The ’80s were Christie’s most prosperous decade for adaptations until the 2000s, with Peter Ustinov‘s Poirot, Joan Hickson‘s Marple, Francesca Annis and James Warwick as Tommy and Tuppence, and assorted other film and TV adaptations. While Christie had been disappointed with the vast majority of adaptations in her lifetime, the 80s would see her work treated far more reverently, and thus lead to David Suchet‘s purist revival in the 90s. Yet, however obliquely, most of these would not have been possible without this pair of TV movies from the start of the decade.

Film review: “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” (1980)

written by Pat Sandys

directed by John Davies, Tony Wharmby

With Poirot’s recent success on the big screen, and a revitalised interest in Christie’s work – on the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and, it must be said, due to her recent death, it seemed only fair that ITV would invest in a flashy, all-star cast production of a Christie novel. The one they chose, perhaps unusually, was Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, one of her early mystery-cum-thrillers. It’s very much in the Tommy and Tuppence vein, with handsome, young, well-to-do twentysomethings getting in up to their necks in an espionage plot. While there’s an undercurrent of seriousness, the focus is much more on the thrills and the light, frothy comedy of the situation. With a hefty budget and the star power of Francesca Annis and Sir John Gielgud, Evans was planned as a three-part serial, but was ultimately aired as one extravaganza.

Francesca Annis and James Warwick as Frankie and Bobby in "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?"

Writer Pat Sandys was a prolific producer, although his TV writing credits are really limited to the two films today, and the pilot film for Partners in Crime: The Secret Adversary. Sandys very literally adapts Christie’s novel, scene for scene and often line for line. On the one hand, this is surely a boon for those who oppose the looser adaptations seen on the Marple series of late, and the characters are so well acted and perfectly classy that it’s a delight from start to finish. Because of the time, the characters get to stew nicely together (as opposed to the Marple film of this same novel, in which the first five minutes felt a bit silly with how much plot they crammed in!) and the series can focus just as much on the witty banter between the youths. However… at three hours long, the already slim novel is dragged out to new heights. By fifty minutes in, when the murderous plot is just kicking into action, one begins to feel a bit overtired. In truth, this film probably takes longer than it would to read the book.

Beyond this, Evans is a fitting lesson in why film adaptations of novels need to be restructured. Particularly in the final hour, things become quite ludicrous at times, as the slow build-up to climax is interrupted for lengthy scenes of dialogue between secondary characters. Reading a book – particularly one written in the early part of the century – is simply a different experience than a vibrant film, and unfortunately Sandys chooses to replicate the book’s structure too often. It probably doesn’t help that the production is filmed almost as a stage play. This was par for the course in this era, where things are shot in long takes on video, but again the lengthy shots often add an unnecessary calmness to what should be a more exciting affair. (As a three-part serial, this might have been more bearable, although I can’t imagine people feeling compelled to tune back in: I guess that was one of the benefits of the early ’80s British TV audience, who trusted their TV networks to bring them “quality” entertainment each week.)

That’s not to say I dislike it: in fact, I do quite like it. But then again, I’m a TV nerd. This kind of filming – lost, really, by the end of the ’80s and already a vestige of a bygone era – excites me far more than the quick-cutting, high-budget business we get today. Give me a William Hartnell Doctor Who or the BBC Complete Works of Shakespeare any day. And the cast sell it almost without exception. As Bobby and Frankie, Warwick and Annis are simply astounding. The two are true stars, able to do anything: farce, screwball comedy, action, romance, you name it. It’s interesting to compare them to the recent portrayals on Marple which were, respectively, more boyish and more manipulative. I prefer these originals (although I wouldn’t turn down Sean Biggerstaff), and the pair have an electric chemistry which was surely a large part of their subsequent casting in Partners in Crime. (This novel, after all, clearly has its roots in the Beresfords.) Annis, incidentally, looks stunning in all of her outfits, as usual.

Other casting coups include, of course, Gielgud as Bobby’s father, Leigh Lawson as the mysterious Roger Bassington-ffrench and Joan Hickson as Mrs. Rivington, a society doyenne with a taste for opulent dresses and long cigars. It’s a very mod character, and it’s lovely to see Hickson in this vibrant role, just a few years before she’d start tackling the prim Marple. (The strength of the film’s budget allowed for all of the minor characters to be scripted and well cast, a luxury we can’t really afford these days.) Less successful is the over-the-top performance of Raymond Francis as Frankie’s dad, and the generally obnoxious Badger Beadon (Robert Longden). Okay, Badger’s meant to be obnoxious, but he’s a little bit too so.

Ultimately, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is best treated as a delightful curio. There’s some sparkling dialogue, well-played by a trained cast, and a good deal of comedy. Even the action sequences – which, of course, are not the forte of anyone involved – are done competently. However, the leisurely – to put it nicely – screenplay is treated equally so by the director, which becomes a bit much after three straight hours. (The villain’s long denouement scene is just that: long. Although, fair play, the novel ends with him leaving a letter, so they had to do something to explain the convoluted plot!) Clearly, though, Evans was deemed a success. Only a year later, several of the same cast would reunite for another script by Sandys.

 Film Review: “The Seven Dials Mystery” (1981)

written by Pat Sandys

directed by Tony Wharmby

“Of course, I do expect family to die here. But I do object to strangers.” – The Marquis of Caterham (John Gielgud)

With the same writer, director and leading man (James Warwick), The Seven Dials Mystery is possibly the smoother of the two, although Sandys again gives us a very faithful, literal adaptation of Christie’s novel. Much like its predecessor, Seven Dials focuses on a party of young, well-off society dilettantes who get embroiled in murder and mystery. It’s, again, the kind of Sunday night fare that is designed as slick entertainment, and on that level it succeeds. There’s much silliness inherited from the novel – the scene where the secret society meets is very Tintin, with them donning the hoods after they meet… assumedly as part of the ritual, but it seems a little silly. And with the larger central cast it’s harder to get a handle on the relationships between the characters.

Still, for the most part, The Seven Dials Mystery is a winner for its time. Warwick is great fun as the mysterious Jimmy Thesiger, who gets slowly involved in the lives of a bunch of young adults whose party becomes deadly serious when one of their number is killed. The various fun-loving youths are great fun, anchored by Cheryl Campbell as Lady Eileen “Bundle” Brent and Harry Andrews in a relatively belated appearance as Superintendent Battle. Rula Lenska – Cluedo villainess and international inspiration for Saturday Night Live sketches – is great as the exotic, clearly evil Countess.

Beyond the cast, the other strengths remain the same: everyone keeps in mind that the lead characters are a bunch of toffs, which means it feels slightly less ridiculous as they get increasingly involved in lunatic international politics. The driving scenes, interestingly, look more realistic than half of today’s Hollywood films. I’m not sure whether they filmed them whilst driving, or just outside with green screens, but they look great. And some of the nice elements – direct from the book, admittedly – come in how practical the characters remain. Notably, Bundle’s suspicions aren’t negated by the Superintendent, he simply tells her that – while she is possibly right -there’s no proof for him to act.

The only real flaw – aside from the aforementioned overabundance of characters – is the same as in Evans: the vicissitudes of the era’s screenwriting and directing leave a bit to be desired. Time doesn’t always pass with any kind of logic, making it harder to discern the status of the investigation, and the book’s genre confusion – murder mystery? spy plot? – extends to the film. Beyond this, the structure is again wonky, with the climax interrupted so that Bundle’s father (Gielgud again) can discuss her marital prospects with a suitor. However, aside from a few awkward moments of blocking, The Seven Dials Mystery is great fun.

Ultimately, I recognise the limitations of these: both are languid and of their era, both very engaging but both being thrillers rather than murder mysteries somewhat restricts them to being Christie curios. Still, with the very talented cast and their easygoing feel, both of these films are worth a look, as long as you’re not against the filming styles of the era. In 1982, the ten-part series The Agatha Christie Hour would adapt a variety of lesser-known short stories, and this was followed by 1983‘s Partners in Crime. From this, it was only a short jump to Hickson’s Marple, and the slow expansion of Christie’s canon on television.