And Then There Were None (BBC1)

As WWII is brewing in Europe, ten strangers are invited to a lonely island off the Cornish coast.  Everything seems above board, but their hosts are nowhere to be found.  And when one of their number is poisoned at dinner, they come to the chilling realisation that they were never meant to leave.  Adapted from the Christie novel of the same name, this dark and stylish story had me hooked ‘til the end.

Early on, the decaying grandeur of the house and the harsh beauty of the island create a sense of timeless isolation.   Most period dramas revel in their setting, working hard to build up a strong sense of time and place.  But here, that sense is deliberately muted; details are impactful (that red swimming costume!) but sparse.  The house seems to be from the 30s, but already carries an air of neglect.  There’s nothing clean or new on the island, it’s all tainted and used, weighed down by memory and regret.   The locale is brilliantly atmospheric, but also serves to keep everyone in close quarters.   Once we arrive, we never leave; there is nowhere else to go, and nowhere to hide.

Similarly, the dialogue does the job, but avoids unnecessary embellishment.  There are no jarring anachronisms or overly fruity ‘period’ phrasings.   Usually in period drama, language is used to make the audience comfortably distanced from proceedings.  You’re glimpsing another world, comfortable, beautiful and refined.  There’s none of that here.  Right from the start, with Lombard leering at Vera, there’s a sense of things coming apart at the seams, of social conventions shunted to one side.  The formalities of the dinner party give way to recriminations and back-biting, as everyone becomes increasingly frayed around the edges.  It gives events a sense of urgency, reeling you in.  How will each person respond to the next death?  Who’ll crack first?  What would you do in their place?  Who is the killer?  Do they deserve this?

Characterisation was deftly handled, with the flashback structure giving depth and motivation without breaking the tension or confusing the timeline.  We’re shown just enough to convince of everyone’s guilt while seeing only as much as that character chooses to remember.  We get only moments of Brent’s creepiness, glimpses of the repressed desires and cruelty concealed beneath layers of self-serving piety.  Lombard only gives us pieces too, but for a different reason – he doesn’t regret what happened, or think it noteworthy.  As it doesn’t warrant his attention, it doesn’t need ours.

I particularly liked how the memories sometimes bled into the current day – like the General finding himself back in the trenches without ever leaving his room; or Blore partially ret-conning the memory of his crime, ‘That’s what I should have said.’ The slow build to Vera’s appalling crime was especially brutal – with simple, almost abstract images gradually adding up to the awful deed itself.  As little Cyril runs to his death in the distance, Vera sits with the tranquillity of a portrait sitter in the foreground.  In a story full of disturbing actions, it’s this passivity that hits the hardest.

Performances were all superb, as you’d expect from a cast of this quality.  Burn Gorman stood out for me as Blore.  Conflicted and regretful, with a chip on his shoulder and wholly out of his depth, I somehow felt sorry for him.  And for all his weakness, he’s the only one who seems to clock Vera: ‘You’ve got some right brass neck!’  After seeing Aidan Turner as Lombard I’m now convinced he should be the next Bond – he’s got the physicality, charisma and polish, but also that lurking brutish streak.  I found myself rooting for him, despite myself.  Was it just his charm? Or does his honesty make him the best of a bad bunch?  Or is it that no one else seems to think that badly of him?  Only the hypocritical Brent responds with any real hostility.  As the increasingly desperate group tries to band together, his natural authority quickly establishes itself.  When things are at their worst, Lombard is actually at his best, and it’s a very appealing quality.  I honestly thought he might make it…

But this isn’t that kind of story.  As Vera prepares for her lonely suicide, I thought it would be a fitting, if downbeat, ending: she has accepted her crimes and is at peace with her punishment.  But when Wargrave walks through the door, even this glimmer is snuffed out.  The signs were there, of course.  Right from the start, as charges were read out, we should have spotted the rather judicial air to proceedings.  But as he explained his reasons, all sense of humanity and justice evaporate.  While dealing with a serial killer, he became aware that his own life and his death would be meaningless.  Terrible crimes are remembered in a way that law-abiding citizens never are.  So he decided to write himself into the history books as part of a gruesome and unsolvable crime.   Even as Vera tries to talk him down, he counters that the only difference between himself and a serial killer is that all his victims were guilty.

‘Quite my favourite.’  Wargrave regards Vera almost like a teacher does a favoured pupil, and even as he puts the finishing touches to his plan, after all we’ve seen you can’t help but wonder if he’s right. The worst people are often the most engaging, the most memorable.  Leaving us with the final image of that awful rictus grin, he was certainly in no doubt.  It’s the darkest parts of humanity that linger longest.

What did you think?  Did you work out who the killer was before the big reveal?   Was Vera your favourite too?  The most recent Christie adaptation, Ordeal By Innocence caused some controversy when it made changes to the story – did this version stick to the original? As always, let me know!

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SS-GB (S1, BBC1)

A lone Spitfire soars over London, landing gracefully in front of Buckingham Palace.  But the Palace is a bombed-out shell, and the swastika hangs from its gates.  Its 1941. The Battle of Britain has been fought – and lost.

Though there may be Nazi jack boots marching down the Mall, life goes on.  And Detective Archer has a murderer to find.

Focussing on the ordinary characters caught up in a mad, complex situation is a nifty way of bringing us into what is a pretty surreal setting.  Archer is a believably capable detective, but no superhuman.   He has a vague grasp of how things are playing out, at least enough to stay alive, but the bigger game is always beyond him.   It keeps things personal, the losses and choices have a real weight to them.  Big ideas like patriotism and duty seem remote compared Archer and Harry’s friendship and loyalty.

This does have the effect of making Sylvia a rather unappealing figure.  Her black and white view of things comes across as rather juvenile, even petulant.   Her willingness to put herself repeatedly in danger felt to me more a lack of pragmatism than bravery.   Not that she seemed stupid, just rather unconcerned with realities.  When she and Harry were put into the holding camps, it was him who found food for her.   Barbara is more interesting, gallivanting about the world looking for a story.  But her distance makes her chilly and difficult to trust.  What’s she up to?

Perhaps this is more to do with person taste than I realise.  Fervour is the stuff of heroes, after all.  Sylvia was at least genuine, and consistent – deriding the collaborators for selling out their neighbours for ‘a more comfortable life’.   Did she think more of the Nazis than the collaborators? They at least fought for a cause.  Her hero’s death seemed fitting; she would become a beacon, a rallying point for British resistance.  Some viewers may have been affected by her sacrifice.  Though I couldn’t help but feel that her final gesture was just that – a gesture.  Like throwing a lit cigarette into the crate of yellow stars that Jewish locals would be forced to wear – it was defiant and heartfelt, but didn’t really accomplish much.

Eternity belongs to heroes, but the world belongs to swindlers.  Mayhew’s double-cross was brilliant in design (and ruthless in execution). I did wonder if the King knew he was never going to make that plane… Austere Huth came a cropper too.  His focus was his weakness, not his strength.  It was adaptable, genial Kellerman who came out ahead.  For now at least.

The pragmatic tone carries through to the ending- optimistic, but hardly celebratory, with no great patriotic fanfare.  It’s not as though Britain won by noble means, let’s be honest.  In fact, they’ve hardly won at all.  The future looks rosy (or at least less grim than it did), but Britain remains very much occupied.   Still, I liked the sense of moving forward, resolute and just a bit crafty.  Britain won’t win because they’re better, or more noble.  They’ll win because they’re wily and stubborn.

And because they adapt.  SS-GB was written in 1978, when Britain was well and truly on its arse, still struggling with the exhausting effort of WW2 and a rapidly diminished place in the world.   Survival comes from facing realities, and putting your efforts into building for the future.  Early in the series, the Nazis and Soviets made a big show of exhuming the remains of Karl Marx to be dispatched back to Russia with great pomp and ceremony.   Their ‘friendship’ is based on the past.  By bringing about the destruction of Nazi efforts to build the A bomb and offering key research in this to the US, Britain is forging a new friendship and a new future.

Still, this isn’t a story about big events, and the small scale is echoed visually, with few big set pieces.   The opening scene was nicely done and the final fight at the aerodrome was thrilling, but the important stuff goes on in the sitting room, at a game of cards,  down the pub.   Politics and warfare isn’t just armies and ministers, it’s out on the street, how you treat your neighbour.  Would you inform on someone for a bag of potatoes?  For the life of your son?

Early on, Archer talks about keeping his head down and maintaining law and order because the Germans won’t be around for ever.  But I didn’t really buy that – he (quite sensibly) just doesn’t want to get involved.    But the real cruelty of the Reich isn’t the wrong flag above Westminster; it’s a headmaster carted off to the camps for no reason, prostitutes rounded up and abused in the street, men shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Thoug, if evil is small scale, so is bravery.  Sylvia and her plucky companions are principled enough, but they won’t win the war.  America looms large, but it won’t get involved for no reason.  Somewhere between the two, sits the ordinary people.  Only when they care enough to make those small acts of defiance – when  Archer starts to make those little moves  – can the much bigger pieces fall into place.   Starting from such a striking premise, it’s an oddly predictable resolution.  But it makes for a great story.

What did you think?  I haven’t seen The Man in the High Castle, how does it compare?  Did you find yourself warming to Huth in his final scene?   Did you just want to give Harry a hug the whole way through? Let me know!