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Adapting Agatha Christie's 'And Then There Were None' for BBC One

Sarah Phelps


Editor's Note: Writer Sarah Phelps spoke to the BBC's Media Centre ahead of the broadcast of her adaptation of Agatha Christie's most popular novel And Then There Were None (the best-selling crime novel of all time) beginning on Boxing Day at 9pm on BBC One. Read the interview below.

And Then There Were None: Philip Lombard (Aiden Turner), Thomas Rogers (Noah Taylor), Vera Claythorne (Maeve Dermody), AJ Marston (Douglas Booth), Dr Armstrong (Toby Stephens), Judge Wargrave (Charles Dance), William Blore (Burn Gorman), Emily Brent (Miranda Richardson), General Macarthur (Sam Neill), Ethel Rogers (Anna Maxwell Martin)( Image Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Des Willie)

Sarah Phelps had never read an Agatha Christie novel before And Then There Were None but admits she was totally shocked by it.

"I was shocked at how brutal it was. You can see it as a game; it’s a very, very clever plot. It’s a plot that you can tell someone delights in having pulled off, this extraordinary piece of sleight of hand conjuring, but within that when you read it as a novel – rather than read it as an escalating series of tricks – it’s rather extraordinary. I was really surprised and interested by the fact it was published in 1939 just as war was gathering in Europe. It seems to be one of those books really about the time it is set in; it tells you more about the world than it would do if it attempted to address the complexities of the world.”

And Then There Were None - Vera Claythorne (Maeve Dermody), Philip Lombard (Aiden Turner), Dr Armstrong (Toby Stephens), William Blore (Burn Gorman), Judge Wargrave (Charles Dance), General Macarthur (Sam Neill), Fred Narracott (Christopher Hatherall)(Photo Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky)

"Ten strangers on this island which is completely cut off by the sea – they can see the mainland but can’t reach it, they can’t see any signs of human civilisation and it feels like the end of the world in this house that is so luxurious but actually corrupt and decadent. Within all the objects are the means of their own deaths, murders.”

She continues: "They are all products of the First World War – barely 20 years beforehand – on the edge of the world, as in fact Europe is also. It felt like it really told you something about that particular period, that fissure of time that I found so remorseless. There was no redemption. Within the Marple and Poirot stories somebody is there to unravel the mystery, and that gives you a sense of safety and security, of predicting what is going to happen next. Somebody is going to be brought into the light as being a perpetrator of a crime; someone is going to be brought to justice. In this book that doesn’t happen – no one is going to come to save you, absolutely nobody is coming to help or rescue or interpret. There is someone in charge, and that person is malign. It felt brutal and thrilling because of it."

And Then There Were None - Ethel Rogers (Anna Maxwell Martin)(Photo Credit:BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky)

Sarah's scripts are full of fascinating detail. She explains: "I have to be able to see the world they’re in and to absolutely know what it looks like and what’s on the walls and what the colours of the walls are and where the light falls... That’s as important as dialogue – the house and the island are characters and the space that any drama takes place in is a character in itself. Otherwise it’s just a blank featureless landscape through which people move, and then their actions within it are meaningless because you haven’t given any time as to what they can see, what the weather’s doing, what the terrain is like, where the light source comes from - that is all really important to me. Building up the whole picture, otherwise it feels empty, it has to feel rooted and rich and textured."

And Then There Were None - Vera Claythorne (Maeve Dermody), Philip Lombard (Aiden Turner)(Photo Credit:BBC/Mammoth Screen/Des Willie)

Sarah hopes her adaptation will introduce a new audience to an extraordinary story. "As always when you take a hugely popular classic and go to work on it, some people might be furious – and that’s happened occasionally with my other adaptations of Dickens – but I hope what it does is make people sit up and realise this is an extraordinary story. It’s not just a piece of clever plotting or trickery, it is a really profoundly disturbing and anguishing psychological thriller because what it is really is the forensic nature of guilt. It really is about the times; 10 people on an island all of whom have done a terrible deed. Being forced to account for their crimes as the world stands on the brink of war, being forced to account for the things that went before. It reminds you what an extraordinary mind Agatha Christie had. I found it shocking at how cold it was – the brutal nature of justice. Justice is coming, and justice will be served and it was painful."

And Then There Were None - Emily Brent (Miranda Richardson)(Photo Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Des Willie)

And Then There Were None has never been made for British TV until now. 

"I never knew that! I know people who devoutly watch pre-existing films and TV versions before they do their adaptations, but I don’t touch it with a bargepole. I can’t, otherwise I’m adapting someone else’s version and what’s the point in that? At the heart of the book is the author so sometimes you think that might not be true to the letter of the novel, but it is true to the spirit. The good thing is Mathew Prichard (Agatha Christie’s grandson) said when the first drafts came in ‘She’d have liked this’ – so that’s alright! It’s all about remembering that there’s this fierce intelligence behind the books and it all comes from a singular imagination.”

"It’s a terrifying book and basically spawns a whole style of entertainment – this house in the woods where people start dying. It’s a narrative model that’s behind pretty much all ‘Slasher’ films for example; somebody among us is a lunatic but we all look pretty normal. How well do you know the person next to you? It's fascinating."

Photo Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky

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