Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

Calum Henderson: And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None features an all-star cast including Aidan Turner, Sam Neill and Charles Dance.
And Then There Were None features an all-star cast including Aidan Turner, Sam Neill and Charles Dance.

Not many television series would cast an actor the calibre of Sam Neill only to kill him off less than half way through - but such is the abundance of talent in the BBC miniseries of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, the first part of which premiered on Prime on Sunday night.

Neill plays PTSD-ravaged World War I veteran General MacArthur, one of 10 strangers lured to the barren Soldier Island under various pretences by the mysterious "U. N. Owen". Everybody arrives on the island with one thing in common: each is responsible for causing another person's death, though none has ever been found guilty of murder.

By the end they will have another thing in common: they will all be dead.

Kiwi Sam Neill stars in And Then There Were None.
Kiwi Sam Neill stars in And Then There Were None.

The novel, set and written in the pre-war British summer of 1939, is widely considered Agatha Christie's masterpiece. It is something of an outlier, considerably darker in tone than the average Miss Marple or Poirot - so much so that when Christie adapted it for the stage in 1943 she agreed to change the ending to make it less grisly.

The latest BBC adaptation is loyal - just a few television-friendly adjustments here and there - to the novel's original storyline. With Christie's usual playfulness and humour dialled right back and the enveloping sense of unease cranked all the way up, this version feels as much like a tightly wound psychological thriller as it does a classic whodunnit.

The tone is set early, with a wonderfully ominous scene in which six of the doomed strangers are silently ferried to the island off the Devon coast. The outline of the lone mansion on an otherwise deserted island looms ahead of them - an image right up there with the Bates family motel in the spooky building stakes.

Not long after everyone has made themselves at home with a pink gin a disembodied voice booms out from a gramophone in another room, accusing each of the 10 people on the island of a specific murder. Not long after that, hedonistic playboy Anthony Marston (Douglas Booth), who hit and killed a couple of kids with his car, spits up a mouthful of blood and dies convulsing on the floor.

The killer doesn't muck about. By the next morning the housekeeper Mrs Rogers (Anna Maxwell Martin) - co-accused with her husband of murdering their previous employer - has carked it in her sleep. Soon the remaining eight on the island start putting the pieces together, aligning the deaths to the macabre rhyme hung in each of their bedrooms ("Nine little soldier boys sat up very late; one overslept himself and then there were eight").

It's Vera Claythorne (Maeve Dermody), haunted by the young boy she let drown while in her care, who first notices the jade statuettes. There were 10 on the dining room table when they first arrived - with every death, the killer removes another one. As a raging storm closes in outside, so too does the claustrophobic spiral of conspiracy and suspicion amongst the remaining guests.

Sam Neill's MacArthur, mad with guilt for murdering a fellow officer, is discovered by posh old Emily Brent (Miranda Richardson), the back of his head caved in by a rock. It's left to the remainder of the star-studded cast (other standouts include Charles Dance as understated Justice Wargrave, and Aidan Turner, whose louche Philip Lombard circles Miss Claythorne like a shark) to figure out who, if indeed any of them, is the killer.

Commissioned to mark the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth, the series originally screened in the UK as three hour-long parts over consecutive nights from Boxing Day last year. Here it has instead been divided into two feature-length parts over two weeks. If anything it works better this way - the extended episodes suit the exquisite atmosphere of dread the show builds so well.

Aidan Turner stars in And Then There Were None.
Aidan Turner stars in And Then There Were None.

And Then There Were None has been reimagined, copied and parodied countless times since 1939, but this stylish update proves the mystery is as irresistible as ever. The final scene of part one shows Vera Claythorne and Justice Wargrave in the dining room; there are seven jade statuettes on the table.

- NZ Herald

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