Killer adaptation

Killer adaptation

By Michael Pickard
December 20, 2023


As Agatha Christie adaptation Murder is Easy arrives on the BBC, director Meenu Gaur and executive producer James Prichard discuss making this two-part murder mystery and why the celebrated author’s work remains timeless.

According to Agatha Christie, for a certain type of person, murder is easy. That would certainly appear to be the case for the murderer – or murderers – at the centre of the latest Christie novel to be adapted for the BBC.

Suitably, the two-parter is called Murder is Easy, which takes its title from the Queen of Crime’s 1939 detective novel of the same name. In 1954, Luke Fitzwilliam (David Jonsson) is on train to London when he meets Miss Pinkerton, who informs him a killer is on the loose in the sleepy English village of Wychwood under Ashe.

A series of deaths there have been explained away as accidents, but Miss Pinkerton knows otherwise – and when she’s later found dead on her way to Scotland Yard, Fitzwilliam feels he must find the killer before they can strike again.

It is the latest Christie adaptation from producer Mammoth Screen for the BBC, following And Then There Were None, Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence, The ABC Murders and The Pale Horse. Mammoth was also behind Hugh Laurie’s Christie adaptation Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? for BritBox.

And in every case, Mammoth has partnered with Agatha Christie Limited (ACL) to bring the author’s novels to the screen.

In Murder is Easy, Luke Fitzwilliam (David Jonsson) tries to track down a killer

When it comes to Murder is Easy, ACL chairman and series executive producer James Prichard – Christie’s great-grandson – says it stands out among the Poirots, Marples and other Christie works thanks to its “most brilliant title.”

“It’s a very typical village mystery,” he says of Murder is Easy. “It has a slightly more of a mystical element to it [than her other novels], and there’s slightly more black magic in the book than there is in a lot of other Agatha Christies. But it’s a very typical murder mystery.

“It obviously has the detective and security in the knowledge that you are going to wrap things up. You get to the end in a more fluid way than you do in a typical Poirot or Marple, where you tend to have the set piece at the end with them telling you what’s happened. It’s a very enjoyable tale.”

In each Christie adaptation, Prichard and his team are primarily involved at the script stage, and then “back off” once pre-production starts to ramp up. In this case, he worked with writer Siân Ejiwunmi-Le Berre, whom he says had a very clear view from the start of what the book was about and what she would do with it.

“And actually, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the book,” he says. “There are a few tweaks here and there, one or two relatively high-profile changes. But actually, if you take the core A to B of the story, it’s pretty much all there.”

The ensemble cast also includes Morfydd Clark and Tom Riley

In director Meenu Gaur (Zinda Bhaag, World on Fire), the production found a self-confessed “obsessive” Christie fan who was excited to have the chance to helm Murder is Easy. But to land the job, she had to win over the series executives with her vision for the show, which has tapped into the 1950s era and the bucolic landscapes of its countryside setting.

“The thing about this Christie is that it’s slightly different from some of her other ones,” Gaur says. “It gave me a Hitchcockian feel as I was reading it [the script], and it was set in the 1950s so I just thought it would be so fun to bring in the glamour, because with Christie, the difference from other murder stuff you might consume is a certain lightness and fun. I wanted to bring that fun and that look and feel from 1950s into it. That was my vision.”

Gaur joined the series – which is distributed by Fifth Season and will air on BritBox in the US, Canada and South Africa – at an early stage and was able to work alongside Ejiwunmi-Le Berre as the writer turned in early drafts of the script.

“Siân and I have a really good, strong relationship. We always say we have our antennas connected,” Gaur says. “There’s a history of voice notes between us where I’m like, ‘I had an idea, what do you think?’ And she’s a very welcoming and fun person to create something with. That was part of the joy of the job we had. We had a good back and forth.”

The production was based in Glasgow, with filming taking place in areas surrounding the Scottish city during July and August this year. Each day on set, Gaur would be working with eight or nine cast members – and more when the schedule called for one of the numerous dinners or parties to be shot.

The show is the latest Agatha Christie adaptation from producer Mammoth Screen

Alongside Jonsson, the ensemble cast includes Morfydd Clark as Bridget, Penelope Wilton as Miss Pinkerton, Tom Riley as Lord Whitfield, Douglas Henshall as Major Horton, Mathew Baynton as Dr Thomas and Mark Bonnar as Reverend Humbleby, alongside Sinead Matthews, Nimra Bucha, Tamzin Outhwaite, Kathryn Howden, Jon Pointing, Demmy Ladipo, Gloria Obianyo and Phoebe Licorish.

“I wanted to bring out colour in a certain way, the way 50s cinema did,” the director says of the show’s visual style. “That was my first inspiration when I read it and I tried to go along with that, and then of course you also have to be ‘period right’ for that time. That’s the balance for everything you do in period – the balance between what you want to do in your vision and what is factually accurate. But if you dig deep into the archives, you will always find evidence for what you want to do.

“Very often with period, we just replicate what we’ve seen before. You may think that is all you can do in the 1950s, but that’s only because that’s how it’s been done before in film and television.”

With Fitzwilliam in almost every scene, Murder is Easy is seen from the investigator’s point of view as an outsider coming into the village and meeting a myriad of characters.

“What leaped out was that it’s being staged as an encounter,” Gaur says. “So there is this man, Luke Fitzwilliam, who has been away for a very long time in another part of the world, and then he encounters this village and its people. It was in my mind that it is an encounter between somebody from outside and these people, and that dictated my way of filming.

Mark Bonnar and Mathew Baynton (right) also feature

“When a stranger comes into town, there is an element of him watching people. But because he’s from outside, people are also watching him, so it’s that tension between him watching and him being watched, and whom is he being watched by? I wanted to create that sort of tension around the main character.”

When bringing any Christie story to the screen, it’s also in the director’s power to place the air of suspicion on any character through something as simple as shot selection.

“It was a standard practice that we would treat everybody as the murderer,” Gaur reveals. “I would have a little bag full of shots where anybody could be the murderer, and then in different scenes, we’d leave it tantalisingly on some person. But that’s Christie, because anybody can be the murderer and you’re supposed to work out who it is. You have to bring to the screen what she does in the books.”

Following a run of adaptations by Sarah Phelps (And Then There Were None, The Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence, The ABC Murders, The Pale Horse), Hugh Laurie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? and the recent big-screen trilogy from Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, A Haunting in Venice), Prichard says that while interest in Christie’s work has never diminished, it is now being taken seriously again after years of being associated with the ‘cosy crime’ genre.

“One of the things Sarah did, and you get it here [with Murder is Easy], is that although there’s quite a lot of death, the deaths matter,” he says. “That is something I feel very strongly about. I hate the phrase ‘cosy crime’ because the implication is that actually the crime doesn’t matter.

The plot unfolds in the fictional village of Wychwood under Ashe

“I feel that my great-grandmother felt murder was an abhorrent thing. She famously really doesn’t let murderers get away with it, and it is never justified. You have to feel that the murder matters. That’s something Sarah did and it’s something Siân has done in this adaptation.

“I say quite a lot that one of the things I’m grateful for is we have very serious people taking Agatha Christie seriously at the moment. Ken Branagh is one, we had Hugh Laurie. It is just remarkable how many serious people are interested and keen on working with Agatha Christie.”

The author’s work remains timeless because her plots are “second to none,” Prichard adds, while her “genius” is that she could implicate a host of people in an intricate murder mystery and then unmask the killer in relatively few words.

Murder is Easy, which airs on BBC One and BBC iPlayer from December 27, is just one example.

“It’s just a very good, simple murder-mystery story where you start with a construct of a death and then you gradually work your way through suspecting everyone to find out who did it in a very satisfying way,” he says. “One of the other things about Agatha Christie is the solution or the ending is often about more than just solving the murder. It’s a very satisfying two-hour drama.”

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