Thursday, 25 August 2016

Memo to TV drama commissioners - Agatha Christie is not the only Golden Age crime novellist

The BBC has announced plans to film a total of eight Agatha Christie novels over the next four years. It follows their rather good adaptation of And Then There Were None shown last Christmas. I have no objection to TV versions of British Golden Age crime novels; they usually make for better viewing than modern "cosy crime" dramas such as Midsomer Murders and Sky's Agatha Raisin, and they're far more enjoyable than the likes of Grantchester, George Gently or Ripper Street, wholly modern confections in which the past is viewed through Guardian Goggles, and found severely wanting due to its humungous levels of racism, homophobia, misogyny, Christianity, xenophobia, capitalism and inequality. But why do broadcasters almost invariably choose Agatha Christie? The 1920s and 1930s earned the reputation as The Golden Age of Crime Fiction because there was so much of it - and because so much of it was first-rate. For instance...

...there's The Red House Mystery (1925) by A.A. Milne - yes, that A.A. Milne. A rich man is visited at his country house by his black sheep brother who's been in Australia for 15 years. A shot rings out. The ne'er-do-well brother is found in the library with a bullet through his bonce, but his sibling is nowhere to be found. As I read it last night for the first time, I kept thinking what a cracking television drama it would make - even though it was one of those rare crime novels where I managed to figure out the main plot device well before the end. The amateur sleuths are two chums in their mid-twenties, one of whom could easily be turned into girl.

What about Mystery in White (1937), by the splendidly-named J. Jefferson Farjeon? A train gets stuck in the snow in the middle of the country on Christmas Eve. Some of the passengers, try to reach the next station on foot but end up at a farmhouse where the table is laid for tea and the kettle's boiling on the hob - but the house is empty. Some more passengers turn up there and report that someone has been murdered on the train - then someone is murdered in the farmhouse. Yikes! This was a surprise hit when it was reissued in paperback by British Library Crime Classics in 2014, and it's hard to imagine a better TV Christmas crime drama.

Then there are the three crime novels by Harriet Rutland - Knock, Murder, Knock! (1938), set in a sanatorium; Bleeding Hooks (1940), set in a hotel by a fishing lake; and Blue Murder (1942), about respectable folk getting bumped off in a Dingly-Dell English village. They are uniformly superb - witty, full of surprises, and more psychologically sophisticated than similar novels from that period.

While I personally find Edmund Crispin's foppish amateur sleuth, Gervase Fen (the Oxford Professor of English Literature, no less), a bit of a pain, amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways, created by left-wing poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis (writing as Nicholas Blake), would make an ideal TV detective. Thou Shell of Death (1936) - another Christmas houseparty number - The Beast Must Die (1938), and A Question of Proof (1935) would all work - but I'd particularly love to see an adaptation of Minute for Murder (1947), set in the fictional Ministry of Morale in London at the end of WWII.

Ethel Lina White's excellent The Wheel Spins (1936) was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes - the BBC did a TV adaptation in 2013 - while her Some Must Watch (1933) was filmed as The Spiral Staircase in 1946, with at least four TV versions since then. What about some of her other novels - starting with Fear Stalks the Village (1932)? I would have thought her feisty young heroines would appeal to modern sensibilities.

Given the TV success of Agatha Christie's Marple - and the fact that Julia Mackenzie isn't a patch on Geraldine McKewan or Joan Hickson in the role - why hasn't the BBC fought back by filming a series featuring Patricia Wentworth's retired governess/private detective Miss Silver? I've only read a handful of the 30+ novels featuring the character - but they weren't half bad, and, in many ways, she's a more convincing sleuth than Miss Marple.

I can understand British broadcasters' obsession with Agatha Christie. She's the biggest-selling novelist in history, and anything with her name on it will ensure foreign sales. But this safety-first policy doesn't always work. For instance, Partners in Crime, the BBC's six-part 2015 series featuring Christie's Tommy & Tuppence Beresford was an absolute stinker - David Walliams as Tommy was spectacularly awful - and it hasn't been recommissioned. So, given that the Christie brand doesn't automatically ensure success - and given that there's still a market for Golden Age crime stories on television - why not give some other writers from that era a try?


  1. You remember that house on Maid's Causeway.
    I went there once in 1972 when the owner's granny was there.
    She was a tiny white-haired forgettable lady who must have weighed approximately nothing.
    She lived until 1999, when she died at the age of 101.
    She published her first academic papers on genetics in 1915.
    Her memorialists have given up trying to count her newspaper articles.
    They can count the books, though – 70, or possibly 90.
    She was a socialist.
    She was a Christian.
    She was an aristocrat.
    She did science fiction.
    She wrote about and practised and encouraged feminism.
    Her book on rape and abortion in the USSR was turned down by Victor Gollancz in 1935 who also, if I remember rightly, turned down Orwell for fear of upsetting Russia and the left.
    What more do the TV drama commissioners want? (Many books still in print.)

    1. I'd never heard of her - sounds an impressive woman, and some of the contemporary reviews of her historical fiction and science fiction novels (she wrote her first SF novel in her 60s) on Amazon suggests she was a genuinely talented writer.

      Victor Gollancz's daughter Livia turned me down for the role of publicity manager once. She started the interview by handing me a book they were soon to publish on abortion and asked me how to handle it. "With tongs" was the phrase that came into my head, but I couldn't think of anything sensible to suggest - apart from "send it out to reviewers and radio and television programme editors with a covering letter, as per usual". I mean, what did she want - a prize draw? A "tell us why you think abortion is fun in 25 words or less" competition? When I told her I'd just arranged an author tour for Harold Robbins and was about to do the same for Stephen King she looked at me as if I'd farted. As for Daddy, yes he rejected Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" before it was even written, for fear of upsetting his commie comrades.

  2. … no crime, I grant, but there's got to be a decade of scheduling there, easy.

  3. BBC Drama Commissioners only deal in certainties. When I read your post I thought of our pink-faced, Welsh friend Andrew Davies and wondered what he was up to after his ludicrous adaptation of the Tolstoy novel for the BBC.

    He is doing "Les Miserables". Just what the world needs - another popular production of this great novel. We have had the musical running for over 30-years and in 2013 we got the huge overblown musical film with a disoriented Russell Crowe. And there have been other film productions over the years. So it has been done to death, but the BBC is great at flogging dead horses.

    I hate to think how much of the Licence Fee that Davies has trousered in return for putting his usual prurient spin on great classic novels for the BBC.

    In November 2013 Penguin Classics published a new translation by Christine Donougher sensibly titled "The Wretched".It received excellent reviews. Why don't we just read that and put Davies out to pasture in some deep Welsh valley. Give us a break already!

    1. Here are some of those reviews for Christine Donougher's translation:

      "Donougher's translation is a magnificent achievement. It reads easily, sometimes racily, and Hugo's narrative power is never let down...[an] almost flawless translation, which brings the full flavour of one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century to new readers in the twenty-first."
      --William Doyle, "Times Literary Supplement"

      "The year's most interesting publication from Penguin Classics was actually""[...] a new translation by Christine Donougher of the novel we all know as "Les Miserables." You may think that 1,300 pages is a huge investment of time when the story is so familiar, but no adaptation can convey the addictive pleasure afforded by Victor Hugo's narrative voice: by turns chatty, crotchety, buoyant and savagely ironical, it's made to seem so contemporary and fresh in Donougher's rendering that the book has all the resonance of the most topical state-of-the-nation novel."

      "Christine Donougher's seamless and very modern translation of "Les Miserables" has an astonishing effect in that it reminds readers that Hugo was going further than any Dickensian lament about social conditions ... ["Les Mis"] touches the soul."
      --"Herald Scotland"

      And, just a few weeks ago, Christine - who, I'll admit, is a friend - won the French-American Foundation 2016 Translation Prize in Fiction and Nonfiction, which involved a $10,000 award courtesy of the Florence Gould Foundation.

  4. Are you sure it was Les Miserables? I thought I had read in the Guardian that Davies was working with Andrew Llord Webster on a musical version of Musil's 'A Man Without Qualities.

  5. I stand corrected, ex-KCS. I have never heard of Robert Musil. I have looked him up and I think you might have steered me in a very interesting direction for which my thanks. I think you will find Lloyd Webber currently stuck atop Notre Dame Cathedral where he is doing a stint as a live gargoyle. Like Biggins, a national treasure....

    1. My wife and son attended the musical adaptatiuon of the film "Groundhog Day" at the Old Vic last week, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It crossed me mind that someone should do a stage musical of Scorsese's frothy laugh-fest "Taxi Driver" and Bergman's heart-warming rom-com, "Hour of the Wolf".

    2. My understanding is that Davies took over the libretto after the resignation of Tim Rice whose lyrics for the opening number:
      'A man without qualities
      Life is full of jollities,
      Life and laughter
      Fun ever after.'...
      were not thought quite to capture the zeitgeist of the book or the essentially neutral character of Ulrich, the passively despondent mathematician at the centre of the action, or absence of it. Apparently even Davies has struggled to come up with a suitable rhyme for 'Moosbrugger', the song about the eponymous murderer who lifts the tone in book two. Neither seems able to reconcile the need for an uptempo song n'dance closing number with the fact that the book ended up unfinished 21 years after it was started.