It’s odd, really, given Dame Christie’s prominence and crossover popularity, that she hasn’t been more commonly filmed – at least on TV, if not the silver screen. Indeed, the late ’80s primarily saw her being adapted by the Americans (in updated versions of Murder is Easy and The Man in the Brown Suit) while the ’90s were given over almost exclusively to the Poirot and Marple series. The only modern British TV movie I’ve been able to track down and review until now was 2003’s Sparkling Cyanide. I would’ve thought that the novels would’ve been regular fodder for young writers armed with an ITV contract and two weeks’ filming time, but I suppose the Christie estate has other opinions. (And, it must be said, TV movies have a habit of updating the action to present-day, which is perfectly fine but might be challenging for some of Christie’s more class-conscious novels, and sometimes leads to the trashy feeling of the footballers and their wives in Sparkling Cyanide.) Today, however, I’m looking at that rare breed: a period TV film, adapted from a Christie novel, originally airing in the ’90s. Let’s take a look.
Review: The Pale Horse (1997)
written by Alma Cullen, from the novel by Agatha Christie
directed by Charles Beeson
After the death of a paranoid patient (Tricia Thoms) and then her confessor (Geoffrey Beevers), a young man named Mark Easterbrook (Colin Buchanan) is arrested on circumstantial evidence, and sets out to clear his name with only one phrase as a clue – The Pale Horse…
From the start, this film just looks like an ITV movie, with all the good and bad that encompasses. Everything is quite neatly shot, quite simply done to make the most out of a short shooting schedule, but with just enough directorial flair that you know you’re in the safe hands of a Brit making a period piece. (In this case, the period in question is the early ’70s, which allows us a bit of flexibility in terms of style and openness of subject matter.) The Pale Horse is an interesting book in that it’s a series of investigations, really. Like Murder is Easy, there are numerous crimes we can’t quite connect, and the author makes no attempt to keep us within one point-of-view. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed about the work (and it worked well in the Marple adaptation as well), seeing how various characters come together. On the one hand, this film fails to create a sense of how everyone in this community knows one another. On the other, everything feels slightly more real. They’re all connected, but not in that old-school Marple sense where everyone is always peeking out their drawing-room windows. These are real people with real lives that happen to intersect… if only we knew how.
Mark and his current squeeze Hermia Radcliffe (the excellent Hermione Norris) gradually fall out with each other and, thanks to the performances and the subtle script, it feels like this has already been in place before the film began. Norris does a great job of portraying someone who is used to splashing her wealth around but is still human beneath this. It’s clear she’s “slumming it” with Mark, an artist who lives above his studio, and he knows this as well. At the same time, Hermia isn’t an idiot, nor is she purely a snob. She assists in the investigation in the ways she knows how, even as Mark gradually falls for Kate Mercer (Jayne Ashbourne), someone more intimately involved with the case.
The adaptation condenses much of the action but, surprisingly, keeps many of the story beats the same. Ariadne Oliver and the other minor recurring characters are, of course, absent, but everyone is very well-written. This feels like the work of someone who really knows how to create character in a small space of time. Sometimes, it’s as simple as making sure that we don’t quite have faith in any of the suspects, without forcing the actors to do that 24-style acting where you’re always half-pouting just in case it turns out you’re the villain. And as the film’s plot opens out, we’re given plenty to entice yet confuse us. A sickly young woman (Anna Livia Ryan) clearly being poisoned by her money-hungry stepmother (Louise Jameson). A wheelchair-bound collector (Michael Byrne) whose own glinty-eyed doctor (Tim Potter) doubts his disability. And three demented old biddies who live in a former coaching-house known as The Pale Horse. They’re wonderfully played by Ruth Madoc, Maggie Shevlin and – leading the pack – the divine Jean Marsh as pagan Thyrza Gray.
Christie enjoyed the trappings of the supernatural very much, even if – for the most part – she brought things back to science in the long run. Stories like The Hound of Death, Hallowe’en Party, and By the Pricking of My Thumbs are not among her best work (although the Egyptian drawing-room murder Death Comes as the End is thoroughly worth a read) but they all betray an enjoyment of macabre imagery and mind for horror. The Pale Horse ladies are truly nightmarish, and director Beeson’s creepy linking images of slaughter work well alongside the witch imagery visible in the production from the opening, where Hermia and Mark attend a performance of Macbeth.
The screenplay is certainly a tad confusing, I should admit, because of how many characters with convoluted motives there are. While many of Christie’s novels have a sense of place and, gradually, of claustrophobia, The Pale Horse is constantly on the move, with a handful of detectives who criss-cross over one another. At the same time, there’s plenty to like here. I should mention the strong portrayals of the police characters. Trevor Byfield is very convincing as the gruff Inspector Lejeune, while Andy Serkis makes quite an impression as the strange but insightful Sergeant Corrigan. I fail to be convinced by Lejeune’s obsessive stalking of Mark – the arrest in the first place is based solely on the fact that he was found kneeling over the body, like any witness would! – but I’m not sure whether to lay that blame on the screenplay or the source material. And there are plenty of neat directorial touches from Beeson that make me appreciate the film. Top moments include a poignant scene between Mark and Hermia at the hospital, the atmospheric conclusion in the artist’s studio, and the quirky “casual discussion” between Corrigan and Mark over milkshakes in a diner, while Ennio Morricone-style music plays in the background.
While the Marple adaptation probably did a better job of portraying the community links between the characters, this adaptation succeeds in the final third. For the climax, Christie returned to her 1920s thriller roots, introducing the mysterious Lincoln Bradley (Leslie Phillips) who is the completely grounded explanation behind the ladies’ preternatural claims that they can kill by seance. It’s very “modern” and exciting and action-based, not at all something you’d find in a Poirot novel (well, alright, other than The Big Four. By virtue of being much more earthy in tone (and not being written in Christie’s old-lady narrative voice), this film is able to create at least a lightly believable world of goons and murder-for-hire. I was genuinely worried about poor Kate by the end of it! Rather neatly, Alma Cullen’s script spares us two mercies. First, she removes a few of the unlikely coincidences (for example, “a friend of a friend knows someone who works at this market research firm”) and ties them in through evidence and clues. And second, Mark and Kate’s scheme seems more likely here. In the book, the cops willingly go along with a sting operation devised and led by civilians. Here, the duo initiate the situation on their own, subsequently roping in Corrigan, who finally convinces his boss to go along with it.
In the end, The Pale Horse is hardly the future of television, but I did quite enjoy it. And it reminded me that we need to see more of the Christie standalone novels adapted for television. There aren’t really that many of them, once you subtract the adapted Poirot, Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence canons. Let’s get on them!
Next week: I’ll look at the latest Marple adaptation, Endless Night.