The Pale Horse began on BBC tonight, the first episode of a two-parter based on an Agatha Christie novel and scripted by Sarah Phelps. She is one of TV's leading popular dramatists, with an enviable track record. She began as a writer on EastEnders and the disciplines learned through writing soap opera scripts must be invaluable when one turns to other projects. (And of course some crime series, albeit not Christie's, have strong soap opera elements.) But having discussed Sarah Phelps' adaptations with many crime enthusiasts, I find it tempting, if overly simplistic, to suggest that her versions of Christie are geared more to viewers who aren't natural Christie fans than to the purists.
I'm a lifelong Christie fan but I have always felt it's perfectly reasonable to make changes to the original stories for dramatic purposes - the real question is: do they actually work? I've watched all Sarah Phelps' versions of Christie stories, and my impression is that they are more effective when she digs down into the essence of the original storyline than when she goes off on a tangent of her own. When she's inventing new stories, she'd surely be better to craft her own series rather than tack them on to someone else's.
I enjoyed Phelps' And Then There Were None, and to a lesser extent Witness for the Prosecution, but felt that Ordeal by Innocence (despite a new plot ingredient that I really admired) rather missed the point of the story. The ABC Murders was a curate's egg, with some compelling elements marred by a decision to give Poirot a backstory that, for me, simply didn't carry conviction.
These mixed experiences led me to watch The Pale Horse with an open mind, but a keen desire to enjoy the story as much as possible. The earlier adaptations have demonstrated that the quality of the opening episode is not always sustained. But I must say that I think this was a very good choice of Christie story, a rural melodrama with a looseness of structure that suits Phelps' talents better than the confines of a traditional whodunit.
The starry cast is led by Rufus Sewell (cast as Aurelio Zen in the regrettably short-lived TV versions of Michael Dibdin's novels) who plays Mark Easterbrook. The three witches include the wonderful Rita Tushingham and Sean Pertwee is very good as the cop Lejeune. There's a strong Wicker Man feel to the village fete scene - here Phelps is paying homage not to Christie but to another screenwriter who adapted the Queen of Crime with verve, Anthony Shaffer. Will I be tuning in to part two? Yes, definitely.