‘And Then There Were None’ is unlike any other Agatha Christie novel. Brilliantly bleak and lacking the comforting presence of a Poirot or Marple-esque detective figure to come and save the day, in many ways it’s a book that foreshadowed the current ‘Killing’-inspired Nordic Noir thrillers currently permeating British and European television. Writer Sarah Phelps has taken this potential and transformed the story into a magnificently psychological three-part drama that, for this reviewer, was the highlight of the BBC’s Christmas 2015 schedules.
Following a group of ten strangers as they find themselves stranded on the fictional Soldier Island off the Devon Coast as part of a sinister deception, and gradually picked off by a killer in their midst inspired by the ‘Ten Little Soldier Boys’ nursery rhyme, the series, in plot terms, sticks faithfully to the book, including (mercifully) favouring the novel’s original ending over Christie’s own alteration to the subsequent stage version. But Sarah Phelps has added so much atmosphere and character work to this minseries that it more than deserves to be judged on its own merits.
She is helped, though, by an utterly superb cast. Intriguingly, Phelps makes the decision to centre the drama on this reviewer’s favourite character from the novel, Vera Claythorne, and, in the hands of both Phelps and actress Maeve Dermody, the character becomes mesmerising. Reserved and proper on the surface, but with eyes betraying by turns both a tortured conscience and an unsettling coldness, Dermody imbues the role with a quality that seduces and draws in the viewer as surely as Aidan Turner’s Philip Lombard finds himself hooked by her.
Turner is every bit Dermody’s male equal here, the two of them setting the screen alight whenever they share a scene, whether exchanging barbs, fighting mutual attraction, or trying to gauge each other’s guilt. Capitalising on the popularity of Turner’s Poldark reboot, not least the infamous ‘scythe’ scene, the BBC, arguably rather shamelessly, give Turner an even greater water cooler moment here, emerging from his bedroom in Episode 2 in a towel so small as to be almost redundant (a cursory glance at Twitter following the episode revealed the move paid off handsomely). The characters’ relationship is a dark, fascinating dance in this adaptation, a far cry from the sanitised Hollywood glamour of the stage and earlier screen versions.
Dermody and Turner, though, are only two highlights in a terrific ensemble. Miranda Richardson is quietly terrifying as God-fearing Emily Brent, the character bestowed with startling undertones certainly not present in the novel. Noah Taylor and Anna Maxwell Martin are suitably creepy as House staff Mr and Mrs Rogers (though Maxwell Martin does tug on the heart strings during a scene of subtle abuse from Richardson’s Brent), while Sam Neill lends a nobility to his General MacArthur that goes some way to making us empathise with the character, despite his past sins. Charles Dance is his usual charismatic self as Justice Lawrence Wargrave, quietly calming the hysterics of the other guests for most of the series, until finally coming into his own with a chilling flashback to the execution tormenting his own conscience, that of depraved murderer Edward Seaton. Burn Gorman manages the impressive feat of making us feel sorry for his corrupt policeman William Blore as the tension escalates, despite the appalling nature of his own crime, while Douglas Booth appears to enjoy every second of playing callous playboy Anthony Marston, ridiculing the other guests at dinner, firing off a succession of one-liners, and, in an early scene whose subtext this reviewer only picked up on upon a second viewing, subtly making a play for Turner’s Philip Lombard, only to get the most effortless and disinterested of knockbacks.
If there is one misstep with the cast, it’s arguably Toby Stephens as Dr Edward Armstrong. Not that Stephens isn’t a great actor in general, but there’s something jarring about his interpretation of a role that, in the book, comes across as much more timid than it does here. Stephens makes the part startlingly aggressive at times, from a furious argument with Booth’s Marston at dinner, to pulling rank on Dermody’s Vera primarily because of her status as a woman, a scene that, for this reviewer, and despite the period setting, left a sour taste in the mouth (his burst of hysterical laughter, on the other hand, during a rare comical moment involving Blore, almost redeems everything else).
On a side note, Catherine Bailey and Rob Heaps do good work in the smaller roles of Olivia Ogilvie Hamilton and brother Hugo, Bailey lending poignancy to Olivia’s anguish at the death of her son, while Heaps provides one of the true ‘Hurrah’ moments of the series, with his instant realisation of one character’s guilt, conveyed through furious, horrified eyes.
It’s always a risk to stretch a novel out over three hours of drama, but Phelps makes sure every moment of ATTWN is engrossing, her episode cliffhangers, particularly MacArthur’s ominous, doom-laden speech at the close of Episode 1, uniformly well-judged, while the undertones leant to Richardson, Gorman and Booth’s characters make for much richer material than we are given in the book, however ingenious its plot. If I have one misgiving, it’s, ironically and somewhat frustratingly, with the ending. Although the cheese of the stage version is jettisoned, this adaptation still doesn’t quite manage to capture the sheer eeriness of the novel’s ending, resorting to a confession scene that feels a bit mundane by comparison. But if the last few minutes fall a little flat, the preceding near-three hours of drama more than make up for it, with the adaptation lingering in the mind as a rich, compelling, atmospheric mystery, soaked in dread and boasting some excellent character study, with Maeve Dermody in particular an actress this reviewer will be watching out for in the future.
On the technical side, the series is leant some incredible atmosphere by Stuart Earl’s score, not so much in the more obvious ‘ominous’ cues throughout much of the episodes, but in the quieter, more haunting music of such scenes as the flashback to the first meeting with Hugo on the beach, or Emily in the field with her young ward Beatrice. And Craig Viveiros’ direction is a work of art in itself, the overhead shot revealing the gaping chasm at the centre of the island at the beginning of Episode 1 a particular early highlight, along with, for this reviewer, one of the best opening scenes of a drama ever, in the shape of Episode 3’s opening minute of close-up shots of the remaining five suspects, seen as though through distorted glass, and set to rain and thunder outside, again accompanied by Earl’s rich soundtrack.
‘And Then There Were None’ is top quality British drama. If the BBC can keep hold of Phelps, Earl, and call again on any of the acting talents involved here, particularly Turner and Dermody, for future Christmas programmes, I, for one, will be there as an avidly interested viewer.
Dark, brilliantly-written and compelling drama, with a superb, well-utilised cast.