Last Christmas the BBC took a classic novel of the early twentieth century, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, and produced a dramatisation that was closer to the source material than any of the multiple film versions of the intervening years. This year they’ve undertaken the same with Agatha Christie’s seminal And Then There Were None (the altered title for the racially insensitive original title), in a prestigious three-part adaptation by experienced TV writer Sarah Phelps marking the 125th anniversary of the author’s birth.
For anyone who’s been living under a rock, the legendary story concerns the assembly of ten strangers on a remote island by an absent stranger, ostensibly for a diversity of reasons – but in reality because each of them is hiding a murderous secret which their mysterious host U.N. Owen (a choice of name, which would have felt less obvious in 1939 when the novel was published) will over the course of the story punish them for. Thus it is that the ten strangers are whittled away one by one, in a variety of inventive methods corresponding with the verses of the eponymous poem – and all the while the ten statuettes displayed on the dining table are vanishing as each murder takes place.
Christie famously altered the ending of the book (one of the bleakest conclusions in literary history) for early stage performances, and much of the tension in this adaptation is in anticipating how closely Phelps’ script will follow the novel, rather than previous screen versions, which have tended to stick to the theatrical resolution. But Phelps has also opened the novel out in order to extend it to three hours, using flashbacks to present the crimes of which the ten participants are accused. Occasionally this threatens to pre-empt the deaths just a touch too closely, but there’s enough variation in the conceit not to rob the serial of too much drama. This isn’t, then, quite the faithful adaptation it might claim to be, although most of the changes are sympathetic to the source – with the exception of some choice modern language, mainly coming from the mouth of Toby Stephens’ agitated Doctor Armstrong. Phelps has also used the grammar and geography of the horror film, to help the story along, with the occasional shock tactic employed mostly to great effect. Anyone familiar with previous versions will still enjoy the trajectory of this, its slightly unexpected turns providing plenty to keep the viewer guessing.
The acting is, given the cast that have been assembled, of the first order, but the real standout performance is from Maeve Dermody as Vera Claythorne (cast just two days before the script read-through, and whose native Australian accent is almost entirely invisible), the character through whom we experience most of the story. Not only does she hold her own among the likes of Charles Dance and Sam Neill, but also she manages to elicit our empathy in spite of playing Claythorne, with as much antipathy as the character requires. Her relationship with Aidan Turner’s Philip Lombard becomes a central element around which much of the action unfolds, and the BBC’s courage in not diluting either character or their crime is both successful and noteworthy.
Fans of the softer, ITV Christie adaptations of recent years might find this rather less agreeable viewing than they are accustomed to, but And Then There Were None is a classy, modern production, and one of which the author herself would undoubtedly approve.
Special Features: Making of / photo galleries
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: CRAIG VIVEIROS / SCREENPLAY: SARAH PHELPS / STARRING: CHARLES DANCE, MAEVE DERMODY, AIDAN TURNER, BURN GORMAN, TOBY STEPHENS, MIRANDA RICHARDSON, SAM NEILL, NOAH TAYLOR, ANNA MAXWELL MARTIN, DOUGLAS BOOTH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW