And Then There Were None
Adapted by Sarah Phelps for the BBC
First shown 27 December 2015
We open, again, with Vera. As the cold draws in on the island, we see her by another beach, playing with her lover Hugo and a little boy. The story of Then verses Now is told entirely through the colours of each.
Watching Wallander, Vera, Luther or any other deliberately nihilistic series, it can be difficult to care about the characters. When every day is shot in cold greys, browns, or muddy greens, we know that every day in their world contains the same gloom, so why care? Similarly, in Poirot, Midsummer Murders or Marple, everything is bright or shot in pastels, so you never really feel any sense of threat. And Then There Were None makes us feel the terror of the central characters because we know what they have lost, we have a sense of the world they have been taken away from and consequently the horror they are dealing with now.
It can’t be a coincidence that, once inside the house, the decorations are Nouveau moving towards modern and, other than Mrs Roger’s glasses, nobody is dressed in a way that would look out of place on a modern high street. Unlike in Christie’s original, characters take drugs, have (extra-marital) sex. Some are gay. “Shit the bed,” mutters Blore. We see, through Mrs Rogers, that being working class in this age was tough. We see, through Vera, that being a woman was tough. Flashback-Hugh and flashback-Cyril are dressed in standard Christie get-up and pipe away in RP, seconds away from shouting ‘crumbs’, but in the house, we see characters with concerns and values similar to our own. And so we emphasise with them far more.
This has good points and bad points.
Lily James, before playing Natasha Rostova in War and Peace, pointed out that from a 21st century perspective it is difficult to understand a relationship, much less an engagement, where neither party would see or be in contact with the other for months on end, possibly after only having met a few weeks previously. Values change. Would Hugo and Vera really have slept together before marriage, much less outdoors?! Probably not: but showing this on screen does make their relationship into one that is familiar to the audience. All we need to take away from this is that there was a significant relationship in Vera’s past, and precisely how this is shown doesn’t really impact on the main plot.
The Lombard / Vera flirtation is rather more difficult to justify. The taking cocaine makes sense: the theme of Christie is that people are the same, throughout time, everywhere – it fits with the theme of the original. However, with four survivors left, two going into a room with each other…it means that they have decided to trust each other. That is unsubtle.
Talking of unsubtle, we come to Blore. Whilst it is amusing to have him be wearing a woman’s sunhat and cosying up to Armstrong when Lombard and Vera are dancing, the character as written in the script veers too close to parody. Unlike with the scripted Emily Brent, where the character arc at least makes logical sense, it is difficult to see exactly what about his repressed sexuality made him want to beat an innocent teenager to a pulp.
The saving grace is Burn Gorman. We see Blore, in flashback, sitting in a cell with an almost offensively effete young man. Blore, the friendly neighbourhood bobby, tells the lad off and says not to do it again, because “it’s no fun for you lot in the nick”. His soon-to-be victim, who is all leg, ears, and looks all of about sixteen, is frozen in relieved shock before he says “thank you”. We’re in the flashback world of Christie-land sterotypes, and everything is going to be okay.
And then Blore’s hand slams into the boy’s chest, and he looks him in the eye and hisses
“That is what I should have done. That is what I should have done.”
Then he looks around, and closes the door of the cell, shutting out the camera, which sees no more. Shortly afterwards, he dies and, thanks to Burn Gorman, chills go up the spine.
And then, with only Lombard and Vera left, they go down to the beach and discover Armstrong’s body. Logically, this makes one of them the murderer.
It really is a pity that the adaptation succumbed to the convention of forcing a romance between Lombard and Vera. In the book, their lines after the discovery of Armstrong’s body make clear that they know that they are the only two left on the island. They know that everyone else is dead. They both think the other is the murderer – but they both know that it is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be said outright. Their spoken lines are ambiguous, and Vera gets her shot in first.
But the way it’s played on screen – unavoidably to a degree, because printed lines can be read a number of ways but spoken lines only one – is that Vera, having gone to pieces entirely, waves the gun at Lombard because she thinks he might have done it. Lombard holds his nerve and thinks that something else is going on and is trying to reason with Vera. Vera, who by now doesn’t know what to believe or which way is up, shoots once as a warning, almost by accident. Horrified by what she has done, she then fires again. Lombard dies a hero, and we feel sorry for the emotional wreck that is Vera: it makes both characters too sympathetic at this stage in the game.
Interestingly, out of all the inhabitants of the island, only Lombard and Wargrave accept their true nature as amoral psycopaths. Lombard doesn’t care if he kills someone for his own gain, but there is an honest humanity to him that the other characters lack. There is genuine compassion in his lines when he looks down at Blore’s body – impossible to imagine from Vera or Armstrong, who only care about themselves. This compassion to someone not in his way is entirely believable. Trying to reason with someone who logic dictates is the murderess? Less believable. And he dies.
And then Vera returns to the house, to be met by…Wargrave. Even knowing the outcome, this is still shocking.
The clinical dispassion of Wargrave in the book turns far nastier here. They show Vera, desperately, pleading for her life. The writers are trying the same trick as they did with Vera and Lombard on the beach as somehow, despite everything, the audience are still hoping that someone will get out alive.
“Stands the church clock at ten to three?
And is there arsenic still for tea?”
What makes And Then There Were None interesting is the darkness, the fact that everything is not okay in the end. Unlike the rest of the works of Christie, it’s a forerunner of nihilistic crime – the stories where there is no detective to arrive on the scene and make everything okay. People do not die cleanly, but are raped, beaten, trussed up in body bags or, like Blore’s victim, beaten to a bloody pulp before our eyes. The genius of the adaption is to show the world of traditional Christie through Vera’s flashbacks, the sunlight, sparkly sunglasses, bright red lipstick, contrasting always to the torture the characters are undergoing on the island.
And, unlike the type of Christie that rests on the same-ness of human nature, despite the common values that the adaption forces on them, all of the characters in And Then There Were None are products of their time. Lombard murdered 21 men and got away with it because they were not white. Blore is repressed, Lombard a sexist. Vera kills because there is no other way to be with the person she loves.
And this is just the murderers. Emily Brent’s maid dies because she was poor, powerless, cast out by society. General MacArthur’s wife: be left on the shelf, a social outcast, or marry a dull old man she did not love. Blore’s victim is killed because he was gay. Wargrave hangs men and women because he can. Mrs Rogers is forced by her husband to abet murder. Dr Armstrong’s victim dies because a nurse cannot contradict a doctor.
Again and again the point is hammered home: if you were working class, female, gay in 1920s England it was a bloody raw deal.
If every Christie were like And Then There Were None then Christie would not be an ensuring success nowadays. It would not be escapism, just raw reality. The story is unlike anything else that Christie ever wrote, barring the less than successful Endless Night, and that is a good thing.
What makes And Then There Were None different to modern viewers is not the darkness of the story: we’re all used to gore and horror. Instead, the chill comes from the bloody, visceral terror seeping in to a setting that we know as safe. It’s like seeing torture and rape in an episode of Midsommer Murders.
And it works.