BBC told to stop murdering Agatha Christie novels

Ordeal by Innocence
In Ordeal by Innocence, starring Bill Nighy, the murderer was changed - James Fisher
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The BBC should stop rewriting the plots of Agatha Christie novels and come up with original ideas instead, an expert on her work has said.

Christie was “precious” about her work and objected during her lifetime to TV adaptations which departed from her storylines, said Andrew Wilson, an author who has spent years researching the crime writer.

Recent BBC adaptations of Christie’s mysteries have committed multiple crimes against the original text, going so far as to change the identity of the murderer in Ordeal by Innocence.

In The Pale Horse, the protagonist was turned into a murderer, despite killing no one in the book.

Both were written by Sarah Phelps whose third adaptation, The ABC Murders, gave Hercule Poirot a backstory as a Catholic priest.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie sold the rights to several of her novels but was horrified by the screen adaptations, Andrew Wilson said - Popperfoto/via Getty Images

The most recent BBC One adaptation, Murder Is Easy, switched the investigator from a retired British policeman returning from the Far East to a young Nigerian man coming to England to take up a job in Whitehall. It was adapted by writer Ejiwunmi-Le Berre, who said the change was in homage to her family.

Wilson said that Christie was horrified by the 1960s films starring Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple because the stories did not resemble those in her novels.

Asked if she was precious about her plots, Wilson said: “She was, actually. Agatha did a deal with MGM in her lifetime and sold the rights to a number of novels, and was appalled with what she’d done because, as she watched those Margaret Rutherford films, for all their joy and humour they’ve got nothing to do with any of Agatha’s plots,” he told the Oxford Literary Festival.

“She was ashamed that she’d done that for money, and it took her and her relatives such a long time before they trusted anyone. That’s why there is quite a big gap before the big films like Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express in the 1970s.

“And the last seven years on the BBC – some of them have been faithful, And Then There Were None was a brilliant production – but some of them are less faithful. I’m thinking of Ordeal by Innocence, in which the murderer was changed and the way they killed was changed.

“And I just think if you want to do that, don’t adapt an Agatha Christie. Write your own novel. Because one thing about Agatha Christie that makes her so brilliant, and what makes her so enduring, is that she’s such an extraordinarily good plotter.”

He went on: “Screenplays, really, are all plot. It’s all about story, how character and story interact, and I think some of the adaptations, particularly the BBC ones, haven’t been as good as they could be.”

Agatha Christie's Murder Is Easy
The BBC's Murder is Easy switched the investigator from a retired British policeman to a young Nigerian man - Anne Binckebanck/BBC
Murder is Easy
Mathew Baynton and David Jonsson in Murder is Easy. Writer Ejiwunmi-Le Berre, said the change was in homage to her family - Anne Binckebanck/BBC

Wilson has written four books featuring Christie as a character including A Talent for Murder, which reimagines her 1926 disappearance as a crime story.

When The Pale Horse was broadcast in 2020, Phelps responded to criticism of her plot changes. “Of course I’ve taken liberties. Have I changed loads of stuff? Yeah, of course I have. Loads and loads and loads of stuff, otherwise you’d have 30 hours of TV and would you want to watch it? No.

“But I always go for the beating heart of what she’s getting at and she always throws you little clues, little quantum details.”

Agatha Christie's Murder Is Easy is the BC's latest adaptation
Agatha Christie's Murder Is Easy - Mark Mainz
The Pale Horse
The Pale Horse, starring Rufus Sewell, the protagonist was turned into a murderer despite killing no one in the book - Ben Blackall/BBC

The Christie estate is run by her great-grandson, James Prichard, who has said that allowing Phelps to change the ending of Ordeal by Innocence was one of the hardest decisions of his working life.

He previously told The Telegraph: “I think sometimes you do have to make hard and radical decisions. Yes, we will upset a lot of my great-grandmother’s fans and to some extent I apologise to them and to some extent I don’t.

“This is not a decision we take lightly. We do set out to use the Agatha Christie story. If we weren’t doing that, why would anyone even bother to attach us to the project and pay us for the privilege? But sometimes you just have to take those decisions.”

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