Agatha Christie's Marple: Endless Night, ITV
Superior, suspenseful Christie, now with added Marple
by David Benedict
Monday, 30 December 2013 / http://www.theartsdesk.com/tv/agatha-christies-marple-endless-night-itv
“Her most devastating surprise ever.” Thus spake The Guardian, a quote happily slapped across the cover of the first paperback edition of Agatha Christie’s 1967 thriller Endless Night. While I wouldn’t go quite that far – that honour goes to her still startling, genre-busting The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) – it’s a compelling little chiller. Small wonder that ITV wanted it for their franchise. Just one tiny problem: it’s a crime novel without a detective. Step forward screenwriter Kevin Elyot who, like an invisible mender, has satisfyingly woven Julia McKenzie’s Miss Marple into Christie’s dark tale.
In her most Ruth Rendell or Barbara Vine-like book, Christie created not a whodunnit but a suspenser, the story of chancer and chauffeur Michael who meets and marries heiress Ellie and builds his dream house. The site overlooks miles of uninterrupted countryside but carries a mysterious local curse.
Like the BBC’s Eighties Miss Marple with Joan Hickson, the best of these adaptations work because the productions don’t condescend to the material. And unlike the later Poirot episodes where art direction appeared to be valued over action, director David Moore never lets period clothes, cars and locations stall the momentum of his slow-burn drama. With its doom-laden, William Blake-derived title, plus its class conflicts, gypsy warnings, twisty deceits and of course deaths, there was more enough in the book to inspire a film version in 1972 featuring a torrid score complete with fashionable Moog synthesiser by Hitchcock’s favourite composer Bernard Herrmann. It was a dud not least because of leaden filmmaking and performances from Hywel Bennett, Hayley Mills and Britt Ekland. Mercifully, their work is trounced by this altogether stronger and subtler cast led by Tom Hughes, Joanna Vanderham and Birgitte Hjort Sørenson of Borgen fame
The rhythm is dictated by the continual use of Michael’s voiceover. It’s a device routinely regarded as the refuge of the dramatically inept, but with the entire original novel written in Michael’s first-person narration it is, for once, entirely apposite. That’s particularly true because – major spoiler alert – his version of events is slowly revealed to be less than reliable, a cunning piece of misdirection
Aside from the necessary contrivance of McKenzie’s beady-eyed, effectively downplayed Miss Marple popping up in different countries and thus running into Michael before and during his honeymoon, Elyot’s reworking strengthens the structure. His arresting pre-credit sequence, deftly repositioned from very late in the novel, tightens the drama. It sets up the high-stakes tone and turns the novel’s wildly implausible architect character into someone interestingly linked to Michael.
The casting pays dividends, even in small roles like Michael’s plain, worn-out mother played by a game Tamzin Outhwaite who is both unrecognisably plain and quietly strong. Better still, Birgitte Hjort Sørenson is clearly having a ball as Ellie’s best friend Greta, a smouldering German temptress who gets in the way. Far from being attention-grabbing star-casting, she’s the real deal (see also, if you can, her performance as wife to Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse).
Barely off-screen throughout, gaunt Tom Hughes is the pivot of the entire story. Measured and softly spoken, he makes the ideal choice of being a wholly convincing liar, neither character nor actor overplaying his hand and thereby retaining the viewers’ fascination even after the twist is revealed when sympathy should be sacrificed.
The weakest element of the novel is the ending that unravels in the same way as the over-explanatory postlude to Psycho. While remaining true to Christie’s psychology, Elyot significantly increases tension by bringing Miss Marple in for the kill. This leads to a vivid sequence of climatic confrontations and character-driven pay-offs that improve upon the original. What more could you ask of an adaptation?
Endless Night is a crime fiction novel by Agatha Christie, first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 30 October 1967 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. The UK edition retailed at eighteen shillings (18/-) and the US edition at $4.95. It was one of her favourites of her own works and received some of the warmest critical notices of her career upon publication.
Ambitious young Michael Rogers – the narrator of the story – falls in love with Fenella "Ellie" Guteman the first time he sets eyes on her in the mysterious yet scenic 'Gipsy's Acre', complete with its sea-view and dark fir trees. Before long, he has both the land and the woman, but rumours are spreading of a curse hanging over the land. Not heeding the locals' warnings, the couple take up residence at 'Gipsy's Acre', leading to a devastating tragedy.
Literary significance and reception
The novel is dedicated: "whom I first heard the legend of Gipsy's Acre." Nora Prichard was the paternal grandmother of Mathew, Christie's only grandson. Gipsy's Acre was a field located on a Welsh moorland. The Times Literary Supplement of 16 November 1967 said, "It really is bold of Agatha Christie to write in the persona of a working-class boy who marries a poor little rich girl, but in a pleasantly gothic story of gypsy warnings she brings it all off, together with a nicely melodramatic final twist."
The Guardian carried a laudatory review in its issue of 10 November 1967 by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox) who said, "The old maestrina of the crime-novel (or whatever is the female of 'maestro') pulls yet another out of her inexhaustible bag with Endless Night, quite different in tone from her usual work. It is impossible to say much about the story without giving away vital secrets: sufficient to warn the reader that if he should think this is a romance he couldn't be more mistaken, and the crashing, not to say horrific suspense at the end is perhaps the most devastating that this surpriseful author has ever brought off."
Maurice Richardson in The Observer of 5 November 1967 began, "She changes her style again and makes a determined and quite suspenseful attempt to be with it." He finished, "I shan't give away who murders whom, but the suspense is kept up all the way and Miss Christie's new demi-tough, streamlined style really does come off. She'll be wearing black leather pants next, if she isn't already." The poet and novelist Stevie Smith chose the novel as one of her Books of the Year in the same newspaper's issue of 10 December 1967 when she said, "I mostly read Agatha Christie this year (and every year). I wish I could write more about what she does for one in the way of lifting the weight, and so on."
Robert Barnard: "The best of the late Christies, the plot a combination of patterns used in Ackroyd and Nile (note similarities in treatment of heiress/heroine's American lawyers in Nile and here, suggesting she had been rereading). The murder occurs very late, and thus the central section seems desultory, even novelettish (poor little rich girl, gypsy's curse, etc.). But all is justified by the conclusion. A splendid late flowering."