The world’s bestselling crime novel has never been adapted for television. Why not? And why now?
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is, by some estimates, the sixth bestselling book of all time. It has sold more than 100 million copies, which makes it by far the most popular crime novel ever written, (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes next, trailing by a mere 70 million.) Every year And Then There Were None sells more than 100,000 copies in the US alone. You’ve probably read it yourself.
Yet Christie’s most popular, and arguably her best book, has somehow never made it to the small screen. Until now: if you’ve seen the trailers – the lingering shots of Poldark’s Aidan Turner with short hair or Charles Dance looking sly and lizard-like – you’ll know that this canonical oversight is about to be remedied. This Christmas, finally, And Then There Were None is coming to television. Sarah Phelps (The Casual Vacancy) has written a three-part adaptation of the story of the ten strangers invited to an island by absent hosts, who find themselves unable to leave and then start being killed off one by one in an art deco danse macabre. With Burn Gorman, Douglas Booth, Miranda Richardson, Sam Neill and Toby Stephens among the cast it’s being marketed as a highlight of the Christmas schedules, a classic for the ages. The question is, why have we had to wait so long?
The story of why the seminal Agatha Christie has never been adapted for a medium that is obsessed with Agatha Christie is in part a very unintriguing tale of no one knowing quite who had the rights.
“It’s a very, very old estate,” says Hilary Strong, now the CEO of Agatha Christie Productions. “The paperwork was lost in history and there was a lack of clarity over where the rights sat – it’s not cheap to try and retrieve rights that are that old.”
When Agatha Christie Productions was formed in 2012, part of Strong’s remit was to sit down with Matthew Pritchard, Christie’s grandson, and come up with a list of titles they would like to see made, then get the lawyers to make sure they actually owned them. And Then There Were None was top of the list.
Yet And Then There Were None, while hugely popular, has always been difficult. Released in 1939 its original title was Ten Little Niggers, a line taken from the blackface song that is central to the plot, (each of the characters is murdered in accordance with a line from the lyrics – “One choked his little self and then there were nine,” and so on). In the US the title was deemed racially offensive from the outset and so the book was called ‘And Then There Were None’, the final line of the song, from its first edition in 1940. In the UK it continued to be called Ten Little Niggers right up until 1985. The confusion over the small screen rights coupled with the controversial title meant it was unlikely to be high on any broadcaster’s wishlist.
By 1985, in any case, Agatha Christie on television had come to mean Miss Marple and then, beginning four years later and continuing for 24 years, David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. The tone had been set – to the TV audience Agatha Christie meant a twinkly-eyed spinster or a punctilious Belgian in a penguin suit. Each murder was less a tragedy, more a starting point for a puzzle. Death in Christie-land meant a comforting jaunt on a Sunday night.
But now that all of the Poirot and Marple stories have been done, and with the birth of the new company controlling Christie’s rights, Christie is being rebranded for a new generation
“Christie was an incredibly contemporary woman. I think we forget this,” says Hilary Strong. “We see the older woman, we see her as she was, we see period. But one of my favourite facts about Christie was that she was the first western woman known to have surfed! Her husband left her with a child. She was a single mother who wrote to sustain herself and her daughter – she was the JK Rowling of the 1920s and 30s: a very, very modern woman.”
Strong is hopeful that And Then There Were None will be the first of a new series of ‘Christies at Christmas’ on TV, but the plans to market Christie to millennials don’t end there. Mr Quin, a drama in an app starring Game of Thrones’ Gethin Anthony as one of Christie’s lesser-known characters, launched last month. Strong and Prtichard want a returning series in the UK (though it won’t be this year’s Partners in Crime, which has been axed), a network series in the US and a feature film franchise. A new film of Murder on the Orient Express was duly announced late last month, with Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as Poirot. What’s notable about all of the above is that they are all a world away from twee twinsets and twiddly moustaches. Our tastes in crime drama have changed since the golden age of Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh: new Christie is going to be a much darker affair.
They don’t come much darker than And Then There Were None. When she was asked about adapting the novel Sarah Phelps, who cut her teeth on EastEnders and whose scripts generally contain some contemporary bite, was unsure.
“I’d never read any Agatha Christie before. Not a word. I knew about Marple and Poirot on the telly – they’re entertaining – and the films are great, high camp and glamorous and witty. So I thought the book would be fun and intriguing and intricate but ultimately it would feel, to sound quite insulting, quite cosy and safe. When I read it I was profoundly shocked – it’s savage. It is brutal. It was not what I expected at all.”
And Then There Were None is in some ways an case of Christie testing her own ingenuity. In writing the book she set a puzzle for herself: the police arrive at an island with ten dead people on it. How could it have happened? She dispenses with a detective to guide the reader through the investigation; indeed, it is not always clear who or what is being investigated.
“The thing that I loved is that absolutely nobody is going to come and make sense of it or save the day,” says Phelps. “Reading it felt really unnerving, like you were standing on shifting ground.”
There is no protagonist or hero; the characters are soon revealed to be all as shady and compromised as each other.
“They seem to be pretty ordinary people but then stone by stone they’re turned over and you start to see the rottenness lying underneath,” says Charles Dance, who plays Justice Wargrave, an ailing judge.
Unlike some of the Poirot or Marple tales, And Then There Were None is also a document of its time. It was both written and then quickly published in 1939, and it is set in that summer. War is coming, and it adds to the sense of isolation a pall of grim foreboding.
“Ten people on an island where they can’t really see the mainland – they are at the end of the world,” says Phelps. “All of them with these terrible tangled histories; all of them products of the First World War and all that carnage. And coming towards them is something absolutely remorseless and absolutely terrifying. It felt like the book embodied the mindset of that time as well.”
Yet putting a group of archetypes in a bubble and then watching them turn on each other is also a distinctly modern trope. It’s the basis of most reality television – it chimes perfectly with what the younger generation have grown up thinking of as entertainment.
“It’s the Big Brother house with scarily higher stakes,” says Miranda Richardson, who plays religious zealot Emily Brent. “It’s the paranoia of being watched – is it somebody in the room or somebody external who’s doing the watching? The level of mistrust is built and built. People start being very violent and nasty and showing their true colours.”
“What I hope,” says Phelps, “is that people will go, ‘Bloody hell! Agatha Christie? That isn’t what I thought she was about.’ There’s a steel-trap mind working there. It looks like it is fun to read but there’s a kind of moral inquiry going on at the centre of it that is very disquieting.”
First published in The Sunday Times Culture