The words ‘Agatha Christie murder mystery’ might conjure up images of posh people gathered together in a chintzy drawing-room sipping tea whilst some sleuth – normally moustache twirling Hercule Poirot or knitting Miss Marple – runs through all the red herrings before revealing whodunnit. These are cosy affairs where murder doesn’t involve much blood and good always conquers evil (normally after two or three deaths). A sepia toned view of the 1920s and 30s in Britain where the Empire is represented by a gruff colonel type who might drink a little too much and everyone else is having a whale of a time (apart from the corpses). All this changed last night when the BBC gave nostalgia a cup of poisoned tea and watched it die a grim and bloody death (spoilers ensue).
The writer Sarah Phelps adapted the Christie short story and play The Witness For The Prosecution for the BBC. It was a Christmas special except the only thing special about it was its relentless misery. The smiling, diamond encrusted mask of 1920s London was peeled back to reveal a world of grim austerity, inequality and chest infections. A world in which murder is a desperate and unhappy thing committed by desperate and unhappy people or, in this case, unapologetic sociopaths. The moral core of this story was a rotten one as people were left reeling from the effects of the First World War. Lovers, Romaine and Leonard Vole, were so scarred by the atrocities that they didn’t bat an eyelid when it came to committing and covering up the murder of rich heiress Emily French (played by Kim Cattrall from Sex and the City!). John Mayhew, the coughing solicitor, guilt ridden after the death of his son in WWI, is spectacularly duped by the murderous couple (as are we the audience!) and proves key in letting them get away with it. He even gets Emily French’s maid hung for a murder she didn’t commit even though she did drown Ms French’s cat. Naturally, when he finds out what has happened he walks off into the sea. This adaptation reveals nostalgia to be a lie – the First World War was not great, wealth does not buy happiness and there’s often lots of blood when someone gets bashed on the head. Personally, I am glad the BBC killed nostalgia because it can be a dangerous thing. Conniving politicians regularly use it to justify prejudice – if we vote Brexit we can take back control and Britain can be Britain again, free of foreigners and full of tea, oh, and wasn’t the Empire great despite all the slavery and oppression. Or we can banish the Muslims and make America great again. But the nostalgic myths they play on of bygone golden ages are just that – myths – half-hearted stories based on lies and a sprinkling of selective history. The past is no halcyon era of smiles and good fortunes it was often dangerous and unhappy.
However, it’s not just nostalgia that Phelps and the BBC killed it was also hope. The victims die painful and bloody deaths, the villains get away with it and the goodies get hung or drown themselves. There will be no saviour on a white horse or twiddling his little Belgian moustache. The closest we get to redemption is the brief smile on Mayhew’s face as he walks off into the sea, perhaps he has found peace after all, asides from the fact that he will soon be dead. However, there is one brilliant moment before killers Leonard and Romaine drive off into the sunset. Leonard mentions to his newly married wife that he’s worried she might get bored of him now that they’ve got all the money. “Don’t be tiresome, Leonard,” she replies curtly, leaving him with a worried look on his face – yup, the lives of murderous sociopaths might end richly ever after but I doubt they’ll end happily ever after. It seems this Yuletide adapation has a lot to teach us about our own times – 2016 was a hopeless year for the goodies and it really seems as though the baddies are going to get away with it. And I’m not sure 2017 is shaping up to be much better. Yet it is one thing to tear up our nostalgic views of the past but it is quite something else to offer any hint of a different future, a future in which there will not be wars, inequality will be no more and the villains might be held accountable. I feel this is beyond the scope of Sarah Phelps and the BBC, which is why we cannot let them get away with murder.