BBC One’s The Pale Horse is the fifth Agatha Christie adaptation celebrated and award winning screenwriter Sarah Phelps has worked on after And Then There Were None (2015), The Witness For The Prosecution (2016), Ordeal By Innocence (2018) and The ABC Murders (2018) and for her it’s formed a quintet chronicling the 20th Century.
“The idea of it came to me when I was in the middle of doing And Then There Were None,” She says. “I thought maybe there would be a way to tell a story about 50 years of the blood-soaked and tumultuous 20th Century via the medium of murder mysteries from a writer who maybe didn’t invent it, but certainly made the genre her own.”
This latest is set in the ‘60s, split between a decadent and sophisticated London and the rural village of Much Deeping with our ‘hero’ Mark Easterbrook (Rufus Sewell) caught up in a series of unexplained deaths which might just be linked to three mysterious witches.
Playing on traditions of folk horror from the Hammer films to The Wicker Man, this might just be the darkest adaptation yet.
“It’s where you take a really ordinary domestic setting and you put something into it that is so genuinely horrifying that it makes your blood go cold,” she smiles.
We sat down with Phelps to talk witches, rituals and Christie’s dark side.
The Pale Horse has differences from the book. How much have you changed the end?
Sarah Phelps: I’ve changed elements of the end but not the END end. Obviously lots has changed but there are certain themes of the story which are massively important to [Agatha Christie]. So I didn’t change that. I just wound it up as far as it could go and saw what happened. There’s probably more changes in The Pale Horse than there is to any of the others that I’ve done. But I think in pursuing what she was keen on writing about, I think it delivers on that.
How did this compare to the other four that you have done?
It was a right headfuck! It’s very difficult because when you’re adapting these, you’re always spinning plates because what you don’t want to do is by the time you get to the end, feel like you’ve misled the audience. You’ve just misdirected them. So they have to be able to “[gasps],” but it has to be almost at the same time that everybody else does.
You don’t want your audience to feel like they’ve been told a lie, you want your audience to feel like they’ve been actively on that road almost thinking the same things at the same time as everyone else. That’s a really hard thing.
It’s full of the trappings of folk horror. When you were writing did you think of it as a folk horror story?
Yes, sort of. In the book they talk a lot about Much Deeping. I’m really interested in things like that. Where I live at the moment is known as the Witch Hunt Corridor. It’s the borders of Essex, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. And this is genuinely where the Witchfinder General did the majority of the trials and this is where the majority of women were tried, found guilty of suckling Satan, and put to death and hanged or drowned or set fire to.
That kind of quality was really exciting to me and I’m fascinated by it. The Lammas day parade – I was fooling about online, as you do when you’ve got a deadline and I was looking at all these rituals surrounding bread and harvest. I’m also really interested in the nastier rituals around sewing, plowing and harvest. How you can guarantee that you’re going to have a good harvest back in the day was you’d have a young virgin girl walking ahead of the seed sowers to make sure that everything grew. And of course if your harvests failed then she wasn’t a virgin and she’d be put to death. A nice bit of folk history there.
I was just thinking about that and how you could weave those darker practices and rituals into the story of Much Deeping and came across this photo of a Lammas celebration and came up with this idea of trying to make a king out of bread and things like that. And then everything really took off and it seemed to really unlock the story. I was looking up all the different kinds of rituals of people wearing masks made out of straw. Absolutely terrifying! I fell really in love with that.
So that and the incredibly sophisticated cultured world of driving around in Lagondas with beautiful cufflinks and wearing beautifully cut suits and having beautiful dinner parties where you make salmon scales out of cucumber. It seemed to be both part and parcel of the same thing. I was doing that folk horror in swanky London.
Were you influenced by The Wicker Man?
Oh yeah, I know that film really well, I love that film. It’s one of those folk horrors that gets into your DNA because you can remember the first time you saw it when you weren’t supposed to be watching a film like that, but it was on late and you snuck down to watch it. But also when I was younger, I was such a devotee of the Hammer films and the armchair thrillers and things like that.
It’s where you take a really ordinary domestic setting and you put something into it that is so genuinely horrifying that it makes your blood go cold. And so all of those things like The Wicker Man, the Hammer movies, some of the Roald Dahls, the ghost stories I used to read as a child, the Penelope Lively ghost stories and things like that. Really old versions of fairytales, which I love. The really dark grim ones, and Don’t Look Now and Rosemary’s Baby and all those sorts of things.
This is horror set in the sunshine…
Great sunshine, beautiful greenness and the corn is growing and everything else. And there’s this shiver that runs through the blood because even in bright sunshine, there’s something scratching at the back of your neck. And you might see it if you turn your head quickly, or it might’ve disappeared by that point. Just what happens, just out of the corner of your eye. In The Bacchae you can only see Dionysis from the corner of your eye. You can’t see him directly you can only see him on the very periphery of your vision. So I’m always thinking about that. What happens in the periphery of your vision?
Tell us about the recurring images of the Agnes Dei painting and the polar bear that appear in your series of adaptations?
The Lamb, the Agnes Dei was always there, I don’t know why I became fixated about it that this seemed to me to be a really good way of describing the Agatha Christie universe, which is this fantastic painting and you don’t know whether the lamb is dead or alive – it has no free will. The deed has been done.
And the way I think about the Agatha Christie universe is you have a hero or the antihero, the main character, and there was a point at which they put their foot on a position and that point comes way back… they have no choice. They had a choice a long time ago and they didn’t take it.
And the bear, because I really love the idea about things being at the end of the world. For some reason the Arctic always seems to crop up. In Ordeal By Innocence you have somebody who’d come back from the Arctic. You had the polar bear skin rug in And Then There Were None, which ended up being one of the ways that somebody got killed. And I just thought, we’re in the fifth one. Let’s take that and let’s have Mark (Rufus Sewell) unbox it in the very first scene and make you go, ” Something terrible is going to happen to this man”. You’ve got the warning on the wall and now he’s unboxing the other warning, he should pay more attention to what he’s doing.
There’s an internal rubric to all of it. In Witness For The Prosecution the date of the murder was the date of the The Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, which is when the outside world first heard the name of Adolf Hitler. In The Pale Horse, Mark is reading a newspaper, the front cover is all about the control of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and the banality of evil. And it felt like you were bringing everything full circle and telling a story about the chimney stacks, and the railroads, and the explosions and the bombs and the obliterated cities through this quite small, cozy little genre. A way of looking through and seeing the wider world through the tiny details in a domestic murder.
Would you do another Christie adaptation? Are there any that you would really love to do and have you read all the books?
I haven’t read all the books because I came to this having never read a Christie and having never even watched a Christie all the way through. I knew that Peter Ustinov had played him and I knew that there were these marvelous, waspish, bitchy films of Evil Under The Sun where Diana Rigg comes down dressed in a turban and Maggie Smith says “Have a sausage. You must be starving”. I never watched it all the way through.
You can’t escape being aware of it, but I never thought it was something that was me. So when Damian [Timmer – producer] put me in a headlock and told me to read it, I didn’t want to but I did and went, “Holy shit, this is Aeschylus! This is really brutal! This is extraordinary! This is savage!” And because it came as such a shock, I didn’t want to dilute the shock by becoming familiar with all the tropes.
So I’ve tended to try and be as restrictive in my reading so that every time I read it, it braces me up. But there were some of the short stories, the early short stories that I find astonishing.They’re early, they sometimes feel a little bit without craft, but in terms of capturing an atmosphere, they are chilling. There’s one called Philomel Cottage, which is about a really toxic marriage. The way she draws the atmosphere!
Then there’s a story called The Mystery Of The Blue Jar, which is one of the most upsetting, unsettling stories you can ever imagine. It’s an amazing story about the after effects of the first world war and about post traumatic stress disorder and somebody believing that they can hear the ghost of a murder, that they can hear a woman screaming and they’re desperately trying to find out what happened, to do what’s right and are being apparently helped by kind people who are willing to do their very best.
But we realise that they’ve got no interest, that they’ve been driving him slowly mad. They’ve been playing on this vulnerable man with smiles and with kindness because he’s got something that they want. And the malice of it is absolutely breathtaking. It is about war damage and about cruelty. It’s one of the reasons why I think she’s subversive. She doesn’t say, “Look at us all being cozy and having similar interests, standing shoulder to shoulder.” We’re all liars.
Far from being cozy, there’s something really unsettling about her. She says, we don’t all share common interests. We’re not all decent. We will look at somebody completely vulnerable and destroy them to get what we want. I find that really bracing and really scary and exhilarating as a flinty eyed view of human nature.
People are horrible really…
I think that’s what annoys me about when she’s like, “Oh, here comes somebody on a bicycle and it’s going to solve everything.” She’s got something else to say. There’s a mind working there and there’s sharp eyes that see. And that’s why I think there’s always that tension, between writing the book that people want to read because she’s so popular and, God, you’ve got to pay the tax and you’ve got to keep the roof over your head and you’ve got to carry on being Agatha Christie. And then there’s the book she would like to write which just gives you a shiver and you go, “There’s someone else here and she needs reappraising.”
The Pale Horse is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now