At a certain point, one assumes, the well of Agatha Christie novels must run dry. The Marples and Poirots have both been through multiple adaptions at this point, and the BBC’s earlier 2015 offering, Partners in Crime, made some headway into the Tommy and Tuppence tales. Fortunately for Christmas television, And Then There Were None, her most popular story of all, remains. According to the blurb at the start of the modern editions of her books, Agatha Christie is the third best-selling author of all time, less popular than only the Bible and Shakespeare, putting And Then There Were None’s sales somewhere incalculable.
The story’s premise is a relatively simple one. Ten strangers are summoned to an isolated rock of an island off the coast of Devon under various false pretences. Once there, each is accused of murder and begin to be picked off one by one. Honestly though, of all Christie’s novels, this is the one in which the identity of the murderer is of least importance. It helps tie the story together at the end of course, but And Then There Were None is far more concerned with being a psychological thriller than it is a classic whodunit. Sarah Phelps’ adaptation leans heavily on the side of the story that could be seen as a study of guilt and remorse, distancing the programme from the cosiness of previous Christie efforts.
It helps too, that the BBC managed to assemble a seriously good cast to perform Phelps’ scripts. The presence of Charles Dance, Douglas Booth, Aidan Turner, and Miranda Richardson, among others, lends gravitas to the proceedings, something necessary, as the first two episodes are carried by the acting almost entirely. The third instalment, while heavier on the plot than character development was unfortunately where things began to go wrong. Having stuck faithfully to Christie’s story, while emphasising unexpected themes to make it her own, Phelps goes a bit off road.
It seems that either Phelps or the BBC at large, just can’t cope with Aidan Turner’s presence. Really, he ends up being detrimental to the adaptation as a whole, despite being utterly competent and convincing in his acting. It’s incredibly frustrating. The audience knows he’s good looking. This BBC audience is likely the same one that watches Poldark and swoons over his expert scythe wielding and mining capabilities. Does it therefore follow logically that this audience wants to see him in as few clothes as possible at the expense of narrative tension? Apparently so. Having built an impressively dense atmosphere of distrust and fear, the producers saw fit to dissolve the whole lot, in order that Britain might gaze extensively upon Aidan Turner in a towel.
Obviously this unnecessary diversion doesn’t negate the excellence of the previous two episodes, but it’s an example endemic of a lack of focus. Knowing the book, each character is given a backstory about the murder they supposedly committed, detailing the events that lead them to be so plagued with guilt or righteousness. It just stung a little, therefore, to watch some of the better, more complex of them be given no airtime, so that a quick, nonsensical romance can be shoehorned in. If the whole point of Miss Cleythorne’s backstory is to demonstrate her all-consuming, obsessive love for some man called Hugo, it makes no narrative sense for her to suddenly jump into bed with a random colonial enforcer that might be planning to murder her. Except that he looks like Aidan Turner.
Overall, the problems with And Then There Were None really don’t emerge until the final episode, when a sudden lack of focus taints what otherwise is excellent Christmas viewing. It is also worth noting that having read the book makes it more likely to be unfavourably compared. And Then There Were None is fundamentally a marvellously dark and intelligent piece of television, and it is this that makes it such a shame when it undermines itself unnecessarily. Watch it for the incredible time defying story; watch it for the interesting writing; watch it for the wonderful performances. Just try and ignore the fluffy frivolities and hope that Aidan Turner doesn’t get boxed in to being a lump of handsome and nothing more.