Murdering Nostalgia With Agatha Christie And The BBC: The Witness For The Prosecution

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.

How To Get Away With Murder (Spoilers)

I’ve just binge watched the first season of How To Get Away With Murder – a 2015 US TV series about a bunch of over-achieving law students who over-achieve a little too much when they murder their professor’s husband. Cue legal hijinks and shenanigans as their professor colludes with them to cover it up because she believes her husband was guilty of the murder of a sorority girl he was having an affair with (but can we be sure it was him!?). In many ways the series is very good: it passes the Bechdel and Latif tests with flying colours, it doesn’t pretend we live in a post-race and post-gender society where these things don’t need to be talked about, the core cast are conventionally attractive (if conventions are your bag) and Viola Davis as the kick ass Professor Annalise Keating is just scorching – she makes the series. However, I’m not so convinced it rates as a whodunnit – there was the odd twist or two but come the finale the surprise payoff just wasn’t big enough. So, following on from Professor Keating here are my three top tips on how to get away with murder, inspired by the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie.

1: Characters Not Caricatures: If you’re going to make your core characters a bunch of spoilt, bratty law students then we need to like at least one of them. Unfortunately, the leads, whilst brilliantly acted aren’t particularly easy to sympathise with. We’re given occasional glimpses into their back stories – cue compassionless and snobby family dinners, overbearing fathers and threatening mothers-in-law – but we needed more. Without context and background the characters just become ciphers for each episode’s mini-plot (usually court scenes involving helping random guilty people get away with murder) and the series’ overarching plot – who really killed the sorority girl? However, despite their lack of depth what did make for compelling viewing was watching the leads unravel after they all colluded in and covered up the murder of the husband. Turns out being heirs to fortunes and at a top university count for very little when it comes to coping with the consequences of murdering someone. Of course, whether or not they get away with it doesn’t really seem to matter given they’re all such prats.

2: Red Herrings: The jilted lover, the heir, the jealous sibling, the conveniently placed lunatic, the rival in love and even the identical twin all make for great distractions from the actual murderer. A Christie novel basically involves tying the reader up in a tangled mess of string made predominantly from red herrings until the final reveal when the detective untangles the mess and the audience cannot believe it was that obvious all along. Again, HTGAWM let the side down by not having enough red herrings. It didn’t take too many guesses to figure out who really might have killed the sorority girl meaning the finale was a bit of a damp squib. Ideally, if the actual murderer is implicated at any point they must then be made to appear above suspicion, for example, “watertight” evidence needs to appear that puts them somewhere else at the time of the crime. Also, given point 1, it helps if we’re vaguely interested in the character who ultimately turns out to be the murderer, i.e. they’re more than a convenient plot device.

3: Hiding Things In Plain Sight: “Where’s the best place to hide a pebble?” asked the legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to his stupid sidekick Arthur Hastings. The answer: “On a beach.” Likewise, the best place to hide a killer motive is amongst a whole load of other killer motives. It’s like a magician’s sleight of hand – we’re all looking at one hand whilst the rabbit or dove is hidden up the other sleeve, or something like that. Unfortunately, HTGAWM pretty much gave us all its possible motives on a platter without trying to hide the actual one. As with point 2 given that the who of the whodunnit wasn’t a huge surprise then the why of whydunnit, or indeed the how of howdunnit, needed to be more surprising.

Having said all the above HTGAWM made for compelling viewing – it was fast-paced, sufficiently twisty and full of great performances. And by the looks of the trailer for season 2 things are about to get even more twisted. Here’s to more back story, more red fish and even more killer surprises (but please don’t do what the promising series Revenge did after season 1 which was to become increasingly baffling and pointless). If the starter was medium let’s hope the second course is cooked rare.

Was Agatha Christie An Anarchist?

A toffish cad. A louche adventurer. A religious spinster. A pompous war general. A Harley Street doctor. A private investigator. A self-important judge. A teacher at a private girls’ school. A supercilious butler. A jittery maid. Yup, it’s the characters of And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie’s most successful murder mystery novel. Now, many of us will know Agatha Christie not only for her ingenious twists but also her racism, homophobia and sexism. She might have been ahead of her time in terms of plot devices but she certainly wasn’t when it came to values. However, it’s always the ones we least suspect and I think that behind all the casual bigotry lay an undercover anarchist. Here’s why (with big spoilers but I certainly won’t reveal whodunnit).

It starts with that cast of ten characters – between them they represent the British establishment: there’s inherited wealth, colonialism, imperialism, religion, the military, the justice system, private school, wilful/enforced servitude, the class divide and the law (perhaps there should be an MP there too but inherited wealth and private school pretty much cover that one). They are also predominantly male and all are white. So they’re everyone wrong with elitism and all are incredibly nasty people – not least in personality but also because each one of them is guilty of murder. Yup, as if being bigoted snobs weren’t enough they’re also killers and many of them show no remorse for it – turns out there’s such a thing as daylight murder as well as daylight robbery.

So this just basically sounds like yet another homage to posh, British people a la Downton Abbey, Brideshead Revisited and any Tom Stoppard/Noel Coward play. But because it’s Christie and because she really couldn’t let ten terrible people get away with murder she does something your typical English-aristocracy-tribute doesn’t do – she kills them all. That’s right, one by one they get picked off, in increasingly brutal fashion, by an unknown killer on some sort of deranged vendetta. So that’s how Christie treats her posh people and for me nothing could scream undercover anarchist more loudly. Of course, anarchists don’t condone murder but they do condone a complete overhaul of the establishment and what better way to do that than metaphorically bump off all the usual, elitist suspects – the ones with the vested interests that keep society unfairly rigged in the favour of the 1%.

Convinced? Probably not. But post-colonial, feminist revisions are always fun, next time I’ll apply the queer gaze. Although before I do that I should probably lay my cards on the table and confess to being a huge Christie fan – whilst I can’t help but feel she had similar views to her characters (but perhaps not, Hercule Poirot was a refugee after all and made a habit out of standing over the dead bodies of rich Brits) she was the mistress of the red herring and surprise ending. The trick now is to take those plot devices and place them firmly in the 21st century, to ensure curtains for bigotry as well as all those nasty, murderous elites. Oh, and the BBC are showing this Christie classic at the moment, it even stars Poldark!

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When Brits go abroad they don’t come back…