This review contains spoilers.
Remind me never to go to a Lammas Fair. The one held in the village of Much Deeping – the supernatural locus of BBC One’s new Agatha Christie – is a conveyor belt of nightmares. There are goat masks, life-sized corn dolls, eldritch child-brides dancing a devil’s step … all topped off with an effigy-beheading-by-sword ritual that makes The Wicker Man’s Summerisle look like a sane and cosy spot for a weekend Airbnb.
After taking his new wife there for a day trip, it’s no wonder widower Mark Easterbrook is pulling his hair out.
Easterbrook’s hair coming out in clumps has nothing to do with exasperation; it’s the mid-point cliff-hanger of this two-part story. After waking up beside the mysteriously dead body of his mistress, Mark’s name is among those on a list discovered inside a dead woman’s shoe. By the end of the hour, he’s one of only two listees left alive. What links the victims, and what, before death, is making them lose their hair?
Based on 1961 novel The Pale Horse, this is screenwriter Sarah Phelps’ fifth Agatha Christie BBC adaptation and shows all the confidence of a screenwriter in what must be considered her imperial phase. Known for taking bold liberties with the source material to keep the stories relevant (after all, what’s a whodunit if everybody already knows who dun the it?) and for teasing out Christie’s most sordid, dramatic threads, Phelps’ period mystery thrillers are glamorous, twisted delights peopled by glamorous, twisted characters.
That’s no different here. Leading the glamour charge is wealthy antiques dealer Easterbrook, played by Rufus Sewell, whom we meet in contemplation of a taxidermied polar bear. Still cut up after the death of his first wife Delphine (the very glamorous Georgina Campbell) Mark hastily remarried Hermia (the so-glamorous-it-gives-you-an-actual-headache Kaya Scodelario).
Like Delphine, Hermia is 20-odd years Mark’s junior, but unlike Delphine, she’s a bundle of barbed wire in human form who takes out her secret rage on the home furnishings. She swallows mystery pills, makes psychopathic vol-au-vents and, we’re told, loved Mark from afar for years so has a good chance of being behind Delphine’s death by accidental bathtub electrocution.
Also with a hand in Delphine’s death appear to be Sybil, Thyrza and Bella, three fortune tellers of The Pale Horse pub, Much Deeping, where Mark’s investigation takes him. Shortly before her death, newlywed Delphine paid them a visit and was given a doom-laden prediction. Deceased shop worker Jessie Davis – the woman with the shoeful of dead or soon-to-be dead people’s names – also visited the three witches. Are they contract killers who curse their victims on demand, as Jessie’s boss Zachariah Osborne believes, or is there a more rationalist explanation?
Osborne (Bertie Carvel in a set of comedy teeth, doing a voice) is a tee-total Christian fundamentalist and feeds into The Pale Horse’s apocalyptic context. To add to the biblical quote from Revelations (‘And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him’), there are street preachers prophesying the end times outside Soho’s strip clubs and newspaper headlines predicting nuclear missile doom. The Eichmann trial is taking place contemporaneously, conjuring visions of another kind of world-ending. Even rationalist Mark feels that something unspecified is coming for him.
It’s a larger-than-life drama this one, weird but good-weird with a taste for the lurid and unsettling. There’s a coldness at its centre due to Easterbrook’s quiet unravelling and snippy sarcasm – not helped by the fact that the story’s most likeable characters (Delphine, Clemency) are already dead. Warmth-seekers at least have Sean Pertwee’s Inspector Lejeune and his bad whelks to heat the chill.
So then, witches or charlatans, curses or poison? That’s the arena of debate here. Episode one gives us enough evidence to take either view. On the rationalist side, it’s suggested that Thomasina’s step-mother had her killed for the inheritance (what else was that PO box payment request letter?) and the same goes for David Ardingly, who also ensured he was on an alibi-providing trip out of the country when his formerly unstoppable aunt’s heart exploded.
On the ‘witches are real’ side: well, you saw those witches, man. They were real.
The Pale Horse concludes next Sunday the 16th of February at 9pm on BBC One.