Boxing Day heralds a real festive treat – another Sarah Phelps adaptation of an Agatha Christie story. Last year Phelps created an impossibly enjoyable and tense re-telling of And The There Were None, and now this year it’s the turn of a Christie short story to get the Phelps treatment. As ever, there’s a stellar cast attached (Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough and Kim Cattrall among others) and the setting of louche 1920s London is beautifully realised. We managed to get hold of an interview with Kim Cattrall – who’ brilliant, again – and you read it after the jump.
The Killing Times: How would you describe Emily French?
Kim Cattrall: My character is a very wealthy woman who married young to a much older man. Their relationship was one of fondness rather than passion so not a great love affair as such. I see Emily as being incredibly idealistic especially about love, as many women of that time were. Her world has begun to suffocate her and she dreams of having a beautiful romance with someone different to her.
TKT: Who are the people that exist on the edges of Emily’s life?
KC: Emily’s late-husband’s lawyer, Starling (Andrew Havill), takes care of her financial needs and Janet the housekeeper not only takes care of Emily but they’ve become almost like sisters in some respects. The relationship between Emily and Janet is a very complex one so when she meets Leonard Vole she’s looking for someone to have fun and adventures with.
TKT: Do you think she is looking for more than just a good time?
KC: No, I don’t think she sets out to look for a relationship. She’s not interested in the kind of relationship that society dictates she must have. She’s just not interested in meeting a man that’s boring and not sexy or exciting.
TKT: What sort of woman is Emily and what was she looking for with Leonard Vole?
KC: For her age and her time period Emily is very much a feminist. First of all she goes out at night hoping to find exciting partners and new friendships. This story is set in the aftermath of the First World War when a whole generation of men were lost, so it’s hard to find a man
anyway, and most of the men that are left are either very young or much older. When she meets this gorgeous, vulnerable young man he is different from anyone around her and her interest is piqued. This is not simply about an older woman preying on a younger man, it’s more than just her gratification; she wants an adventure.
TKT: What guidance or direction did you get from the director about the character?
KC: Julian Jarrold was incredibly open and we were so lucky to have a few days rehearsal before filming commenced to really dig into the scripts and find out what all the characters want for themselves, the history of the relationships between them and how they came to co-exist. Rehearsing is always a great foundation to have because it makes the work less of a guessing game and you feel so much more confident that you’ve done your homework, you are on the set and you know your character. I didn’t feel that on set that there was anything we were questioning because of those early foundations, which was really helpful.
TKT: How do you feel about 1920s England – is it a period you would have been comfortable living in?
KC: I think I was born in the right time. A lot of amazing women have gone before me and laid down a path of freedom, which has allowed me the freedom to live my life, make my vote count and have a voice. I am so fortunate, especially at my age, to benefit from what they struggled for and to continue to educate young women about. I think that’s what Sarah Phelps has been really clear about in relating that to our women. Essentially Emily French is living her life under her own terms and I love playing women like that. Despite what happens to her in the story, she is not a victim. Sarah has included elements of feminism and strength but also of vulnerability.
TKT: Were you familiar with the original book?
KC: I was familiar with The Witness for the Prosecution having taken part in a drama workshop of the play in New York. We wanted to bring it to Broadway but the producers got cold feet and withdrew in the end. I was already familiar with the original film starring Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich and I was actually playing the role of Romaine in the workshop. In the book she was considered a slightly older woman than the Leonard Vole character and she was a German woman who felt greatly ostracised in post-War Britain. I thought that I would love to make the show in the West End, but I read there was going to be a television version of it and so I got in touch with Mammoth Screen to see if there was any way I could be involved. Their previous Agatha Christie production And Then There Were None had been very successful so they were just waiting to see what Sarah Phelps did with the script. When it came back they asked if I was interested in playing Emily French and I said “Yes, absolutely!” and I knew Toby Jones was involved and I thought this was really going to be fun.
TKT: Many people grow up aware of Agatha Christie’s plays or books. Are you one of them?
KC: I’ve always loved Agatha Christie and I always loved murder mysteries. My mum was a big murder mystery buff and there was always an Alfred Hitchcock or Agatha Christie in the house. I loved the great films from the 1940s and these great masters who were making them. Never did I think I would be one of Christie’s victims!
TKT: Do you have any idea why Agatha Christie still resonates globally?
KC: I think she always wrote very complex characters and she did something as a writer and a playwright that kept her one step ahead of her audience. I think if you are one step ahead of your audience then you’ve got them. When they are on the edge of their seat, sitting back thinking “who did this and why” then that’s when I’m engaged. I like to take parts where people think “oh it’s one of those”. We have made it our own whilst at the same time been very faithful to this amazing writer who has created some terrific parts for women, and that was not fashionable, so good on you Agatha!
The Witness For The Prosecution: Monday 26th and Tuesday 27th December, 9pm, BBC1