Who knew January was the rainy season in London? Every day since Christmas, London has been bathed in a miasma of mist, gloom and sleet: perfect weather for a hanging at Holloway. Speaking of capital punishment, did I tell you I’ve been called for jury service at the Old Bailey towards the end of February? I’d only been saying last year to a dear friend of mine called to be one of twelve good men and true that I’d never been asked.
Cases at the Bailey do tend to be exceptional and I have to say I am rather looking forward to being a juror at such a historic London landmark. Ruth Ellis was convicted of murder at the Old Bailey as was Dr Crippen, the Yorkshire Ripper and Ronnie Kray who complained to the judge that he should have been taking tea with Judy Garland (?!) The traitorous Lord Haw-Haw – a Brit who recorded Nazi propaganda on the radio – was convicted at the Bailey while Liberal Party head Jeremy Thorpe was acquitted of plotting to murder his gay lover.
So I do have high hopes for the cases I might be asked to hear presuming there is no reason I am deemed inadmissible as a juror. My experiences of the Old Bailey extend only to Jarndyce & Jaundice in Dickens’s Bleak House, Marlene and Charles Laughton in Dame Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution and Rumpole of the Bailey. Crime is so terribly fascinating, don’t you find?
There’s a jolly good reason why murder sells literature. I did find it amusing when the Parisian procuress Madame Claude was eulogised late last year. The lady had famously said, ‘only two things sell: Sex and food. I cannot cook’. I would add crime to Madame Claude’s list. Forget writing about Savile Row suits, what the people want is murder: the bluer the better.
Apropos blue murder, my champion hands down on Christmas telly was the BBC adaptation of Dame Agatha’s most popular novel And Then There Were None. The story is perhaps Dame Agatha’s most complex plot: ten people with no ostensible connection are invited to a house party on a bleak island by a mysterious host and hostess. At dinner on the first night, a vinyl record is played accusing each of murder.
One by one, the accused are killed following the lines of a ditty first titled Ten Little Niggers, then Ten Little Indians and – as of 2015 - Ten Little Soldiers. It becomes clear that one of the guests is the avenging host and the stranded house party descends into paranoia and abject terror. The BBC adaptation was already controversial before the first of three episodes was aired. Some bright spark leaked details of certain updates written by Sarah Phelps that might not be to Dame Agatha’s taste.
Well, I have to say the casting and production values of this last of many adaptions made the 2015 And Then There Were None one of the most thrilling interpretations of Dame Agatha’s most celebrated book. The anchor for the entire three-parter was Maeve Dermody playing dour school mistress Vera Claythorne. Dour she might have appeared but Dermody found a dozen gear shifts in her performance that led to a horrifying denouement about her alleged part in a child murder.
I couldn’t help but think about Emily Blunt watching Maeve Dermody showing such incredibly sensitive acting chops. Much has been made of Aiden Turner’s topless turn as mercenary Philip Lombard but, frankly, the topless scene was his least sensual moment in the series. Turner’s character is an amoral, predatory beast and I for one believed every second of his performance.
Every secluded, murderous house party needs creepy servants and Anna Maxwell Martin as the shady, shaky Ethel Rogers was in perfect harmony with her Struwwelpeter of a husband Thomas as played by Noah Taylor. I like a pretty boy actor who can play nasty and Douglas Booth did not disappoint as playboy Philip Lombard who allegedly mowed down two children in his sports car.
I interviewed Tony Stephens a year or so back and fell for his dedication to character. As the neurotic, drunk surgeon Dr Armstrong, Stephens excelled. His shakes, chain-smoking, alcoholism, misanthropy and hideous temper was all too true. Why Miranda Richardson isn’t up there with Meryl Streep as a screen actress is beyond me. In And Then There Were None, she plays a bigoted, pious spinster called Miss Brent and was utterly fearless in allowing the character to be as unpleasant as Christie wrote her.
The contentious scene in the adaptation was set-up when Booth’s playboy is seen snorting cocaine before his untimely death. As half the house party are slaughtered, the remaining victims-in-waiting enjoy a coke and alcohol fuelled dinner followed by mad dancing and love making. Christie purists thought this was taking license too far. I disagree. If you’re being hunted by someone who might be present in the room that night, what else would you do as a sensible human being but drink, dance and let it all go?
I was grateful that Burn Gorman’s character the seedy detective sergeant Blore was one of the last to go because his performance – and that quivering little pencil moustache – was the making of And Then There Were None. But the acting laurels go, as they always do, to the reptilian, hood-eyed Charles Dance as Judge Justice Lawrence Wargrave. Dance is a thoroughbred. He appears to do very little but actually commands every scene that he appears in. Mr Dance is a star.