‘Everything is the story,’ says screenwriter Sarah Phelps. That’s why the stage directions in her scripts are so finely detailed. ‘The story isn’t just what comes out of people’s mouths, the story is what’s in the room.’
‘How high are the ceilings? Are the windows large or small? What does the air smell of? Is it cold? Is everything always slightly damp? Is there enough food on the table? Is there a fly buzzing somewhere? What can you see out of the window? Can you hear traffic? Can you hear your next-door neighbours? Is there a dog that barks incessantly?’
Without that detail, Phelps tells Den of Geek, she’d just be putting dialogue into a vacuum. Mood, weather, smell, hair, costume… it all forms the fabric of a script. But there’s more. All five of her BBC One Agatha Christie dramas are also connected through symbolic details. From a Spanish Baroque painting to the colour red, to bears and polar exploration, here are the hidden details tucked away in Phelps’ adaptations.
Agnus Dei Painting
Like the silver hare statue to be found in the background of every Inside No. 9 episode, all five of Phelps’ Christie adaptations feature the same early 17th century painting, Francisco de Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God.
In December 2018, this Twitter user spotted the painting of a trussed lamb on display in And Then There Were None (above the mantlepiece) The Witness for the Prosecution (on an easel in Emily French’s home), Ordeal by Innocence (on Rachel and Leo’s dining room wall) and The ABC Murders (by the stairs in the Carmichael pile). In 2019’s The Pale Horse, it’s hanging on the wall of Mark Easterbrook’s antiques dealership office.
To Phelps, the painting seemed to be an apt way to describe the all-pervading sense of guilt and secrecy she sees in the Agatha Christie universe. Speaking at The Pale Horse press launch in 2019, she explained, “You don’t know whether the lamb is dead or alive because it’s trussed. It has no free will. The deed has been done.”
When writing her fifth and – for now – final Christie adaptation, 2019’s The Pale Horse, Phelps inserted a link back to her first, 2015’s And Then There Were None. In the latter’s original story, a character is killed when a bear-shaped clock falls off a ledge and hits him on the head. To Phelps, that felt unintentionally comic and not neat enough for the story’s serial killer, who she felt wouldn’t allow such room for error. Her solution was to change the death by having the victim stabbed by the killer draped in a polar bear skin rug.
Fast forward to the opening scene of The Pale Horse, which introduces us to antiques dealer Mark Easterbrook alongside a new artefact in his office: a taxidermied polar bear.
‘Because I’d supplanted a polar bear rug for the bear-shaped clock in And Then There Were None, it really struck me that I wanted to continue that theme as a nod. By the time I’d got to The Pale Horse, I just fell in love with the idea that the first thing you see about Mark Easterbrook is him unboxing a giant polar bear. That tells us now that we are in a place which is rather strange.’
‘I like thinking about the polar extremes. You’re at a point in the world where nothing is familiar and if you walk out of your little safe tent you could be dead in a moment,’ Phelps tells Den of Geek. ‘So that came up in Ordeal by Innocence [in which a character has recently returned from an experimental nuclear polar expedition] and that’s because I became obsessed with nuclear experimentation and the arms race post-Second World War.’
The Banality of Evil
‘It wasn’t just the same painting in every single one of them,’ Phelps explains, she also wanted to make the stories talk to each other in ‘a continuing conversation about how we get to be where we are. How did we get to be here, in the 21st century? Perhaps if we look back at 50 years of the blood-soaked and tumultuous 20th century, we might understand how we came to be where we are now… although I doubt it.’
To that end, Phelps selected the dates on which each of her adaptations take place to draw from very specific moments in 20th century history. ‘Nobody else had to know about this but it was there for me.’
‘And Then There Were None is in 1939, just as we’re about to go to war. In The Witness for the Prosecution, the date of the murder is the date of the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, which is the first time the world really learns the name of Adolf Hitler, and by the time you get to The Pale Horse, Mark Easterbrook is sitting there reading the news headlines about the televised trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, when Hannah Arendt coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, not realising that he is absolutely caught up in the banality of evil.’
‘It was always that sense that there was this really tight net wound around everybody and that none of them are free from that and we should pay attention.’
Phelps describes the 20th century as blood-soaked and the same can be said for her Christie scripts, each of which is drenched in the colour red.
In And Then There Were None, ‘the red was all about Vera’s swimsuit,’ she explains. ‘When I was reading the book I just had this strange image in my head of this woman wearing a bright red swimsuit in this white house that collapses in on itself with really strange geometry.’
Red is such a perilous colour says Phelps. ‘It’s a distinct danger colour, danger and seduction and thrill and peril. It just kept me company as I went through.’
Phelps, who once worked as a dresser for the Royal Shakespeare Company, never stops thinking about costume, she says. ‘It’s how you meet the world […] I loved the idea of the startling red of Vera’s swimsuit. Romaine had a really lovely little red hat [in The Witness for the Prosecution].’ There are also the red shoes walked up and down the back of Cust in The ABC Murders, I offer.
‘I just felt it was an acknowledgement that these things are significant. For numerous reasons, they say to us ‘danger’ or they say to us the commodification of sexuality or they say this is being worn to make you think a particular way about this person and look, you thought it! Because you were already thinking it, which is the main point.’
‘There was always that sense of wanting to have that continuing conversation, that relationship, with the painting, the dates and that rubric of colours that kept me company throughout all five pieces.’
Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders is streaming now on Acorn TV