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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The Sandman Vol. 1 (Preludes and Nocturnes), Neil Gaiman

An occultist in Edwardian England attempts to call forth and imprison Death in order to become immortal.  Instead, he lands himself with Death’s little brother, Morpheus – Lord of Dreams- and neither of them are too happy about it.  Initially published as eight separate issues, this is the first collection in The Sandman series, arguably one of the most successful and influential graphic novels ever written.  With very little knowledge of the form, and no expectations whatsoever, I dived straight in- and was delighted.

What struck me first was the collections’ unusual structure.  Obviously, each issue has its own story arc, but each one also acts as a chapter in the larger narrative structure of the collection.  And while the collection itself ended with a resolution of sorts, I was intrigued to learn more about how this first collection fitted into the overall Sandman story, as well as how this structuring would dictate plot and characterisation.

Right from the off, The Sandman is very concerned with stories and the power of stories.  Dreams are the source of imagination, and inspiration, and aspiration.  Dreams are not bounded by space or time.  The ideas and stories that dreams gestate don’t just consider where we are and where we come from, but where we can go.  Morpheus states that he is the true power in Hell, because ‘what power would Hell have if those imprisoned [t]here were not able to dream of heaven?’  But dreams by themselves are not enough to sustain existence or effect change in the universe.  Dreams are just the start, they must be acted on, made use of, if they are to have any power.  People literally dream their lives away here, with a strong parallel drawn with drug abuse.  But dreams are a rejection of the established order of things.  Dreams are the start of change.  By the end of this collection, Morpheus himself learns that change is not only inevitable, but necessary.

There are diverse influences at work here, including references to Greek and Norse mythology, tropes from literature, quotes from Shakespeare, characters from the Bible and the DC universe.  There is a giddiness to this range of references which is both erudite and charming.  It’s cheeky and a bit mad, but it works.  The stories too show an impressive variety, from a fresh yet familiar vision of hell, to a modern horror set entirely in a US diner.  While they each stand alone, I found myself rattling through each story, eager to discover what Morpheus would encounter next.

While the shifts in tone and setting can be a little disorientating, there was a wonderful sense of possibility, a gleeful disregard for any pre-established order here that was really quite exhilarating.  Perhaps this is more common in graphic novels/comics, than in novels, so it could merely be my ignorance talking, but I thought it was bold and, invariably, well handled.  I particularly enjoyed Morpheus’ encounter with grumpy detective John Constantine.

Characterisation was also solid.  The Lord of Dreams is a gloomy soul – understandable perhaps, after 70 years in prison – whereas Death is sparky and warm.  There’s a lovely exchange between them where she wonders why people find her so terrifying- after all, dreaming is surely more dreadful than dying? While Morpheus is very much the focus, we do get pleasing little snippets from some of those he encounters.   Cain and Abel – brilliantly twisted, doomed to play out the oldest story again and again until the end of time. Constantine makes a wry little greeting to London before he sets off to work.  An old man asks for time to say the Shma before Death wings him away.  Not because he was particularly religious, but because his Dad told him to.  People find comfort in the familiar, I suppose.

The art work was excellent.  I particularly enjoyed the cover pages by Dave McKean, but there were plenty of striking images from Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg.  Satan looks like Tilda Swinton with bat wings, and Morpheus himself bears a striking resemblance to Gaiman.  It may seem obvious, but I enjoyed how the construction of the images gave a real sense of movement and personality to the characters, and added to the momentum of the story.  So the deranged Dr. John Dee is often half hidden in shadow, isolated or uncomfortably framed.  When Morpheus interrogates the Maiden, Mother and Crone, their answers roll down the page, not across, forcing you to slow down and consider the answers.  It’s both efficient and effective – saying so much without saying anything at all.

The story structure itself also works well, leaving you with the best of both worlds:  the pleasing resolution of Morpheus regaining his autonomy, and the desire to see what he gets up to next.  The Lord of Dreams has completed his quest and regained his former strength.  But he has been forever altered by the experience, and travelled through a vast and glorious, and partly ruined universe, which establishes an expectation of further adventures.  And as Morpheus eventually meets up with his sister Death, there is also the suggestion that we may in future encounter the rest of the Endless…

Smart, warm and irreverent, this first collection is a brilliant introduction to both The Sandman saga and the world of graphic novels.   I’ve already ordered the next collection in the series – surely there’s no higher praise than that.

What did you think- is The Sandman as good as they say?  Have I made any glaring omissions?  Are you a graphic novel fan- any suggested reading for me?  Do let me know.