After And Then There Were None, the BBC brings us a new Agatha Christie adaptation for the holiday season.

 

Following the enthusiasm over their adaptation of And Then There Were None, this Christmas the BBC brought us The Witness For The Prosecution, an adaptation of a short story by Agatha Christie, broadcast in two episodes on the 26th and 27th December.

After the success of And Then There Were None, created for the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth, the BBC announced last August that it had signed a contract for a further seven adaptations of the Crime Queen’s stories over the next four years, including The A.B.C. Murders, Ordeal By Innocence, and the most recently unveiled The Witness For The Prosecution. Unlike its predecessor, which had three episodes, the second mini-series The Witness For The Prosecution was slightly shorter at two one-hour episodes.

Already adapted as a stage play in 1953, then into film by Billy Wilder in 1957, starring Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich, and following reports that a new film adaptation by Ben Affleck is in the pipeline, The Witness For The Prosecution managed to stay closer to Christie’s original story than its previous versions, and with an atmosphere that’s every bit as dark as that of And Then There Were None. It’s not your average Agatha Christie story, either – in this crime classic there’s no luxurious train among a snowstorm, no Nile river cruise and no know-it-all detective.

Set in 1923’s London, the story is that of rich widow Emily French (Kim Cattrall, Sex And The City) – or at least while she’s alive, as she is soon found murdered in her luxurious home. The main suspect is Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), her young lover to whom she left all of her fortune, accused by Emily’s maid Janet McIntyre (Monica Dolan, Appropriate Adult). With the evidence against Leonard mounting, the trial is nothing but a formality, but solicitor John Mayhew (Toby Jones, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is convinced of his client’s innocence and it’s up to him to defend Leonard against all odds. As it turns out, Leonard’s lucky strike will come in the form of Austrian chorus girl Romaine (Andrea Riseborough, Birdman), his wife.

The Witness For The Prosecution - Emily FrenchEmily French (Kim Cattrall) and her feline friend Mimi (Hudson)

Written by Sarah Phelps, who also gave us And Then There Were None in 2015, as well as new contributors – BAFTA Award-nominated director Julian Jarrold (The Crown, The Girl) and producer Colin Wratten (The Musketeers), this mini-series is definitely worth sitting down for. The cast is as strong as you’d expect, and the story purposefully focuses on the characters’ past stories rather than dwelling on courtroom verbal jousting.

Warning: spoilers ahead!

Despite her advanced age, Emily French has a habit of falling in love with younger men; when she meets Leonard Vole, he’s merely an insignificant waiter who has just lost his job. Of course, she immediately falls in love with him, to great displeasure of her loyal maid Janet, who believes she can see Leonard’s intentions very clearly, and as soon as her mistress is found murdered she doesn’t hesitate to point him out as guilty. It’s at this point that Mayhew enters the stage; he starts off by putting all his hopes in Romaine’s testimony, Leonard’s wife, to exonerate him, but rather unexpectedly the music hall singer incriminates him, becoming a witness for the prosecution. However, Mayhew presents evidence pertaining to an acquaintance of Romaine, in the form of a number of intimate letters. This renders Romaine an unreliable witness; as a result, Leonard is exonerated and can now enjoy his new fortune, giving Mayhew a substantial share to thank him. A few months later, the solicitor, while on holiday in France with his wife Alice (Hayley Carmichael) stumbles across Leonard…and Romaine. Was everything just a bluff?

The Witness For The ProsecutionEmily French (Kim Cattrall) and Leonard Vole (Billy Howle)

Contrary to what the title might suggest, The Witness For The Prosecution isn’t so much of a crime story, but more of a drama affecting real people – this much is made clear to us from the outset. At the beginning of both episodes, Leonard and Romaine are seen in a bunker during a World War I bombing. There’s nothing but rubble surrounding them and their weary looks tell us they’ve had to endure some pretty heavy stuff. Indeed, this very conflict is precisely the starting point of descent into the netherworld for most of the characters. Regardless of whether he was a war hero or not, Leonard takes on one miserable job after another, whereas Romaine is merely a figure in a dance number, and even when she does have the main role, still doesn’t seem satisfied. Little by little, we are taught that these war survivors haven’t forgotten it at all, and that they’ve lost all faith in humanity. Even when Mayhew figures out the couple, they display no guilt at all; as Leonard says: “Murder? Just one life after so many (…) We are what happens when you butcher the young, when you cheat us, you lie to us, you expect us to be grateful just for being alive” – a sentence that remains relevant even today. Indeed, what is a murder for this couple, after all they’ve endured? Without trying to excuse their behaviour, their reasoning does have a certain logic: disillusioned with the world, everything is now about the survival of the fittest.

The Witness For The Prosecution
Romaine Heilger/Vole (Andrea Riseborough)

In a way, Mayhew is their opposite. His biggest war-related drama was the loss of a son. For most of the show, we hear him cough, a result of the toxic gases used during WWI. It then comes as no surprise the energy he puts into defending young Leonard, like some kind of surrogate son in whom he refuses to see evil. Through this, we can better understand his vulnerability when he starts crying when he hears Romaine sing “Let me call you sweetheart”, symbolising some lost innocence, a blend of pure feelings that no longer have a place after the terrible trials he has experienced.

The Witness For The ProsecutionJohn Mayhew (Toby Jones)

If The Witness For The Prosecution makes quite an impact on its audience, this is largely due to its excellent mise-en-scène. Agatha Christie’s novel adaptations are in themselves so successful that they seem to transcend any particular genre. For instance, in And Then There Were None, the production was so gritty that we were constantly scared at the mere thought of one of the characters venturing alone into some dark corner of the secluded villa. Even when looking into their past, there was greater interest in the crimes they had committed than their states of mind, and the omnipresent atmospheric greyness was perfect in exposing the coldness of their hearts.

With The Witness For The Prosecution, we’re somewhere else. Much like the image of these disillusioned souls, the colours dominating London are tinted in yellow and green. Most of the scenes take place at night, making it easier to deceive the viewer, especially in the scene where Romaine, using make-up, disguises herself as someone else when she meets an unsuspecting Mayhew. The contrast is even greater during the final thirty minutes of the second episode. The solicitor has finally received adequate medical treatment for his cough, and he can now afford a beautiful holiday with his wife. From there onwards, everything is bright and we can breathe almost as clearly as he now does. However, it’d take a fool and a half to believe the Crime Queen would let everything end this well. Because of this, it’s precisely at this point, when everyone seems to have what they deserve, that the masks fall and hit us at full speed, making for a second consecutive year this BBC production a holiday must-see.

The Witness For The Prosecution

Now available on BBC iPlayer and on DVD.

2 thought on “A BBC Christmas Gift – The Witness For The Prosecution (TV Review)”
  1. Great review Rita. Beer’s Christie adaptions have been excellent of late.

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