And Then There Were None was commissioned by Ben Stephenson and Charlotte Moore for the BBC to mark the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth. The adaptation was produced by Mammoth Screen in partnership with Agatha Christie Productions.
Writer Sarah Phelps told the BBC that she was shocked by the starkness and brutality of the novel. Comparing the novel to Christie's other work, she stated, "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... 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".
Filming began in July 2015. Cornwall was used for many of the harbour and beach scenes, including Holywell Bay, Kynance Cove, and Mullion Cove. Harefield House in Hillingdon, outside London, served as the location for the island mansion. Production designer Sophie Beccher decorated the house in the style of 1930s designers like Syrie Maugham and Elsie de Wolfe. Railway scenes were filmed at the South Devon Railway between Totnes and Buckfastleigh.
And Then There Were None was a ratings success for the BBC, with the first episode netting over 6 million viewers and becoming the second most watched programme on Boxing Day. Each of the two subsequent episodes netted over 5 million viewers.
Despite criticism ahead of the programme's launch from the Daily Mail that the production deviated from Agatha Christie's source material, And Then There Were None received critical acclaim. Ben Dowell of the Radio Times gave a positive review. Jasper Reese for The Daily Telegraph gave the first episode 4 out of 5 stars, calling it a "pitch-black psychological thriller as teasing murder mystery" and "spiffingly watchable". Reviewing the first episode, UK daily newspaper The Guardian's Sam Wollaston noted, "[…] it also manages to be loyal, not just in plot but in spirit as well. I think the queen of crime would approve. I certainly do. Mass murder rarely gets as fun as this." Reviewing the final episode for The Daily Telegraph, Tim Martin also gave it 4 out of 5 stars, calling it a "class act", and praising the adaptation for highlighting the darkness of Christie's novel, which he noted no previous adaptation had attempted.
1 "Episode 1" Craig Viveiros Sarah Phelps 26 December 2015
In August 1939, seven strangers are invited to a weekend house party on Soldier Island by the anonymous Mr. & Mrs. U.N. Owen, along with domestic staff, Mr. & Mrs. Rogers, and Vera Claythorne, who has been offered a secretarial post. There is no host to greet them but Rogers is instructed to play a record, which names them all as being responsible for a death for which they were not caught and punished. There is the children's rhyme Ten Little Soldiers in each room and ten miniature figures of soldiers on the dining room table. One of the guests is revealed to be an impostor but then another dies in the manner of the first little soldier and next day a second victim is claimed in the same way and two of the model soldiers have been removed.
2 "Episode 2" Craig Viveiros Sarah Phelps 27 December 2015
Two Jade figurines out of a set of ten found on the dining table are missing, arousing suspicion from the other eight that one of them is the murderer. They realise that whoever left the mysterious message intends to make good on their threat, according to the rules of the nursery rhyme Ten Little Soldiers. After three more deaths, and with three more figurines gone, the survivors band together to search all the rooms and belongings to unmask the killer and save themselves.
3 "Episode 3" Craig Viveiros Sarah Phelps 28 December 2015Five of the original ten are left. Following the death of another, the four left become hysterical, thinking of their fate, drinking and taking drugs. In the night, one escapes the house, leaving the other three to believe he is the killer. Two more figurines disappear. A body is found on the beach. The real truth of their crimes come to the fore as the eighth guest is found dead, and the final two turn on each other
BBC’s And Then There Were None puts a darker spin on Agatha Christie
Screenwriter Sarah Phelps on why her tougher take on murder works as festive fare – and how it differs from Midsomer Murders or Poirot
Sunday 13 December 2015 18.00 GMT
If you are expecting to settle down on the sofa to watch a cosy Agatha Christie whodunnit when And Then There Were None begins on BBC1 on Boxing Day, then think again. As Sarah Phelps, who has adapted the gripping novel about justice, points out, “this book is genuinely terrifying ... nobody is coming to save you ... no dapper Belgian detective, no twinkly-eyed and steely spinster is going to arrive and unravel it.”
While the cast, which includes Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Charles Dance and Aidan Turner, might lull viewers into thinking this is just another star-studded murder mystery, Phelps says they should be prepared for something much darker “that gets that little vulnerable spot in your brain and goes ...” (she mimes turning something).
Although her scripts contain humour, she says the book, which she had not read before, “profoundly shocked” her and is more “terrifying and brutal” than she expected. It is “searing” in the same way as Scandinavian dramas such as The Killing and The Bridge are, in contrast to other dramas that use death as an entertaining plot device.
Phelps, who previously wrote the celebrated 2011 adaptation of Great Expectations starring Douglas Booth, Ray Winstone and Gillian Anderson for the BBC, explains: “Whenever we think of Murder She Wrote, Midsomer Murders, Poirot, Marple, [it’s] murder as entertainment – teatime entertainment – isn’t that weird?
“Those shows are kind of ‘Argh, I’ve been killed with a letter opener to the eye’, it’s [about] the unravelling of the plot and the life is irrelevant. In this book you take all that, murder as entertainment, and you turn it on its head [and say] ‘this is an abomination, this is the wrath of God’.”
She continues: “What this does, and the Scandi dramas do, is they go, ‘This is what murder is. Murder is an absolutely horrific crime. You have taken a life.’”
The plot of And Then There Were None (slight spoiler alert) revolves around 10 people invited to an island off the south coast of England by a mysterious host just before the outbreak of the second world war. While cut off by bad weather they are reminded of murderous sins they have committed and carefully killed off one by one in the style of the American poem Ten Little Indians.
Phelps, who translated JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy to the small screen last year and is currently distilling her detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, sees parallels in Christie’s most popular novel with dark, remorseless plays such as Euripides’ Medea or Sophocles’ Electra – which she saw performed as part of a trilogy at Edinburgh more than 20 years ago.
“When I was writing I kept thinking of the Greeks, thinking of the remorselessness and the poem as actually a Greek chorus: ‘You’re not going anywhere, you’re pinned, you’re fixed, here is the eye of God, it doesn’t blink, look at you squirm.’ It’s terrifying.”
Merry Christmas viewers! “Exactly,” she laughs and mimics an announcer’s voice: “Anyway boys and girls, now it’s time for Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Enjoy! Just be glad you’re not them.”
“Marple and Poirot are giants of characters,” Phelps adds, “but I think this book has a worrying purity to it because of the beauty of the plot. And there’s a real dark, murky, curious, difficult undertone which just makes you think about what it means to take a life.
“At what point does judgment stop being dispassionate and start becoming psychotic? Does anybody really deserve this? Are we really this entertained by the concept of murder?
“There is something else ... the most forensic examination of guilt, transgression. It’s a portrait of a psychopath, even you might say a portrait of the writer as psychopath but that’s another meta-question.”
She was also aware of the timing of the story, written in 1939 “a few short weeks before war is declared” and that the characters “are products of the first world war, of that madness ... and the loss of status - the posturings of Empire are over and they are the last gasp of it.”
Although she changed how The Casual Vacancy ended, Phelps says it was important to stay faithful to Christie’s plot and “not do something like Big Brother”, keeping the author’s principle that death “had to mean something.”
“You have to be faithful to Christie because she’s making you think about really important moral points.”
With the support of Christie’s family there have been a few “tiny” changes, including how some of the characters die or their locations when murders occur.
She says she has “ramped up” some elements: “Everyone in the book is quite polite and clipped. They’re a whole lot less so in the adaptation because I kept thinking ‘what would you do if you were on an island and people kept dying?’. I think I’d be bouncing off the walls at some point.”
Phelps, who started out as a polo groom and worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company before joining EastEnders, was given a pretty free rein, although “at one point I had some pretty strong language in there and [was told] you’re not going to get away with a particular word which I thought would’ve been a brilliant payoff.”
She entertainingly recounts the subsequent exchange she had with an executive from the BBC who told her: “Sarah, we’re not having that.”
“‘Why not?’ I said. ‘It’s perfect for the character.’”
“He went: ‘You cannot have “cunt” in this.’”
“‘Why not? Of course you can, it’ll be brilliant for the character.’”
“‘Sarah, it’s Christmas. We’re not having “cunt” at Christmas.’”
“So I was like, ‘Yes all right, fair point’”.
The three-part drama, made by Poldark producer Mammoth Screen, marks the return of Turner to BBC1. Phelps worked with him briefly before on BBC3’s comedy drama Being Human. She says he was “lovely [and] fantastic” and was filming And Then There Were None in Cornwall just as Poldark (also filmed there) hit screens so “people would walk by restaurants and do a double take”.
Having not known much about Christie before, Phelps – who is also working on an original “kind of” period piece following the untimely demise of her first world war drama The Crimson Field – is set to adapt Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution for the BBC.
So hold onto your Santa hats: And Then There Were None could be the start of more risque Christies at Christmas.
And Then There Were None: BBC's new Agatha Christie adaptation would make the queen of crime proud
'It is a really profoundly disturbing and anguishing psychological thriller'
Gerard Gilbert @GerardVGilbert Sunday 20 December 2015
In a meticulously designed Art Deco drawing room, actors dressed in 1930s formal wear are standing around with cocktails to hand, discussing murder. Outwardly you couldn’t get much more Agatha Christie than this scene, but, as Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot both know, appearances can be deceptive, and BBC1’s new three-part adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None aims to hold its own with such dark contemporary crime dramas as Luther and The Bridge. But is rebooting the classic English murder mystery for the era of Scandinavian noir trying to square the circle?
You shouldn’t even try, according to an aghast Mail on Sunday, which recently asked of this new adaptation: “What HAS the BBC done to Agatha Christie?” It went on to warn that “Christmas viewers will be stunned by controversial new adaptation featuring drugs, gruesome violence and the F-word”.
“It doesn’t totally surprise me that the Mail says that, but I don’t agree,” says Agatha Christie’s great grandson, James Pritchard, chairman of the company that manages the author’s literary estate. “I think [the BBC version] is remarkably true to the work and whilst there may be elements of it that are interpretations or slight adaptations, I don’t think it strays very far from the original concept and mood.”
First published in November 1939 as Ten Little Niggers – the title swiftly made more palatable for its US publication – And Then There Were None is considered to be Christie’s masterpiece, and is the bestselling crime novel of all time. Sarah Phelps, who recently adapted J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy for the BBC, and who was commissioned to write this screenplay, was shocked by the book’s brutality.
“It is a really profoundly disturbing and anguishing psychological thriller,” she says. “I found it shocking at how cold it was – the brutal nature of justice. Justice is coming, and justice will be served and it will be painful.”
The story involves a group of 10 people lured to an island off the coast of Devon by a mysterious certain UN Owen, each of them harbouring a guilty secret. In the scene that I’m watching being filmed in a disused mansion on the outskirts of London, each of the invitees – having had their crimes detailed on a gramophone record – are busy declaring their innocence. It soon becomes clear, however, that they are going to be picked off one by one by an unknown assailant.
The Mail article attacks what it sees as “gruesome violence” and quotes an Agatha Christie expert, Dr John Curran, who says: “In a Christie novel, people died off stage. There is no description of graphic death”.
James Pritchard says: “Whilst with my great-grandmother most of the murders tended to happen off stage, you cannot get away from the fact that she killed a lot of people.”
Hilary Strong, CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, which began the process of repositioning the Christie television brand away from ITV’s “cosy” Miss Marples and Poirots with David Walliams’s Partners in Crime series, notes that the novel And Then There Were None was written just before the Second World War, while Christie adapted it for the stage in 1945.
“The play was written just after the war and the theatre came back to her and said we can’t cope with the ending,” says Strong. “People had just had enough of brutality.”
The cast of the new BBC production includes Charles Dance, Toby Stephens, Miranda Richardson, Anna Maxwell-Martin, Sam Neill, Australian newcomer Maeve Dermody and man of the moment, Poldark’s Aidan Turner, who plays Philip Lombard, a mercenary who has been accused off gunning down 21 innocent tribesmen in Africa.
“Coming from someone like Ross Poldark to Philip Lombard is like going to play the other side of the character spectrum,” he says. “It was a nice change to play somebody who doesn’t really care about anyone but himself.”
And it’s a nice change for Turner to use his natural Irish accent – “Just to add to the ambiguity,” he says. “He enters the house and is the only one carrying a pistol, and as Sarah Phelps said, there’s nothing more frightening than an Irish guy in 1939 with a gun.”
Except perhaps a German with a gun. Sam Neill, who plays General MacArthur, a retired First World War hero guilty of sending his late wife’s lover to his certain death, agrees: “This book is set on the cusp of the Second World War, and that must have been very much on Agatha Christie’s mind,” he says. “It takes a darker turn that you might normally expect,” he says, a sentiment echoed by other cast members.
Charles Dance, who plays retired Justice Wargrave (“he was not a merciful judge”) hasn’t read the book and doesn’t intend to. “I don’t if I’m working on an adaptation,” he says. “In her script Sarah has assembled a group of characters that are all completely three-dimensional, and that’s rare in crime genres. The whole thing is really rather beautifully rounded. Christie keeps you guessing until the last possible moment.”
‘And Then There Were None’ begins on Boxing Day on BBC1 at 9pm