No Christmas would be complete without a decent murder mystery. As John Robertson tweeted recently; ‘The Brits love murder. It gives them something to do between Morris dancing and bitching about Morris dancing.’ And, considering my affection for all things cosy crime related, from Agatha Christie to Lewis and Midsomer Murders, I was bound to love the BBC’s Christmas adaptation of And Then There Were None.
British telly of all flavours always does this sort of thing well; think Sherlock, Marple and Poirot, for starters. However, ATTWT turned out to be a little different from your usual festive murder fest. There’s not a Christmas tree in sight, and from the off it’s deliciously claustrophobic. In short, eight seemingly random people are invited by the mysterious Mr and Mrs Owen to spend a little time on their house on the bleak Soldier Island. When they get there, their hosts are nowhere to be seen, the boatman buggers off and they are left to the untender mercies of the two household staff, the suitably Munsters-esque Mr and Mrs Rogers.
As the drama gets into gear, we begin to realise that all of the houseguests have secrets; and all of them, with the possible exceptions of the nervous Miss Claythorne and the rakishly amoral Patrick Lombard are distinctly unlikeable. All of them have a trauma, or more than one trauma, connected to them, clinging to them, making them decay both psychologically and physically. It soon becomes apparent that it’s not just the houseguests who have this secret; Mr and Mrs Rogers are also far from innocent. How these ten people, abandoned, to all intents and purposes on the island cope with the confinement, the claustrophobia and the rapid realisation that their pasts are going to come back to bite them in various places is the crux of the drama. Why are they there? What is the connection between them? And who the hell are Mrs and Mrs U N Owens?
This is a story that is bound to succeed or fail on the strength of the acting performances. And, oh boy, did the BBC get this right! From the moment the cast list appears, you know you’re in for a treat. Miranda Richardson is brittle as a prudish, Protestant spinster, whose calling appears to be the instruction of young girls in the paths of righteousness. She plays Miss Brent beautifully, with Sapphic undertones and a whiff of Anti-Semitism that shocks as much as it electrifies. She is one of three female actors in the cast; Anna Maxwell Martin assumes the role of Mrs Rogers affectingly; she conveys a perfect balance of neurosis and terror, and you feel from the outset that it’s only a matter of time before she becomes the hunted. Finally, there’s Maeve Dermody as Vera Claythorne, another close-to-the-edge role. This woman has been both games mistress and governess, but she is not without experience of scandal, as Richardson’s character observes when she comments on her former position at a ‘third-rate school’. The question is, just how significant was that scandal?
The male cast are equally superb. Charles Dance is by turns sombre and wry in his role as Judge Wargrave, a hanging judge in all senses, who likes to witness the executions of the men he condemns to the rope. The venerable (and charismatic, sexy and gorgeously talented) Sam Neill dons a Des Lynam moustache as General MacArthur, a relic from the Great War who is, like the others, hiding a terrible secret. I might be a tad biased, as I’ve loved Neill since his Omen III days, but I adored his blend of grief and guilt, and the impression of a torrent of emotion just running that bit too close to the surface for a man in his position. Equally good were the velvet voiced Toby Stephens as Dr Armstrong, whose skeletons rattle as loudly as the pill bottles in his suitcase, the utterly excellent Burn Gorman as a policeman, DS Blore, with a very shady conduct record, Douglas Booth as Antony Marston, a young buck whose arrogance almost outstrips his capacity for wanton destruction, Noah Taylor as the sinister butler/houseman Mr Rogers, whose demeanour belies the violence within, and finally Aidan Turner as diamond mining mercenary Patrick Lombard, who walks the line between utter depravity and heroics as only Aidan Turner can.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that, with so many neurotics and guilt ridden people in one place, this production would be very one-note; a continual symphony of whining and shouting, with very little falls between the rising tensions. However, writer Sarah Phelps has created an adaptation that fizzes with tension interspersed with the relief needed to stop the audience getting desensitised to the horrors with which we are continually presented. Dance’s judge, for example, smiles wryly at the young Vera, suggesting that she could potentially become and old man’s folly during their stay on the island. A comic note is provided here and there from Gorman, initially when he is trying to perfect his cover and disguise his own identity.
A pleasing distraction from the horrors of the moment is provided by a particular scene between Turner and Dermody, whose attitude personifies the twisted carpe diem mentality that overtakes the guests when bodies start to mount up. But by far the strangest, and most powerful antidote to the tension is the abandoned scenes of drug and alcohol fuelled revelry that occur in the third act. A kind of eve-of-war Bacchante celebration that reveals the flaws of all present, it’s something Miss Marple would definitely have raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow at. As are liberal smatterings of f-words, but in this context they work.
Considering the entire drama takes place in one location, it is the actors who drive this narrative. All play off one another superbly, so much so that the director can be forgiven for including an entirely gratuitous, but rather visually pleasing scene of Aidan Turner in nothing but a white towel. This is included on the slightly flimsy premise of searching each character’s person, and room, but as an admirer as much of Turner’s torso as I am of his oeuvre, I wasn’t complaining!
The conclusion of this story is as shocking as it is clever; Christie, of course, was a master storyteller, and so it’s not surprising that everything does make very twisted sense in the end. However, Phelps has put a very modern spin on a very stark tale, playing up the sensibilities that a contemporary audience would recognise and still paying court to rather more archaic views and traditions. This is a production that treads the line between the original source text and the needs and desires of a modern audience masterfully. And Then There Were None is Agatha Christie adapted for the twenty first century audience; it’s visceral, brutal and uncompromising, and it’s about as cosy as sitting bareback on a porcupine in an igloo.
Missed it? Catch it on the BBC iPlayer here.