The last time we saw Christie on television, the brilliant Sarah Phelps reworked five of her novels to dazzling effect. Darker, meatier, more grisly and, arguably, more interesting than the cosy crime Christie has become synonymous with, they were nonetheless met with criticism in some quarters.
So this adaptation of one of her lesser-known – and, at least, less celebrated- novels will have the diehard Christieites breathing a huge sigh of relief.
A passion project of Hugh Laurie no less, this good-looking, three-part series is now streaming on Britbox and is bejewelled with not only the magnificent Laurie himself but also the likes of Paul Whitehouse, Conleth Hill, Amy Nutall, Miles Jupp, Emma Thompson and Jim Broadbent.
If that’s not enough to tune in, it also transports us back to the relative cosiness and the amateur sleuthing that has endeared Christie fans to the ITV Marple and Poirot series. There are no liberties taken, no fathomed backstories, and no dark interpretations – this is Christie for the Christie hardcore massive.
As ever with this iteration of Christie, we’re transported back to a rural 1930s England full of fabulous fashion, quaint villages, warm, frothy beer and Lagondas careering around pre-war bucolia.
The action is set a Welsh coastal town, and the story begins when local, butter-wouldn’t-melt vicar’s son and heartthrob Bobby Jones (Will Poulter) – caddying for the local doctor on a gold course – hears a commotion and goes to investigate. He finds a man who has fallen from the cliffs onto the beach below, and clambering down, finds him – naturally – at death’s door. His last words… a question: “Why didn’t they ask Evans?”
This trauma coincides with the return of breezy childhood friend Lady Frances Derwent (all berets, high-waisted trousers and posho attitude and played to perfection by Lucy Boynton), who may or may not be in love with young Bobby dazzler. Still, they have some catching up to do, and the frisson is very obviously still present between them, despite Frankie being away in London and cementing herself in the capital’s circle of bright young things.
What’s bringing them back together is this mystery – who was this dashed chap that snuffed it on the rocks and what in blazes does “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” mean. Frankie, displaying the kind of insouciance and boredom only socialites can, senses an opportunity for adventure, and despite the slightly star cross’d nature of their relationship, Bobby – fuelled by redoubtable morality – decides to go along for the ride.
However, they are not the only ones interested in the death of Alan Carstairs – a cartoonish but deadly villain (dressed wraith-like all in black and wearing a bowler hat) is stalking Bobby in the village and causing some havoc.
Soon, Bobby and Frankie are off on their adventure (like Tommy and Tuppance elsewhere in the Christie oeuvre) – first to London, and then on to Hampshire – to hunt for Roger Bassington-ffrench, a man Bobby encountered at the scene of Carstairs’ death. To infiltrate his posh family home – a very dysfunctional place it has to be said – they have to concoct a fiendish plan.
And so the story continues, encompassing some shady characters from a nearby mental sanitorium and, of course, plenty of Christie’s patented red herrings. At the heart of it all is a rather convoluted story, but you know that watching and enjoying an Agatha Christie is not just about the story – it’s about the journey, it’s about the guessing game and it’s about the presentation of suspects and reveal of the perpetrator.
And this story is quite well told. Laurie – who adapted it himself – is obviously in his element here (he’s already appeared in Jeeves and Wooster from the same period, lest we forget) and has a nice feel for the phrasing and vernacular of the time (although it’s not too ‘gosh, jolly hockey sticks’). He also imbues it with the dry, witty humour he’s become known and loved for (there are very nice gags in among the mystery). And when it comes to direction, he shows a bit of flair and some interesting and confident flourishes.
But Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? isn’t one of Christie’s least lauded books for a reason – yes, there’s everything you want from a Christie story, and Laurie manages to ask some questions about class and class division in society (as well as a sweary, tonal shift for a great a Daily Mail joke and dig), but the whole thing could do with a bit more pep. In fact, I’d go so far to say that this story could – and perhaps should – have been told in a feature-length special. It also noticeably skips a few things too, leaves a few ends untied and the denouement is a little bit messy.
However, one thing that Why Didn’t Ask Alice Evans? has going for it is Lucy Boyton as Frankie – the absolute epitome of a young Christie heroine. Boynton is full of vim, vigour and irressistible energy. If she isn’t a star already – we only saw her recently in ITV’s The Ipcress File – she certainly will be very soon. A great talent.
For Christie diehards, this is the adaptation they would have been waiting for. Laurie has an obvious love for the period and the material, and it’s a fun, watchable, and, well, traditional Christie exprience.
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? streams in the UK and US on Britbox