Nothing says Christmas like a bit of murder – and nothing says murder on the telly like Agatha Christie. But this is 2015 and Christie’s heyday has long gone. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple have been adapted to death, masterfully so. Now, we look to Scandinavia for our serial killers. Gone are the cosy country houses of old. In their place, snowy landscapes, bloody warehouses and woolly jumpers. Luckily, the BBC got the memo: this new take on And Then There None is blacker than Sarah Lund’s boot polish.
The set up is the same – 10 strangers summoned to a remote mansion, where they are swiftly bumped off, one by one – but the presentation is gorgeously sinister, steeped in class. That partly stems from our ensemble of well-off guests, led by Douglas Booth’s deliciously loathsome playboy. They’re a typical bunch of stock types, each hiding their own secrets. Toby Stephens’ Doctor Armstrong has a temper as big as his moustache, Charles Dance’s retired judge is frail, but still cold and merciless, Sam Neill’s General MacArthur is burdened by war and Burn Gorman’s DS William Blore is as spooked by the social strata surrounding him as he is by the mounting body count.
Each member of the cast wrings every last drop of blood from their part – helped out by the gruesome work of the make-up team. The opening episode, as they trade blunt retorts and observations over a sparkling dinner table, oozes with tension, not least because of Noah Taylor and Anna Maxwell Martin looming in the background as servants who are not as timid as we are led to believe. (Anna’s Ethel, in particular, is a brilliant blend of thin-lipped menace and sheepish obedience.)
Our gateway into the whole affair is Maeve Dermody’s Vera Claythorne, troubled by her failings as a former nanny yet capable of being glamorous and terrified all at once. She’s matched every step of the way by Aidan Turner, who swaggers his way through the building as Philip Lombard, a threatening soldier with a brutal past. With his parted hair and tux, you’d be forgiven for mistaking him for a young Timothy Dalton on his way to a 007 audition; And Then There Were None is to Aidan Turner what Layer Cake was to Daniel Craig.
But if the presence of swearing, drug-snorting, three-dimensional humans is a surprise, it’s the people behind the camera who make this mini-series really stand out. Sarah Phelps, who penned the Beeb’s moody interpretation of Great Expectations in 2011, brings out a welcome darkness in Christie’s original story. Together with the direction of Craig Viveiros (a Silent Witness veteran who’s shot more than his fair share of corpses), this is less murder mystery and more haunted house: characters aren’t just battling mental demons, but are also followed by physical phantoms that come to life from their flashbacks. And so, in between the killings, figures move from tables, hands come out from sinks and children run through lightning-lit halls. It’s a rare achievement: Christie’s crime thriller has been turned into a bleak psychological horror. Poirot and Marple look like Trumpton compared to this.
“Perhaps we’re dead already. We’re in hell and we’re being punished for what we done,” muses Burn Gorman. Surrounded by the stormy Devon coast, the home lit up against the stormy sky, you actually believe him. That eerie atmosphere lingers all the way up to the finale, accompanied by Stuart Earl’s ominous music and acted with steely conviction. “I have a strong suspicion our hosts are inclined to whimsy,” observes Lombard, after noticing the infamous “10 Little Soldiers” poem on the door of each room. Whimsy, we soon realise, is one thing that isn’t on the menu. Dear old Agatha has never felt more modern.
And Then There Were None is available on BBC iPlayer until 25th January 2016.