In the days following Christmas, the BBC provided viewers with a second annual Agatha Christie adaptation, titled The Witness For The Prosecution. Continuing on from the high drama of last year’s And Then There Were None, this courtroom drama was far more understated but powerfully packed with reflections on love, society and inequality.
A two-part drama, The Witness For The Prosecution naturally began with a murder, that of Emily French (Kim Cattrall), an older woman who lives an expensive life. We’re presented with potential culprits, from her devoted maid Janet McIntyre (Monica Dolan) to her young paramour of the moment, Leonard Vole (Billy Howle). Even more suspiciously, Vole had just been named as sole beneficiary of her considerable assets. Trapped in the middle of all this is bumbling lawyer John Mayhew (Toby Jones) and Vole’s Austrian parter, Romaine Heilger (Andrea Riseborough).
After watching this, and being an obsessive about the process of adaptation, the first thing I did was read over Christie’s original short story, and revisit adapted radio plays. The story itself has been adapted numerous times, most notably for Hollywood’s golden age in a movie written by legend Billy Wilder. Every version is slightly different, taking from the sparse original story and transforming it to suit whatever the intended message may be.
For a television adaptation that was capped at just two hours, the BBC version is remarkable in what it chooses to expand or exclude, adding incredible backstories to characters who had none. It keeps the Christie flair throughout too, meaning that anything added feels natural, as if it had simply been grudgingly left on the cutting room floor of the original text.
One excellent example of this is the lawyer Mayhew, whose complete belief in Leonard stems not only from naivety, but from a desperate attempt to atone for the son he couldn’t save in the war. His marriage is crumbling and irreparably broken, as he completely misreads everything and everyone around him. Played with the kind of depth and understated emotion that Toby Jones is a true master of, his tragic story from the original text becomes even more so, and in turn it’s the true backbone of the plot.
Despite this, it feels almost unfair to single out Jones’ performance when The Witness For The Prosecution features a cast who are all on top form. Kim Cattrall makes an impression, despite such brief conscious screen time, whilst Andrea Riseborough is completely spellbinding, allowing her character to transform seamlessly between what appears to be raw emotion and a cold, haunted mask.
The background of the war looms over everyone like a shadow throughout the drama, whilst the treatment of various characters in the wake makes a comment on pervading misogyny and xenophobia of the time. Unfortunately so, that doesn’t feel so unfamiliar now. Many viewers will understand the fury of Romaine Heilger, as her partner’s affairs are overshadowed in the trial whilst her own alleged secret lover completely rules her out and the verdict turns as a result. In a show of defiant strength and although it frustrates her, she uses the prejudice and inequality that she expects to manipulate proceedings.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg – it’s remarkable that a drama evolved from one short story can contain such a broad spectrum of themes and social commentary. The Witness of The Prosecution is a fine addition to the BBC’s new Agatha Christie adaptations, with substance packed into the classic murder mystery. Even better, its re-watch value is unlikely to be tarnished as a result, despite the classic reveal of a grand plot twist. If you didn’t catch it on Boxing Day, catching up on streaming services is definitely worthwhile. It’s just terrific television.