And then there was Sarah…
Sarah Phelps has been at Mipcom in Cannes this week, promoting And Then There Were None, her adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic thriller for the BBC and Lifetime.
Explaining the appeal of the project, she says: “Until I read this, I had never read any Agatha Christie before. I knew about Marple and Poirot so I thought of her work as a camp treat. When I read this book it took my breath away. It wasn’t anything like I expected. I was sideswiped by its coldness and savagery. It was surprising and shocking but also thrilling.”
For Phelps, the project seemed to both foreshadow the horrors of World War Two and, at the same time, echo a Greek Tragedy: “I kept thinking of Electra. It’s a story where there is nowhere to hide. You can make all the excuses you want, but it doesn’t make a difference. The characters have broken some pledge in their essential humanity and now they are before the ferocious eye of God. It’s a story that has a really ancient idea of judgement. There is no ambiguity, reasoning or mitigation.”
While a superb film adaptation of And Then There Were None was released in 1945, starring Barry Fitzgerald, Phelps says she has “a hard and fast rule” to not look at previous versions. “When adapting, I only look at the books – otherwise it is someone else’s interpretation. It has to be a pure response.”
In terms of making the story relevant, the writer says it wasn’t too difficult to make an emotional connection between the sombre mood on the eve of WW2 and the current air of danger and despondency that exists in Europe. “We don’t change in our lusts and enmities and pettiness and jealousies – we just get wifi. What you have to do to stay relevant is invest your story with all the passions and complexities you’d expect from your characters. If you try too hard to be relevant, you’ll fail because the world around you is shifting all the time.”
Phelps laughs when she is referred to as an adapter of novels: “A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have expected to be talking about adaptations today. I was writing EastEnders, a production for which I have a massive passion. I then got a call from the BBC asking if I would consider adapting Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I said yes because I like writing about London and have a fruitiness of language that was right for the project. And I’m quick at writing scripts, which was important because this was a late call in terms of the production schedule. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading the book and then telling the story as it was in my head. It felt like something that came naturally, and it wasn’t that dissimilar to working on a show like EastEnders.”
Part of the excitement for Phelps is working with source material that many people don’t actually know quite as well as they might think. “People think they know Oliver Twist but not many have actually read the novel. And there is a lot of surprising stuff in there. It was the same when I adapted Great Expectations. For example, it has become the norm to present Miss Haversham as an old witch – but show me the page where it says she has to be like that. The story has always been regarded as having a fusty familiarity but it’s actually a brutal tale of failure that carries with it this plot centred on a corrupt, sexualised education.”
Phelps is at her most passionate when talking about EastEnders: “I was always devoted to it. I grew up watching it and was thrilled to bits to work on it. Some people are dismissive of soaps but it’s an incredibly important show – and when it hits its note, it sings. The show doesn’t shy away from doing incredibly serious stuff but it can also be lots of fun and really entertain the audience.
“It plays an important role in the early evening when people have just come home from work and are tired. It says, ‘Stick with me and I’ll tell you a story… you won’t be alone.’ It’s the fire in the cave and you’re the storyteller. And when people are moved by it, you walk on air.”
Phelps is not a writer who has a problem introducing diversity to her projects. She’s been doing it since she wrote radio drama Westway for the BBC World Service and always tries to avoid the easy option when shaping a character.
“I think things have changed in my time because so many good people have been challenging on this issue. We don’t have to automatically assume a character is white. I was bouncing off the walls with excitement when Sophie Okonedo was cast as Nancy in my adaptation of Oliver Twist. I really liked the recent drama Danny and the Human Zoo (from Red Productions) – and I also liked the fact it had a black female director.”
Phelps is very much in demand as a writer now. She tries to get back and pen an episode of EastEnders when she can but also has new projects coming through. She is, for example, one of a number of writers working on Red Planet’s Hooten and the Lady, an adventure series with a touch of Indiana Jones about it.
“It’s going to be an extravagantly fun romance/action adventure. I like darkness and brow-furrowing but I also really like shows with lots of gags and banter and swinging through the air finding treasure. We all need stuff that makes us laugh and makes us feel like we’re in the company of good mates.”
And Then There Were None will debut on BBC1 in the UK later this year to coincide with the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth.