Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? review: A witty delight
Brendon Connelly | On 17, Apr 2022
The series makes its ITV debut at 9pm on Sunday 9th April, with all episodes available on ITVX at once.
Although a healthy majority of Agatha Christie’s mystery plots revolve around her superstar creations Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, there are several other sleuths in her gallery of ingenious investigators. Several of these, for whatever reasons, only appeared once. Many of these minor players aren’t especially likely to be missed for long, not when another visit to St Mary Mead might be on the cards instead, but it’s a genuine disappointment that the modest vicar’s son Bobby Jones and curious, vivacious Lady Frankie Derwent were never seen again after Christie’s 1934 novel, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
This regret is only reinforced by Hugh Laurie’s witty new adaptation, and by the time his final episode reaches its multi-levelled conclusion, delivered with a suitably celebratory bow on top, viewers will feel both satisfied by a story that has been thoroughly told and also ready for a whole, continuing series of Bobby and Frankie capers.
But let’s go back to the beginning, if not even further, because a Whodunit poses its first dramatic questions while its cover is still closed; the genre itself forms the most tried and tested query in all of literature. Then, in this case, there’s also the title, which is at once an explicit question and, more importantly, an enigma made of implicit unknowns. Who is Evans? Who are They? What exactly needed Asking? Not a single frame has to come down the cable before this show has baited its hook with intrigue.
The questions only multiply as the story gets going. Bobby Jones (Will Poulter) is caddying for his friend, Dr Thomas (this season’s murder mystery MVP, Conleth Hill), on a cliffside golf course in Wales when he spots a man lying broken on the rocks far below. Bobby scrambles down to the dying man’s side, barely in time to hear the story’s perplexing title spoken as the man’s last words. A quick look inside the man’s pockets reveals a photograph of a young woman and a leaky fountain pen. Neither Christie nor Laurie misses a trick here and the sequence is absolutely loaded with character, atmosphere and ambiguous clues. Nothing here will go to waste.
But left to his own devices, it’s not likely that Bobby would dive into this puzzling plot with both feet. It’s only what happens next that turns this mystery into a detective story. In a smart, tight streamlining of Christie’s sequence of events, Bobby is reunited with childhood friend Lady Francis “Frankie” Derwent (Lucy Boynton), and she’s the one who kickstarts the amateur investigation. Where Poulter’s Bobby is solid and grounded, Boynton’s Frankie is a fresh zephyr. There’s an immediate chemistry between the pair and their relationship will go on to captivate just as much as the mystery in hand.
After their initial inquiries spotlight some key suspects, the second act becomes a sneaky plot, in which Bobby and Frankie contrive a fake car crash so that she is able to infiltrate a country house and look for clues. This is where the tension ratchets up considerably – it is, to all intents, a behind-enemy-lines mission – but it’s also the most fun section of the story, with Frankie at her pluckiest and most intrepid. She also gets to be her best in other ways, especially how she perceives and relates to the terrible situation of lady of the house, Sylvia Bassington-ffrench (Amy Nuttall).
Laurie has said that he fell in love with Frankie when he first read the book and he now seems intent in passing along this passion to his viewers. There hasn’t been a new TV heroine quite this captivating for a little while now and countless small embellishments in the adaptation work with Boynton’s exuberance and open-heartedness to ensure the character is outrageous fun.
Beneath the surface, viewers will also find several of Christie’s regular themes. This caper stands quite far away from the catastrophe and heartbreak of the First World War, but the shadows of history are always long and dark, and they fall on these characters in some more subtle ways. The machinery of class and the patriarchy aren’t explicitly attacked in the text, but the plot revolves around the turning of their cogs and, if you were to pull the machine apart, both Christie and Laurie’s points of view would be visible. Indeed – and not to spoil anything – important clues and red herrings both pivot on these central themes.
There’s less of a divide between showing and telling in a novel than there is in a TV series – consider the trickery required to successfully adapt Christie’s own The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for example – and some of the core conceits in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? work in a very different way in prose than they do in moving images. Laurie rises to the occasion, however, and there’s one bit of sneaky, purely cinematic/televisual magic that raises an eyebrow without necessarily giving away too much; what seems like a wild bit of character work, or maybe an oddball gag, also works to set up some crucial misdirection.
On the downside, there is some key information in the third episode that is delivered in a less “dramatised” way, with characters (well, Frankie, mainly) needing to explain a few of the things they have puzzled out. It’s pretty typical for a TV murder mystery to lean on this kind of verbal exposition in the later, explanatory sections, but after so much of Evans has been immediate, drawing a lot more on “show” storytelling than “tell”, this gear change isn’t entirely invisible. It also hurts a little to have Frankie all-but sidelined and for Bobby to make only a low-key contribution in one of the story’s climactic suspense sequences.
Things might have been that bit smoother if Laurie had another 10 or 15 minutes to pace things out. The third episode is really quite packed – there’s even what plays like a new and complete locked room murder puzzle, set up and wrapped up all within the space of a few minutes – and it would have been lovely to have more space. The briskness is sometimes an asset, mind you – witness the electrifying elegance of a poisoning plot both attempted and foiled in barely seconds.
Back in 2009, the National Theatre of Brent’s Patrick Barlow, who is one of many welcome cameo players here, adapted Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? as an episode of ITV’s Marple series. If that’s possible, then perhaps the flow can be reversed and Laurie might be convinced to take another of Christie’s mysteries and adapt it as a new adventure for Bobby and Frankie. Perhaps a little work would make them great stand-ins for Lady Bundle Brent and Bill Eversleigh. Or maybe it’s time to see what Laurie would do when sending these characters on an original escapade of his own concoction.
In any case, Poulter and Boynton are likely to make a lot of new fans here, as well as delighting the admirers they already have. They might even have the stuff to attract fresh readers to Agatha Christie, highlighting the vibrant colours that shine beyond overly-familiar village spinsters and “little grey cells” to prove just how bright, young and spirited her exciting, innovative thrillers can be.