Last night, on Boxing Day here in the UK, we were treated to another Sarah Phelps adaptation of an Agatha Christie story: an intriguing, post-World War I yarn set in the Roaring Twenties, a murder of a voracious but tragic socialite at its heart. Nailed on for her murder was her young lover and ex-soldier Leonard Vole, who was relying on the alibi of his partner, Romaine Heilger, to get him off the hook. Except Heilger (Andrea Riseborough in mesmerising form) changed her tune just before his trial, spitting “hang” in his face. Why had she done this? While not a primary suspect, she was playing with the truth. Or was she? We were about to find out…
NB: Spoilers ahoy
Judging by the reaction to the first episode over on The Twitter, not everyone was as enamoured with it as I was. Too slow, some said. Many asked what with deal was with the constant greeny/yellow filter. Too dark, a few people barked. Swearing and sex in an Agatha Christie? That’s just not on, some diehards protested.
Let’s face it, The Witness For The Prosecution is no And Then There Were None. It’s a radically different story, and the sickly London streets felt believable and true because, well… it was the 1920s with fog and mist and gas lamps, and it suited the characters’ and the story’s own innate sickliness. It was set in a jaundiced, post-war fug for a reason – Mayhew was sick, London (with its rampant hedonism) was also sick, in a way. Hollow lifestyles, temptation rife, and Bacchanalian lasciviousness seeping from every pore. The palette and the colouring was used for a reason and, for me, it worked a treat.
As for the swearing and the sex, I also felt this fitted in well with the story, too. It was never gratuitous. These characters – Emily French, Leonard Vole, Romain Heilger and the Mayhews – were broken people; flattened by war, loss and hardship. They were real people who swear and have bad, uncomfortable sex because that’s what real people often do. They were also people trying to mend themselves as best they could, and when this murder came along they saw materials and components inside it with which to help them do it. That’s what the good crime dramas do – they use the actual crimes themselves as devices to help them heal, to achieve redemption or to move on from guilt or heartbreak. Sarah Phelps, while taking artistic license, has constructed real, fully-formed characters here. Real human adults, not just plastic suspects to be moved around a board. Some die-hard Christie fans might be pissed off with this adaptation and that’s fair enough, but to me this is how you do fresh adaptations – take the bones of a well-established story and add on beefy, clever characterisation and believable social context to explain why people do what they do.
Sorry, that was a bit soap-boxy.
Let’s get to it. The first half an hour of this second part was given over to the trial, and to Romaine Heilger’s testimony. I wrote last night that she was being presented to us as a baddie, someone to be sneered at, for whatever reason. We now saw her practice her lines in her bedroom, almost sneering and smiling and licking her lips as she spoke her rehearsed words. She was looking forward to damning her partner with false testimony; or perhaps she was preparing to utter true words to send down a cheating partner. No matter. Her approach on the stand worked a treat and it looked for all the world that she would get her wish – the case was slipping away from Mayhew and his QC, Sir Charles Carter (David Haig on excellent form). They needed something drastically, and it came in the form of an anonymous note delivered in the alleyway shadows by a disfigured Christine Moffat – the lead dancer Romaine suddenly usurped at the theatre. Moffat contended that Romaine had thrown boiling water and sugar into her face, ending her career as a dancer. As part of her revenge she told Mayhew that she had followed Romaine to a hotel, where she saw her engage in several trysts with her own, absconded lover. She had also gotten hold of some letters in which Romaine professed her love for this man.
Moffat made Mayhew promise that he would give her £100 for her trouble. He swore on the memory of his son.
Armed with this new information, Carter took Romaine apart in the courtroom, blowing her testimony out of the water and discrediting her in the process. Andrea Riseborough’s performance during this little scene was incredible: she went from calm, to shaken, to calm, to rageful, saying, “You men,” under her breath as she was led away from the stand to shouting and spitting, “YOU FUCKING MEN! YOU FUCKING MEN!” into the face of Mayhew before she was escorted away. Carter, in retort, blustered: “Leonard Vole has been imprisoned, he has been beaten, his name, his reputation traduced. Every calumny of the state the law visited upon him… ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the greatest contumely Leonard Vole has endured is the monstrous, vicious, infinite, heinous perfidy of women.” Quite a speech, and quite the put down for women in a male-only world, because women can’t be trusted and are inherently evil, right? That’s what the used to think back then and that’s what some people think now. It was playing with the concept of the femme fatale, twisting it, subverting it and laying it bare.
The ‘infinite perfidy of women’ continued when Mayhew went to see Romaine in her cell to crow a little. She looked at him with disdain and then suddenly hissed at him like a coiled serpent. Wow. What an actress Riseborough is, and I loved this moment.
As the case against Leonard Vole collapsed, so did Mayhew’s health. When he woke up, the dark, sickly London was replaced by a bright, white hospital room. He had been out for the count for four days with bronchitis. A visiting Leonard told him he was going to move aborad, and that’s when the alarm bells started to ring – why so quick to leave the country? I wasn’t buying his excuse (I can’t stay here in that house). He asked Mayhew if it was a good idea to set up a fund for McIntyre, but he didn’t think so – Mayhew was convinced she had killed her mistress and wanted to see her hang for the crime. And when he was recovered and left hospital, with colour in his cheeks and a clean-shaven, healthy face, he made sure she paid for the crime he was convinced she committed. By that time Janet McIntyre’s mental state was shot when she was shown to the hangman’s noose, while Mayhew had garnered a reputation and success – he had not only got a surefire guilty man off the hook, but helped to find the real murderer. Flushed with this success, he took his wife away for a well-earned seaside break.
He had fixed everything. He had saved the young man from the same fate as his son, and he had saved, or so he thought, his marriage. He had fixed things. He was beginning to feel again.
But there was still time for a twist in the tale.
While feeling the sea air in his newly-healed lungs and the warm sand between his toes, he saw Leonard Vole climb out of a car, with what looked like a bride. He decided to surprise his old friend by taking a bottle of champagne up to his hotel room, where he found not only Vole but also his bride… Romaine Heilger.
The twist in the tale, although not one from outer space (I had kind of guessed it when Vole said he was going abroad). Mayhew felt a rush of feelings: shock, embarrassment, nausea. The crushing realisation that he had been chosen because he was malleable and broken, and the realisation that had been indirectly complicit in not only their game but sending an innocent woman to hang hit him hard. They had staged it all. Romaine had even dressed up as Christine Moffat in the alleyway. They had played it perfectly – they had played HIM perfectly – and now they were together with pots of money. The perfect crime.
But there was still more to come. An understandably distraught Mayhew went back to his hotel room and, desperate for love and validation or something, anything, tried to make love to his wife, Alice. Alice, on the other hand, was having none of it, and it developed into a difficult-to-watch struggle, his advances turning into an attempted rape. Despite all the twists and reveals, this was the most shocking scene in the whole story for me. It wasn’t gratuitous, nor did it feel bolted on – it was shocking because rape, in such a believable, non-pornographic portrayal IS supremely shocking. That it came from a place of pain and rage and guilt and self-hatred made it even more difficult to watch.
The struggle ended with a heartbreaking confession from Alice – she blamed John for coming back from the war alive, and blamed him for taking her son from her. It was HIS idea that they enlist together and it was HIS fault that he died. She told him that she was happy to cook and look after him and perform wifely duties, but she felt no love for him anymore. For John, his life was over and he strode into the ocean.
I’ve written a lot of words about this drama – much more than a normal review – because I felt it deserved to be written about. Heck, there is SO much to talk ponder and think about: the nature of servitude and duty, the role of women in post-war society, what war does to people… the list goes on. It was intensely moving, with characters of such depth and believable flaws that they broke your heart. They were damaged, all of them, by the War. The newly married Voles had their morals twisted by killing and carnage to the extent that they were content to do whatever it took to enjoy a life they thought they were entitled to after all their struggles. John Mayhew was the same, but in a different way. He was crushed by grief and guilt, and he desperately sought love and forgiveness. Alice struggled to give him those things because she, too, had been broken.
For many, this was (Obi Wan voice) not the Agatha Christie adaptation they had been looking for. Yes, there was a murder and a whodunit to solve, but this was so much more than a whodunit – it was a perfectly drawn, astonishingly played adult drama. Unlike And Then There Were None, this wasn’t escapism and didn’t have that same lightness of touch or tempo – this was heavy (in the best possible sense), thoughtful drama, whose exploration of the human condition was given equal weight to the crime. This is how I want my crime dramas to be like.
I’m really not bothered that this was based on a 20-page short story (I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere), or which ending was used or whether it was embellished or changed, or whether it was in the ‘spirit of Christie’. Some people will think that the human drama overshadowed the crime element. All I know is that it really moved me, and its portrayal of traumatised people was something special and planet-explodingly powerful. Do let me know what you thought in the comments.
Same again next year, Sarah Phelps?
For our episode one review, go here