Monday, 26 December 2016

The Witness for the Prosecution - BBC TV review

The Witness for the Prosecution, part one of which aired on the BBC tonight, was always going to be one of the main events on this year's Christmas TV schedule. Agatha Christie's short story (originally written very early in her career, more than 90 years ago) was later turned into a play. In 1957, it was famously filmed by Billy Wilder.

Wilder's version boasted a crisp script and a terrific cast, including Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, and Charles Laughton. It is my favourite movie based on a Christie story. and set a very high standard for any subsequent adaptation. The BBC commissioned Sarah Phelps to write the new screenplay, a sound decision bearing in mind her good work last year with the script for And Then There Were None.

Less obvious was the decision to turn the story into a two hour-long episodes. That choice meant that Phelps was required to add quite a lot of backstory material - rather more than was needed last year. To update a Christie to this extent is always a risky enterprise, and Phelps' solution to the challenge is, in part, to focus on period atmosphere. In the first episode, this worked fairly well, but (pending seeing episode two) I'm inclined to think that a single 90-minute drama might have had more focus, and therefore greater intensity. There's a lot of darkness in this version, but that's not quite the same as intensity.

The BBC cast, if not quite in the league of Dietrich and company, is pretty good, with Toby Jones impressive as usual, playing the part of a down-at-heel solicitor. Naturally I empathised with him, jsut as Harry Devlin would. Billy Howie takes the role of Leonard Vole, while Andrea Riseborough is Romaine, and Kim Cattrall the older woman who takes up with a toy boy before meeting an untimely end. This version of a classic crime story has not yet displaced Wilder's film in my affections, and probably won't do so, but I will certainly be watching to see how Phelps handles the rest of the story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not seen it yet Martin so shall withhold judgement until I'm back from my hols - I am glad that it will be so different from the Wilder movie because, like you, it is probably my favourite Christie adaptation. We shall see. Are you watching the repeat of the serialisation of THE MOONSTONE? Remarkably good for a daytime period drama I thought.