Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The latest BBC Agatha Christie adaptation, "Ordeal by Innocence" turned out to be an "Ordeal by Incoherence"

Viewers have apparently been demanding that the BBC follows the modern media trend by making all three episodes of Ordeal By Innocence available right now. God alone knows why: I watched the first one, and it was a a real shocker, but for all the wrong reasons. Here are ten to be getting on with:

1. There's an adult character, supposedly adopted as a child, who speaks and acts like a Cockney gangster, despite having been brought up in a mega-posh family. I haven't read the book, so this may  or may not be in it - but it was confusing...

2. Horribly distracting,  jumpy, pretentious, show-offy, "clever" direction (slow motion, rapid cutting, weird close-ups, juddery camera etc.) which does nothing to advance our understanding of what's happening, but which constantly draws our attention to the astonishing genius of the director - which is presumably its primary purpose.

3. The first episode wasn't so much a "whodunnit" as a "whothehellisthisoneagain". At the end of the programme, I still had no idea who half the characters were supposed to be, or what their relationship to each other was.

4. I doubt whether even a wheelchair-bound diner in a respectable restaurant in the '50s would have been allowed to piss into a bottle during the course of a meal before handing it to the waiter for disposal. Ludicrous.

5. There should be a limit to the number of times images of the original crime should be used. This is a horrible modern device which rapidly becomes wearing. This is the equivalent of Hollywood action movies in which the "money shot" - usually an explosion - is shown in slow motion, several times, from slightly different angles

6. Given the amount of money lavished on the original production - let alone the extra £2 million spent on 12 days of reshooting after the BBC panicked and decided to replace an actor against whom there had been allegations of sexual assault - it's hard to understand why so many of the female characters' clothes fit so astonishingly badly (or why the overtly "sexy" second-wife-to-be's slinky walk makes her look like she's simultaneously suffering from lower-back pain and the urgent need to pee).

7. It's hard to care what will - or has - happened, because there isn't a single likeable character in the whole piece. The dead woman was evidently a sadist, the son who died in prison after being found guilty of her murder was obviously a psychopath, and every other member of the household is either obnoxious or creepy or both. And when a chap turns up claiming to be able to furnish an alibi for the dead son, he's more emotionally unhinged than the rest of the cast put together.

8. I've never understood Bill Nighy's appeal. I think he's a second-rate, mannered actor who simply never becomes the character he's playing.

9. Right from the start, everything is so emotionally charged, the "threatening atmosphere" controls are set so impossibly high , and the family is so bloody weird and dysfunctional, it's hard to see how it can build to a satisfying climax.

10. For this sort of drama to work, chaos is unleashed on a seemingly well-ordered universe by the commission of a crime - or series of crimes: a decent, cool-headed, clear-eyed hero or heroine enters the scene whose role is to restore order by identifying and neutralising the agent of chaos.

Another possible explanation of why this is such a bad adaptation could be that the scriptwriter, Sarah Phelps, appears to have no interest in - or knowledge of - the genre. This, from the Telegraph:
The screenwriter responsible for tonight’s BBC One drama, Ordeal by Innocence, has confessed that she has never seen a Christie film or television series, and would rather watch an episode of Masterchef...
Asked if she had deliberately avoided writing a “traditional” Christie adaptation, Phelps said: “I have no idea what the stereotype of Christie would have been, because I’ve never watched one.
I wouldn’t sit down and go, ‘Tell you what, let’s watch a bit of Christie.’ I would never do that. I’d probably watch Masterchef or Nigella or something way before I’d watch that.
“They didn’t interest me.”
Yes, dear - that's obvious.

I presume the reason for redoing Agatha Christie books that have already been adapted for TV (ITV did Ordeal By Innocence as a Miss Marple story as recently as 2007) is that the author's name guarantees foreign sales. But it does seem a pity to keep returning to the same well when there are dozens of other Golden Age crime novels that would be perfect for television. What about Patricia Wentworth's excellent Miss Silver series? John Dickson Carr is largely forgotten these days, but at least five of his locked-room mysteries are worth adapting for the screen - and, while most of his books are set in Britain, he was an American, so it shouldn't be too difficult to sell the programmes to the States. Not only that, but if you're looking for emotionally febrile characters and a menacing atmosphere, Carr's your man. There's Oxford professor of English Michael Innes's thoroughly enjoyable (and literate) Inspector Appleby series. or Nicholas Blake's novels featuring the private detective Nigel Strangeways (Blake was in reality poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who was a leftie, so the BBC should love him!). What about Jefferson Farjeon (I would love to see an adaptation of Mystery in White: A Christmas Story), Cyril Hare, Georgette Heyer (she wrote crime novels as well), Anthony Berkeley, Michael Gilbert, Harriet Rutland (only three novels to her name, but all brilliant), Josephine Tey (the best writer of the lot), Christianna Brand... I mean, how many more do you need? And I haven't even mentioned those other Crime Queens whose work has been turned into television series in the past - Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers.

But, no, it's always - and forever - Agatha Christie. Still, Ordeal By Innocence seems to be popular, so who am I to complain? I'll simply content myself with the Alibi channel's repeats of Ngaio Marsh's The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, made by the BBC in the early '90s. Bit slow, bit stiff, bit formulaic - but at least I know who everyone is and what the hell's going on, everyone's clothes fit, the actors know how to talk proper, political correctness hasn't been invented, and it doesn't feature diners pissing into bottles in restaurants. Bliss!


  1. I feel your pain. I recorded it and the first sense of foreboding for what was to come was the requirement to enter the child protection pass code. For Agatha Christie? The next was the sequence in which the blood spilling from the corpse was immediately followed by a shot of blood dripping from a fish in the kitchen and then sauce oozing from a particularly threatening raspberry pudding. (Yes, we get the point.)

    I was beginning to wonder whether the director had taken inspiration from Monty Python's version of Sam Peckinpah's Salad Days, a theory made more plausible when one of the characters said "We'll have tea on the lawn, Kirsten.". But the stylised direction and the incessantly minatory "no major chords please" score suggested that it was more likely he had been sent off with a few Coen brothers DVDs to see what he could pick up.

    When all of the characters, script and direction are so one-dimensional it's difficult not to feel some sympathy for the actors. That said, Bill Nighy's vocal range seems to have narrowed to the same 2/3rds of an octave favoured by Beth Rigby. On a brighter note, at least the commercial breaks don't feature adverts for Stenna Stairlifts, unlike re-runs of Inspector Morse, so they obviously know their audience. And who are we to disagree with the Guardian"s five star review?

  2. It's the adverts encouraging we oldsters to take out a payment plan to cover our own funeral costs that really get on my nerves - I've heard of ambulance chasing, but this is coffin chasing.

    I think one problem with the style of productions such as "Ordeal By Innocence" is that the makers seem determined to apply the conventions of the modern serial-killer TV crime drama - which are closer to those of traditional horror fiction - to a different genre. I expect that, by the end of "Ordeal by Innocence", we'll have been treated to someone tied to a chair being horribly (and graphically) tortured in an otherwise empty room in a derelict building, while surrounded by strips of plastic sheeting, with dripping water (whose source will not be identified) creating puddles on a discoloured cement floor. I doubt if it's what fans of traditional detective fiction want, but it's what modern TV audiences have grown accustomed to.

  3. You may be right. It didn't quite get into Narcos territory in tonight's episode but who knows. After another hour of unleavened misery and unpleasantness tonight anything could happen next week. I've noticed that not one character has yet smiled, even allowing for that constipated rictus grimace that Bill Nighy adopts occasionally when he wants to show off the full range of his thespian gifts.