrying their own luggage—started to undermine expectations: they tramp across rough scrub rather than sweeping into manicured grounds. Phelps suggests that this bleakness in contrast with the period spectacle underpins the drama. ‘Ten strangers on this island which is completely cut off by the sea – they can see the mainland but can’t reach it, they can’t see any signs of human civilisation and it feels like the end of the world in this house that is so luxurious but actually corrupt and decadent.’
Christie’s grandson Matthew Prichard, chair of Agatha Christie Limited, stated that the agreement with the BBC will ‘no doubt will result in compelling new adaptations, to be enjoyed by fans old and new,’ and Ben Stephenson of the BBC hopes the new programmes will establish Christie in ‘the pantheon of truly great British writers,’ yet as with any adaptation, there were fans and detractors. Even before the miniseries aired, the Mail was complaining, ‘What HAS the BBC done to Agatha Christie?’ opining that ‘Christmas viewers will be stunned by controversial new adaptation featuring drugs, gruesome violence and the F-word.’ The comments section appended to Sarah Phelps’ interview on the BBC Writersroom webpages predictably included complaints about ‘Aidan Turner in a precariously low towel,’ about the use of ‘sex’ and ‘the F-word’ ‘bringing things down to the lowest common denominator’ and ‘ruin[ing] these classics,’ as well as one—almost too nit-picking to be true—about the wrong locomotive being used for 1939. (The more reasonable criticisms focused on part of the ending, with some justification, perhaps). On the whole, though, the series was well-received by television critics, who welcomed its ‘dark’ take and the large audience figures tell their own tale.
It was certainly refreshing to watch a ‘classic’ Christie and have attention drawn to the ‘hidden nasty stuff’ embedded in it, as Miranda Richardson notes of Phelp’s script in the BBC press pack. While many see the crime genre as inherently conservative, assuring audiences that the status quo is maintained, because criminals are brought to justice And Then They Were None has no quirky detective explaining events and catching the murderer. The only detective it features is one of the guests lured to the island and all of the guests are accused of murder and thus set to be the mysterious killer’s victims at some point. In addition, while crime genre stories often tell two stories, that of the investigation in the present and that of the crime in the past, And Then They Were None folds these together, unspooling the crime in the present, as subsequent cycles of slasher films did so effectively. Justice may be served on these uncaught murderers, but not with due process in a courtroom, rather it is doled out by a vigilante killer who admits to being seduced by how easy it is to murder. This form also denies its audience the pleasure of working out ‘whodunit’ in the usual fashion. Viewers are free to guess, but there are no clues in the conventional sense, just a simmering tension slowly brought to the boil. The three episodes, for me, delivered an acute sense of the predetermined fates of the characters and the conclusion did not hold back from Christie’s original ending, usually changed in other adaptations.
Screenwriter Phelps talks in the BBC Writersroom interview about how the story ‘seems to be one of those books really about the time it is set in; it tells you more about the world than it would do if it attempted to address the complexities of the world,’ implying how the novel and the series address the contradictions of the genre. The story is resolved, but reassurance is notably lacking and while the ‘victims’ have all conducted crimes that accord with the conventions of the British cosy (generally crimes of negligence or of opportunity carried out by individuals against other individuals) the miniseries also alludes to social context and Phelps sees all the characters as ‘products of the First World War,’ suggesting more systemic problems. Class, imperialism, religious bigotry, domestic violence, and homophobia are all mentioned, undermining the tendency to nostalgia and celebration that usually forms the backdrop to such period mysteries.
And Then There Were None has more in common with the Saw film series than the usual TV Poirot. Phelps says, revealingly, that her screenplay tried to capture the ‘brutal and thrilling’ sense that ‘no one is going to come to save you, absolutely nobody is coming to help or rescue or interpret. There is someone in charge, and that person is malign.’ One of the most chilling things about the miniseries is its focus on the lack of agency of its characters. They have, in the past, manipulated others and got away with it, and they are accustomed to feeling that they have the freedom to make their own choices. Yet here they are at the mercy of an unknown, apparently irresistible force. Viewers are (finally) in a position of knowledge, yet completely powerless to act on it. For an early twenty-first audience this certainly resonates.
Lorna Jowett is a Reader in Television Studies at the University of Northampton and coordinator of the Cult TV: TV Cultures Network. She is the co-author with Stacey Abbott of TV Horror: Investigating The Dark Side of the Small Screen (2013), author of Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan (2005) and co-editor of the forthcoming Time on Television. She has published many articles on television, film and popular culture, and her next book examines gender in the Doctor Who franchise.