Childhood friends in a small Welsh village investigate the unexplained death of a man found at the bottom of a cliff.
I started re-reading the novel when I heard this was coming out, because I wanted an escape from the world’s current problems, though it didn’t quite pan out like that. Agatha Christie’s 1934 whodunnit takes place only five years before WW2 (between the wars, but then aren’t we always) and is peppered with reminders that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
There are of course big differences too. Christie set her story in that period — see also Jane Austen — when if one was of a certain class (impoverished gentility and up) one could suffer an injury or sudden illness and be taken to the local “big house” to recover, attended by posh strangers — presumably because posh people are never strangers. Also men don’t sleep in vests any more; and the UK’s more progressive attitude to murder means we must remind ourselves that Christie’s unmasked killers will face the gallows, if they don’t do a runner first.
While this isn’t a book / TV compare and contrast, it’s striking that Bobby Jones, in the book a sweet but dim Vicar’s son still looking for his place in the world, is in Hugh Laurie’s enjoyable and tellingly sharp adaptation a thoughtful if diffident young man, held back only by his class. His partner in crime-solving, Lady Frances “Frankie” Derwent (Lucy Boynton), whose comfortable place in the world was always assured, hasn’t changed much from Christie’s pages, though Laurie ensures she doesn’t get her own way framing conversations — TV Bobby rebuffs her attempt to blame her own snobbishness on his perceived (if actually non-existent) chippiness.
Bobby (Will Poulter) is caddying on a cliff top golf course with his friend Dr Thomas (Conleth Hill) in the Welsh village of Marchmont when he spots a body at the bottom of a cliff. Scrambling down he discovers the man — handsome, rugged and not from these parts — still barely alive, uttering the all-important phrase: “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” before expiring.
And it’s a good thing Christie decided to get that out of the way early, lest it become like waiting for Hamlet to say “To be or not to be”, with no one knowing if it’s better to rush through or give it some new spin, unthought of in 500 years. Bobby is assisted by a stranger who scrambles down to help, the rather dashing Roger Bassington-ffrench, a name presumably underlined in squiggly red on every UK TV critic’s review draft. While Bobby rushes off to help his father with Evensong, Roger (a smoothly compelling Daniel Ings) awaits the police.
The body is later identified by a Mr and Mrs Cayman (wideboy-ish and cheaply overdressed, respectively) as Mrs Cayman’s adventurer brother Alex Pritchard, and after the inquest Bobby hopes it’s all over. Strange things keep happening though: he’s unexpectedly offered an extremely good job in South America, and is then nearly killed with a morphia-doped bottle of beer. A menacing man in a bowler hat keeps appearing. Soon Bobby is teaming up with Frankie, local minor aristo and childhood friend, to unmask Pritchard’s killer and solve that Evans conundrum —with a staged car crash getting the allegedly concussed Frankie into the stately residence of their chief suspect.
Hugh Laurie adapted the book, directs, and plays Dr Nicholson, a cold and incisive owner of a private mental health sanitarium. He does a great job with all three. As a director, he has added some interesting surface touches that elevate this from traditional Sunday night fare, while interrogating class and privilege underneath. A disputed photo of a woman, found in the body’s pocket, comes to life. Bobby’s poisoning moves from dull coastal walk to a funfair, his spinning technicolour visions mimicking the fairground rides around him as he collapses. Bobby’s best friend is no longer the enthusiastic, financially illiterate Badger, and is now Knocker (Jonathan Jules), a Black entrepreneurial car repair shop owner. There are also more murders, because a three episode mini-series that starts with a body pushed over a cliff needs a further cliffhanger or two.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that it does go on a bit. Though it can’t be easy adapting Christie, making sure that every innocuous-seeming clue makes it into the final cut-down version, lest its absence leads to the thing turning up in YouTube “PLOTHOLE!!!” videos.
Laurie shows many different, colliding worlds: money, social class, crime, the armed forces, even gender. Leaving the hospital after visiting Bobby, Frankie is viewed through what looks like a porthole window, divided into three. Sleepy Marchmont is dragged unwillingly into a series of criminal endeavours. Even the carnival waltzer brings everyone together while highlighting their differences (local lass Ivy and her boyfriend getting a special 2 for 1 deal, Frankie’s unpleasant cousin patronising Bobby with “keep the change”).
Dressing up (Frankie regularly wears trousers and ties), assuming others’ personas (Bobby in his borrowed chauffeur’s outfit), a mis-identified victim, killers who pretend to be other people: while much of this is in service to the whodunnit, it also can’t be coincidence that they are all a form of escape, and all happen within a framework of class, which keeps everyone in their place.
Unsurprisingly the role of servants is key. The right servant sees everything, like ghosts in pinnies or drivers’ caps — always in the background, their wealthy employers acting and talking as if they aren’t there. As Frankie says of chauffeurs, they just appear when needed.
Poulter is a sensible and sympathetic Bobby, and has great chemistry with Boynton. Both their characters are out of their depth in the murky world of crime-solving. Boynton is terrific as the exuberantly confident Frankie, prickly about her privilege and not yet old enough to smoothly suppress that prickliness so her privilege might continue (like I said at the start, the more things change…). Men either want to help her or are obliged to, because she’s female, because she’s beautiful, and because she’s rich.
A plethora of British stars of soaps, sketch shows and screen look like they’re having the time of their lives, directing and misdirecting our baby sleuths. (Special mention for the dryly funny and determined pub landlord Mr Askew, played by Paul Whitehouse.) Cameos from Emma Thompson and Jim Broadbent as Frankie’s parents are delightful — and what looks like a luvvies’ indulgence on the part of Laurie turns out to be anything but.
A few words too about the costumes, from designer Laura Smith. I can’t remember what poor Bobby was wearing apart from those vests and the dreaded chauffeur’s uniform, though Frankie’s get-ups are never less than stunning. Smith was assistant costume designer on EMMA. and Mary Queen Of Scots, both films where the outfits were also part of the story. Here they tell a hidden tale: Frankie’s clothes both showcase what she considers her progressive attitudes to women, and drive home her wealth and privilege (her dry cleaning bill could probably pay for a new stately home roof).
Read my Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? article on the ending and order of deaths, plus comprehensive episode re-caps here:
The ending, whodunnit and order of deaths.
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