And Then There Were None
Tony Fyler finds himself alone on Soldier Island.
An Agatha Christie murder mystery
Written by Sarah Phelps
Directed by Craig Viveiros
Reviewed by Tony J Fyler
And Then There Were None is one of Agatha Christie’s finest and most famous murder mysteries. Certainly, it’s the novel Christie herself found most difficult to write – which, given her prolificacy, is really saying something. Nevertheless, it’s become her bestselling book with over 100 million copies sold, meaning it’s officially the most popular mystery in the world. It’s also of course probably the Christie novel that’s had the most chequered history, given its original title, and indeed the words of the original poem that is a central plot-hook of the story. That title and the words of the poem have been reworked over time as a marker of the evolution of society, the title becoming the rather safer And Then There Were None and the rhyme, at least in recent versions, substituting “Ten Little Soldier-Boys” for its original, now distinctly unpalatable, phrasing.
There’s a point there. And Then There Were None has survived an offensive title, and the evolution of society far beyond the bounds of its initial acceptability, because it is, above all, the ultimate mystery. Its hook, and its enduring, all-conquering popularity, proves that a good story is worth changing, re-inventing, re-interpreting, because the good stories speak to us across time. And Then There Were None, more than any other of her stories, is Christie’s masterwork.
The hook? Ten people trapped together on a remote island. All of them with secrets, all of them culpable in at least the death, and in some cases the outright murder, of another human being. All walking about free as you please, until a dark shadow of justice overtakes them. No survivors.
And Then There Were None of course both has its cake and eats it – it delivers us, in its final scene, an explanation for all that’s gone on, as we demand as the price for our attention throughout its length, but it still invites us to imagine the utter mystification of the investigators who will eventually, inevitably find the house on Soldier Island. With modern forensics and psychological analysis, you might just be able to piece a plausible theory together as to what went on during the course of And Then There Were None from the remaining evidence – but little of it would be provable even today (though Christie found herself unable to leave the mystery hanging and added a postscript with a confession by the murderer, discovered in a bottle).
You can interpret And Then There Were None in any number of ways, but the psychological drama seems inherent – it’s the first real mass-market ‘the call came from inside the house’ slasher story, taking the traditional fare that Christie made her own – ‘one of us is a murderer’ and ratcheting the tension up a notch – ‘all of us could be murderers…and there’s no escape.’
The recent BBC interpretation, written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Craig Viveiros…well, let’s just say it ain’t your grandma’s Agatha Christie. Hot guys in towels, uber-Christians with a subverted lesbian sexuality, policemen stomping gay men to death in their cell, explicit love letters with women wanting ‘your hands on me and in me,’ rough cathartic sex up against a bedroom door and more. This is Christie brought right into the 21st century, feeding the 21st century pre-occupation with sex and sexuality as a motivation for action – something that Christie certainly understood and used, but brought front and centre to accommodate our significantly changed society – which certainly helped glue eyeballs to screens across three episodes.
As much as this adaptation saw the relatively overt sexualisation of characters and motivations, this was also Christie done as noir – lots of smouldering, uncommunicative characters, snarling at one another, lots of things unsaid until they absolutely have to be, the communication replaced by a third thematic strand, an homage to psychological pseudo-supernatural horror films of recent years. Just as And Then There Were None was the first real ‘trapped with a psycho’ story to go mainstream, so the latest version brought the techniques of the genre’s children home to roost – creepy figures appearing in mirrors, or scurrying along in the background, who are not actually there in the accepted sense, but are visualisations of the characters’ guilt. Whether three episodes were really necessary, or kept the audience glued to anything more than perhaps Aidan Turner’s toplessness, is debatable, and those more familiar with the nature of Christie’s work, which was if not pulp fiction then certainly relatively rapid reading, might have found themselves at sea with all the long shots, the dips into shown character backstory, rather than necessary told, admitted culpability, and the sweaty, snarling tension. But certainly, what this interpretation brought was a new way of thinking about what Agatha Christie stories could look like and feel like, and it would be unsurprising to find additional one-off Christies done in the same style throughout the course of the next few years – The Mousetrap would make a good adaptation in a similar style, and so would Black Coffee, for instance.
Apart from anything else, the casting in this adaptation was superb, and extremely geek-friendly. Top of the bill of course was Charles Dance as Justice Wargrave. Dance has been so much a pillar of great productions that to mention only his most geeky work is insulting – but you’ll know him from Game of Thrones, from Merlin, from Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal as a great Lord Vetinari, and from Alien 3, as well as lots of pre-Missy speculation over the possibility of him becoming the Master. Watch out for him next year in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies alongside Matt Smith and Underworld: Next Generation. In this version of And Then There Were None, Dance lives up to his name, almost dancing lightly through his scenes and keeping a weather eye on all the action.
Aidan Turner of course is more than a six-pack – he gives good dwarf as Kili in The Hobbit, good vamp as John Mitchell in Being Human, and good historical handsomeness both as Gabriel Dante Rosetti in Desperate Romantics and as Ross Poldark in the new updated version of Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. Here, Turner’s hypnotic for more than his looks too – he infuses the unscrupulous Philip Lombard with an almost punk self-possession that makes him always a go-to candidate for the scheming overlord of the piece.
Torchwood’s own Owen Harper, Burn Gorman turns in an edgy, distinctly unlikeable performance as Detective Sergeant William Blore, he of the stompy boots and quite the least analytical aptitude on the island (Christie never being entirely scared to satirise police stupidity). The antagonistic chemistry between Blore and Lombard is delicious as a knife-edge all the way through, and his more explosive relationship with Toby Stephens’ Dr Armstrong threatens always to come to blows.
Err, yes – Toby Stephens. Son of Professor McGonagall and Abner Brown (Google is your friend, Geekbrothers and Nerdsisters), and star of shows including Robin Hood and Black Sails in recent years, exudes alcoholic nervous energy, delivering acting you can practically smell.
Sam Neill probably needs no introduction (Alan Grant from the original Jurassic Park, the grown up Damien Thorn in the third Omen movie, Reilly, Ace of Spies), but here, the older characters such as Neill’s General MacArthur are backgrounded in favour of the younger, more smouldering characters. Nevertheless, Neill acts as a solid anchor, alongside Miranda (Blackadder, Harry Potter, Underworld, Dance with A Stranger) Richardson, who delivers a new subverted self-interest as Emily Brent.
Maeve Dermody as Vera Claythorne breaks the mould by being relatively geekdom-free, but she does a good deal of the suspicion-building in And Then There Were None, and carries episode 3 squarely on her shoulders. Dermody proves she’s one to watch as And Then There Were None descends from standard period piece through murder mystery, through sticky Tennessee Williams tension, and into modern noir and horror.
Noah Taylor as Rogers firmly restores the geekitude though, with a resume including Game of Thrones, Peaky Blinders and The Borgias, and an intense, hidden unpleasantness that most reminds viewers of his edgy role as Hitler in the movie Max. And you will have been driving yourself mad wondering where you’ve seen Mrs Rogers before – often confused with Big Finish companion actress Nicola Walker, it’s actually Anna Maxwell Martin of His Dark Materials fame and much else besides, including the role of Suki Macrae Cantrell in Series 1 story of New Who, The Long Game.
Whether you actively enjoyed watching And Then There Were None or not, there’s no denying it was a bold new approach to Agatha Christie’s storytelling, that gripped viewers across three nights – by hooks, crooks or Aidan Turner in a towel. Prepare for more ‘Christie Noir’ to come your way in 2016.