The BBC is currently airing its latest Agatha Christie adaptation, a new version of Ordeal by Innocence. Two episodes down, one to go. It was meant to be televised at Christmas time, but after one of the leading cast members, Ed Westwick, was accused of sexual assault, he was dropped from the production and re-shoots were hastily ordered.
Was it a programme worth salvaging? Pretty much, I’d say. It’s obvious why the Beeb have turned to Christie’s work for its recent Yuletide showpieces. Thanks to our familiarity with her oeuvre, and despite the often grizzly details, they feel as comforting as a decent cuppa on a cold day. Even if you don’t know the particulars of the story in question – this one is about a philanthropic aristocrat who is murdered by one of her multitude of adopted children – you will recognise the set-up and structure, with a country pile stuffed with quietly seething people, all with a very credible reason to bump off the victim.
Director Sandra Goldbacher plays up to this with relish. At one point, the camera swoops through a party, resting for a moment on each suspect, giving them just enough time to provide their best “I might be a cold-blooded killer” scowl. But for my money (and please Christie fans, don’t bump me off in the study with the revolver for saying this), the thrill of the whodunit element of these programmes is always diminished by the fact that the motives are so evenly spread. Guesswork is all the viewer can rely on when trying to surmise the identity of the murderer.
Goldbacher and writer Sarah Phelps attempt to give this Christie the air of a modern crime thriller with sweaty arguments and fast cuts aplenty. Close-ups of morphine bottles and smoke wafting from cigarettes add to that mix, too. It’s all good fun, even though there’s an unevenness to the production.
The script often clunks, and the acting is all over the place, ranging from Bill Nighy, playing the head of the unfortunate Argyll family, and Crystal Clarke, as one of his daughters, going for the quiet, subtle approach, to others in the cast (Matthew Goode, Alice Eve) hamming it up as if they’re jobbing actors in a murder mystery weekend.