The Witness for the Prosecution was an Agatha Christie short story, originally published in 1925. Like many of her short stories it was written for magazine publication, only appearing some years later in book form (The Hound of Death, 1933). Christie was never averse to reusing plots from her short stories and several ideas were later expanded into novels, but Christie elected to turn The Witness for the Prosecution into a stage-play, which debuted in 1953.
Although The Mousetrap is a theatre institution (running for sixty years and more), for me Witness for the Prosecution was Christie’s best play. She expanded the fairly thin material very nicely, creating the central character of Sir Wilfred Robarts for example. In 1957, the Billy Wilder film, starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power, hit the cinema screens and is for many the definitive version.
Sarah Phelps’ Christmas 2016 adaptation carried with it a certain weight of expectation then, partly because her work on And Then There Were None in 2015 had been so well received but also because the Wilder film remains popular with Christie aficionados. Sadly, Phelps’ Witness is much more of a curate’s egg than And Then There Was None was.
It’s interesting that Phelps went back to Christie’s original story, rather than the play. As the 1925 tale is rather brief and only features scanty characterisation, a large part of the teleplay had to be newly crafted by Phelps. So whilst the Queen of Crime’s voice can be heard, it’s only very faintly.
And the foggy yellow filter on the camera was an interesting visual choice I could have done without …
But on the positive side, the core cast were impressive. Toby Jones as Mayhew, a somewhat insignificant character at first glance, was faithful to the source material (albeit with a whole backstory created for him). The character of Leonard Vole is key and Billy Howle was suitably bewildered and endearing (the story only works if the audience immediately identifies with Vole and takes his side).
Emily French received something of a drastic makeover (a nice old lady in the Wilder film, a man-eating vamp here) but Kim Cattrall was entertaining enough and Annette Riseborough hit most of the right notes as Romaine Heilger. This is by far the hardest role to play in the piece (previous actresses to tackle the part include Dietrech in Wilder’s film and Diana Rigg in the 1982 tv movie remake).
Julian Jarrold’s direction boasted some impressive sequences, none more so than the quick cut in episode one when Emily French’s dead body is revealed. The traumatised visage of her maid and the way that her cat steps through the puddles of blood are both striking touches, and this section makes up for some of the more stodgy fare we see later.
Had it been a ninety minute one-off, it might have worked better, at two hours it rather outstays its welcome. The Witness for the Prosecution is not without merit, but my preferred viewing option remains the 1957 Wilder film (certainly worth a look if you’ve never seen it).
The disc contains several featurettes, the most substantial being From Page to Screen (running just under 25 minutes). This is of particular interest due to the way it highlights the differing expectations that may exist between a section of the audience (the Christie die-hards who know the original well) and the adapter, Sarah Phelps. Phelps discusses how she enjoyed the process of extrapolating character development from throwaway comments contained within Christie’s story, although I’m sure that some will regard Phelps’ additions with a slightly jaundiced eye.
If Witness was a tad disappointing, then we’re on firmer ground with 2015’s And Then There Were None. Originally published in 1939, Christie’s novel spawned several film adaptations, whilst she herself turned it into a successful stage play.
Eight people are invited to an isolated island by the mysterious Mr and Mrs Owen. When they arrive, the place seems deserted apart from two servants, Thomas and Ethel Rogers. And then they start to die, one by one, until none are left ….
Starring Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Noah Taylor, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Aiden Turner, Miranda Richardson and Toby Stephens, And Then There Was None has an agreeable air of star quality. Unsurprisingly there are a number of deviations from the original, but what remains is a much more faithful Christie experience than Witness was.
The most eye-opening change must be Detective Sergeant Blore’s (Gorman) crime. Here, he’s alleged to have beaten up a homosexual suspect to death, in the book he’s accused of perjury.
The ending is of particular interest. When Christie turned the novel into a play, she changed the denouement (which for me made the piece less effective). Phelps doesn’t attempt to mirror the book’s conclusion, which is probably the right move, although what she leaves us with – something of a mash-up between the book and play – works very well.
And Then There None contains a substantial making-of featurette, running to just under 42 minutes, which features interviews with all the main cast as well as key behind-the-camera personnel.
Sarah Phelps is now working on an adaptation of Christie’s 1958 novel Ordeal by Innocence, which seems to suggest that the BBC are keen to have “A Christie for Christmas” each year. Hopefully this next one will lean more towards And Then There Were None than The Witness for the Prosecution.
Two by Christie: The Witness for the Prosecution/And Then There Were None was released by Acorn/RLJ on the 9th of January 2017. RRP £29.99. Both titles are also available separately.