I was in the happy position over Christmas, watching the amazing And Then There Were None on BBC TV, to be able to compare stage and TV versions of this classic Christie story. A group of ten strangers (each with a deadly and guilty secret in their past) find themselves cut off on an island, invited by the mysterious and apparently absent Mr U N Owen; they are then serially murdered, in the same sequence as in the nursery rhyme Ten Little Soldier Boys.
A group of us saw the Agatha Christie Theatre Company do this at Tunbridge Wells’ Assembly Hall in October, as part of their ten-months-long nationwide tour. (How well they must have known their words by the end!) The cast included some names familiar to those of us of, er, more mature years: Paul Nicholas (star of the 1980s sitcom Just Good Friends), Mark Wynter (‘60s pop star, with hits such as Venus in Blue Jeans), and Deborah Grant (John Nettles’ ex-wife way back in Bergerac), to name but three.
The stage version gave us atmosphere and a storm, and the sense of being trapped. Unlike a film it couldn’t show us close-ups of bodies on jagged rocks, or transport us in momentary flashback to the Western Front or the drowning of a boy. But it did have the excitement of live theatre. Our group had a happy outing; I couldn’t remember whodunit, and the ending surprised me just as it had when I’d seen a film version years before. (This may have been the 1974 one with Richard Attenborough, Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer et al – this story does seem to appeal to all-star casts).
One of the motifs of the story is that there is on display in the house a group of ten toy soldiers. After each death the remaining characters discover that one of these has disappeared. That is easily effected in a film, but how did it happen on stage? In the interval I asked a fellow member of the audience, and he told me he’d seen one of the actors (one who was killed shortly afterwards) surreptitiously put one in his pocket. Maybe whichever cast member was nearest the toys at the time had the job of secreting one.
In our family we’re still enthusing about the TV version, shown on Boxing Day and the two successive nights in one-hour chunks. Wow! The atmosphere, the tension, the menace – and the absence of the semi-humorous tone you often get in Christie films – more, more! One by one the cast are killed, and they know it and can see it coming, and they fear each other. No supersleuth is there to explain the complexities of what is happening and to unmask the villain. They just get killed, all ten …
I can see that some folk will have found too long the ominous pauses, but not us. To see Toby Stephens, Charles Dance, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson and the rest put on their turns was just right for the dark evenings after Christmas when the festive supplies of food and drink need to be finished off. I can’t see it myself, but the female half of our viewership were also much taken with Aidan Turner’s torso. Once displayed, why it then had to reappear quite so often I don’t know. Yes, you guessed it – this was the role Oliver Reed played in the 1974 film: I can’t remember whether he kept showing us his chest.
Knowing who did it didn’t spoil my pleasure – indeed, it was fascinating to see the story unfold with that knowledge. What was difficult was not letting anything slip that would give the game away to my fellow viewers. Reader, I managed it.
The Twittersphere raved about the production – and the aforesaid torso was the detail most mentioned in that raving.
My favourite tweet was “They’ve really upped the stakes in the latest series of Big Brother.”
I don’t know why the BBC changed the skeleton in the policeman’s cupboard. In the play (and, I think, the original book) he has been bribed and has committed perjury, resulting in an innocent man being hanged. On TV he has instead kicked a young gay man to death in a police cell. One can only speculate why this change was made.
Sometime I must read the novel to see how the Queen of Crime herself imagined the story. And to find out how it was that Mr U N Owen came to know all these terrible secrets.
I’ve heard it muttered somewhere that next year we may get Witness for the Prosecution (which I also saw the Agatha Christie Theatre Company do this at the Assembly Hall a few years ago). Bring it on!