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19 February 2020

Sarah Phelps’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation is more cartoonish than chilling

For all its spills and thrills and delightful cameo performances, I felt distracted and a little bored.    

By Rachel Cooke

Rufus Sewell. He makes me think of the song: cheekbones like geometry, eyes like sin. And I love his acting, too, so understated it seems mostly to go on just beneath the surface of his skin, a series of fleeting tics that can make the gestures of those around him look florid and semi-comical. Perhaps this was why he seemed so out of place in the BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse (16 February, 9pm): playing the troubled antique dealer, Mark Easterbrook – think Lovejoy, as styled by Federico Fellini – he appeared before us as a sleek thoroughbred surrounded, at moments, by a bunch of seaside donkeys.

Sewell was the only thing that kept me watching when this drama’s plot went, to use a technical term, completely bat-shit crazy. The Pale Horse is one of Christie’s weirder novels (I should know; I’ve read them all), largely because it’s peculiarly ersatz. Published in 1961, it bears the influence of Dennis Wheatley, the occultist thriller writer who was then very popular. Christie, however, didn’t really do black magic, and thus we know without being told that the witches of her story, who hang out in a rural pub called the Pale Horse, are unlikely to be genuine double-double-toil-and-trouble types. We understand from the outset that they’re almost certainly a front for a more prosaic killer: the kind who uses not curses but rat poison to bump off his victims. A further clue lies in the name of the Surrey village where some of the action takes place: Much Deeping. Scrape off the topsoil, and see what lies beneath… beneath.

Many people adore Sarah Phelps’s adaptations of Christie (this is the fifth). On Twitter, I saw a certain Radio 3 presenter congratulating her, after the first episode of this one, on the singular England she has created, a land of “sinners and psychopaths” that is as distinct, he said, “as Greeneland”. This is high praise, and I wish I could go along with it. Somehow, though, I can’t. Watching The Pale Horse, my brain could not locate the necessary dramatic Velcro. For all its spills and thrills and delightful cameo performances – my special award goes to Bertie Carvel for his turn as creepy Zachariah Osborne, complete with teeth that resemble lichen-splotched gravestones – I felt distracted, and a little bored.

So, Phelps messes around with Christie’s plots. Why shouldn’t she? But it feels, sometimes, as though she wants it both ways. Her version of Christie-land is ostentatiously “real”, with all manner of nastiness to be found in the crevices of a class system that is as unscalable as a high garden wall. But she wants – or perhaps she knows that her audience wants – its old cosiness, too: the tea sets, the twin sets, the social upsets. The result is, to me, cartoony.

I won’t give too much away; you may not yet have seen the end of The Pale Horse. Suffice to say that in the second and last episode, having seemingly discovered the link between his dead wife, his dead lover and a list of other equally dead people that was found in one of their shoes, Mark begins to feel increasingly paranoid. However, it’s not so much the Wicker Man-like carry on in Much Deeping that’s doing his head in – all those little girls in white veils; all those scattered corn dollies – as his new wife, Hermia (Kaya Scodelario), high on Valium, vol-au-vents and an electric carving knife. Has she asked the Much Deeping coven to ensure he will reach a sticky end?

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Things got loopier and loopier from here. Many flashbacks. A dead bunny on the creamy leather seat of a car. Inspector Lejeune (Sean Pertwee) with a seriously extreme nosebleed. By the time we reached the big reveal, I was also somewhat disorientated – and unlike Mark, I hadn’t even enjoyed a nightcap. What kind of killer, the better to cover his tracks, learns archaic country crafts? And what breed of witches sits by hospital beds, listening to the rasping of a respirator? Most importantly of all, was there one murderer, or two? If you’ve come here for enlightenment, I cannot answer these questions. If, on the other hand, you can enlighten me, do feel free to call by my place for a large Dubonnet and a fancy canapé some time very soon. 

The Pale Horse

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This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics