It must be 30 years since I saw Billy Wilder’s movie version of Witness for the Prosecution, with Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich. Many of the details are now vague, but the main twist isn’t one you forget. So the new BBC adaptation suffered from a lack of surprise in that particular respect. In most other ways, though, it was pretty startling. In particular by being so harsh.
Nobody cares about the fucking maid.
Period thriller trappings and cosy Agatha Christie branding notwithstanding, this was brutal, unforgiving stuff. Its dismal nicotine-stained world of post-slaughter generational despair, the sneering prurient hypocrisy of the courtroom, oozing and dripping with malevolent righteousness, the frumpy innocent punished while the beautiful guilty frolic. In such a place, in such a time, having witnessed up close the most massive betrayal imaginable of the ostensible values of ostensible civilisation, why wouldn’t someone plot and scheme to get rich from one or two more local terrible acts? And why shouldn’t he or she live as happily ever after as those who organised that larger, more fruitless catastrophe?
You men. You fucking men.
Adaptrix Sarah Phelps, also responsible for last year’s steely And Then There Were None, has argued repeatedly that Dame Agatha was a gimlet-eyed radical, surgically dissecting social mores and hypocrisy under the cloak of middlebrow pulp. Which wasn’t really my impression when I read a few of her books many years ago, but maybe that was me. Maybe it was sampling error — Christie is another of those authors who churned out so many boatloads of popular fiction that it would be easy to pick half a dozen misrepresentative examples. Or maybe the hard edge Phelps currently champions is actually her own invention imposed on the soft clay of Christie’s easy reading schlock.
Who knows? More importantly, given how searingly well it works, who cares?
Suffice to say that if next Christmas brings a Phelps-scripted version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or Death on the Nile, or even notorious West End squatter The Mousetrap, I’ll be watching.