Christmas isn’t Christmas without a cracking drama on television, and what better way to spend festive evenings than getting comfy on the sofa with the Christmas choccies and a classic world-renowned crime drama? But beware! this isn’t your average cosy crime caper – it’s a dark and sinister portrayal of Agatha Christie’s landmark whodunit. Christmas has never been so creepy.
And Then There Were None is the world’s best selling crime novel. Despite multiple film adaptations, this is the first time the world’s favourite Christie has been brought to the small screen, and the BBC has gone all out. An illustrious ensemble cast leads the drama, with Charles Dance, Aidan Turner, Maeve Dermody, Miranda Richardson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Douglas Booth, Burn Gorman, Sam Neill, Noah Taylor and Toby Stephens.
This three-part adaptation of Christie’s masterpiece is penned by the very brilliant Sarah Phelps (The Casual Vacancy, Great Expectations) and with a Boxing Day premiere for the first episode this was appointment-to-view Christmas telly at its best.
Christie’s premise is simple – ten strangers are invited to the isolated Soldier Island off the coast of Devon. As the mismatched group await the arrival of their hosts, Mr and Mrs U. N. Owen, bad weather sets in and the guests’ past mistakes begin to haunt them.
The strangers are a collection of brilliant Christie characterisations, brought to life with a darkly clever portrayal by Phelps. We’ve got a reckless playboy, a decrepit judge, a nervous businessman, an unhinged Harley Street doctor, a god-fearing spinster, a secretive governess, a guilt-ridden general, a remorseless mercenary, and two anxious servants.
Flashbacks and visions of the past allow us to tap into the minds of the strangers, each struggling with their conscience, as we quickly realise none are what they seem.
The eleventh character brought to life vividly is the surrounding environment trapping the helpless ensemble – the house and the remote island. The exceptional production design by Sophie Becher stays true to the original 1939 setting on the brink of World War II. Exacting period detail works tirelessly to create an odd, unsettled backdrop, with an edge-of-the-seat creepiness that fits extremely well with Phelps’ dark and horrifying script, to deliver a very ‘film noir’ overall feel.
With the hosts mysteriously absent, an awkward first night dinner ends in a gramophone recording playing out through the darkened corridors to the candle-lit dinner table, accusing each of the guests of a having committed a murder but evaded justice, thus far.
What appears to be a child’s rhyme – ‘Ten Little Soldier Boys’ – hangs on the wall in each of their bedrooms, alluding to the death of each person from ten to none. But it’s only when the self-centred Anthony Marston, played strikingly convincingly by Douglas Booth, chokes and dies from a drink laced with poison and housekeeper Ethel Rogers, brilliantly played by Anna Maxwell Martin, dies in her sleep, does the true dark intentions of the house on Soldier Island begin to hit home.
There’s a murderer in their midst. And one by one they are all going to suffer according to the rhyme. As dark shadows loom over the stranded house – who could the murderer be and who’s next?
We see a more dishevelled and increasingly desperate ensemble in episode 2, the remainder of whom suspect a collection of green, abstract sculpted figures are being removed one figure at a time, as each of the residents are brutally murdered.
General MacArthur’s blood is shed on the cliff top, the extremely eerie servant Rogers is cut in half by an axe in the night – a fitting end to a perfect portrayal by Noah Taylor – and sinister spinster Emily Brent, played delicately by Miranda Richardson, meets her end with a needle in the neck. Only five statues remain.
Those left become more distrustful and isolated, as the drama gets more heightened, the dialogue more frantic, the weather more stormy, and the characters more desperate and exposed. This is exposed quite literally at one point, as they are striped to their undergarments in a room search. Unsurprisingly Phillip Lombard, played by the recognisable Aiden Turner, seems most at home in this state of undress. Could the BBC be looking for that Poldark grass-cutting moment once again?
As we look towards the last episode, the final five are paranoid, suspicious and have nowhere to hide. The walls of the house are closing in quickly, and everything points to a dramatic and bloodthirsty end.
The final episode grips from start to finish, as one by one the remaining sinners are killed off. The abandoned house and lonely island get creepier as the minutes tick by, and most of the episode is spent terrified by the unknown killer, guessing who’s next and how it will happen.
The drama remains cleverly balanced between in-the-moment action and flashbacks, which sustain the tension, fuelling the darkness of each character. This is particularly true for Vera Claythorne, whose character is riddled with complexity and continues to surprise us. Maeve Dermody delivers an outstanding performance, especially in the face of death, leaving us on the edge of the sofa until her final breath.
The whodunit keeps us guessing right to the end, as the culprit finally steps out of the shadows to reveal their motive. It’s somewhat a relief after the intensity of the drama preceding, albeit short-lived as of course the murderer has one final bloody trick up their sleeve.
As the world’s favourite Agatha Christie novel, Phelps had little choice but to stay as close to the original as possible, but the skill with which she was able to achieve so much within a mini series should be applauded. In the year of the 125th anniversary of Christie birth, And Then There Were None is surely the highlight of television viewing this Christmas, if not for the year as a whole.
Should the BBC reinstate a Christie for Christmas? And Then There Were None certainly proves there’s aptitude and appetite for it.
Did you tune in for And Then There Were None? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!