Watching a new BBC Television adaptation of an old classic often gives the viewer the chance to reassess the original film versions. So long ago, I paid to go and see the film adaptation of Oliver Twist based on the novel by Charles Dickens, starring Alec Guinness and Robert Newton. They were formidable as Fagin and Sikes, dominating the proceedings with their menace and David Lean’s brilliant direction. Perhaps that’s why John Howard Davies, who played young Oliver, went on to have a career based on comedy. Anyway, I was musing throughout this latest television adaptation by Sarah Phelps, and I was struck by number of quite different thoughts. Let’s start with the workhouse. This was suitably bleak and seemed to be completely lacking in any attempt to educate the children. This leads me into the old nature/nurture debate. In this version of Dickensian reality, it seems Oliver Twist (William Miller) will always emerge from the horrors of deprivation and abusive punishment with almost complete innocence and a trusting nature. He immediately feels different when meeting the Artful Dodger (Adam Arnold) and subsequently going through grooming by Fagin (Timothy Spall). He almost instantly relates to Mr Brownlow (Edward Fox). This is disturbing. Mr Bumble (Gregor Fisher) has it right when he says almost every boy from the workhouse ends up a career criminal, i.e. transported or hung. Charles Dickens is playing the game of binary opposites. Oliver is not the Dodger, Fagin is not Mr Brownlow. It’s odd that having introduced Noah (Adam Gillen) in the opening sequences at the undertakers, he does not reappear with Fagin. The whole point of Noah in the novel is that we see him as a bad lot and have this confirmed when he later joins Fagin in London. This is the career expected of all those of a criminal disposition. Somehow Oliver is immune from this fate. He’s the changeling who immediately fits in with the Browlows of this world.
The decision to cast Sophie Okonedo as Nancy is rather pleasing although I’m not convinced anyone brought up in the East End would be so quickly motherly to the likes of Oliver. Julian Rhind-Tutt as Edward Leeford (or Monks when he meets with criminals) is decidedly the most personable villain we’ve seen for a long time. He’s a delight which is not really the impression he ought to be creating. I prefer him to be rather more Gothic. The decision to make him the grandson of Mr Brownlow is bizarre. Although Charles Dickens also plays with coincidence by having Oliver burgle the house of Rose Maylie (Morven Christie), who later proves to be his his aunt, putting all the main characters in the same London household makes the whole plot too contrived. I understand that it saves money on finding and filming at different locations, but the whole point of the adaptation should be to make the best version of the original as possible, not write something second-rate. As proof of this, in the novel, Monks throws the necklace and ring into the river and does not carry incriminating evidence around with him. He may be dangerous, but he’s not completely stupid.
Tom Hardy as Sikes is good but somehow lacks the brooding physicality I normally associate with the role. He’s somehow mellow and capable of peaceful moments whereas Robert Newton or Oliver Reed managed to remain fearsome all the time. This rather undercuts the emotional force when he murders Nancy. Although the wandering around in the woods only to end up back in London is not untrue to the melodramatic original, the implication he would commit suicide in a sewer pursued by her ghost is out of character. The original accidental death as he’s pursued by the Bow Street Runners across the rooftops is far better. He would never willingly give up. Worse, he would never carry Oliver back to London after the failed burglary. I suppose it makes for good television to have Nancy nurse him back to health, but this is forced from the decision to have Sikes rescue him. Although it’s strange the Maylies would call in a doctor to treat the wounded Oliver, that’s what Charles Dickens preferred with the rehabilitation of the boy followed by the illness of Rose.
Watching the Artful Dodger grow up is done well. Having him inherit Bullseye and stalk off into the crowds after the hanging is a nice touch.
This Fagin is not really a criminal gang-master but a rather broken-down fence, easily intimidated by Sikes and his ilk. The lair is well-appointed with beds and Fagin does a good breakfast for the boys. Unlike earlier versions, this Fagan also seems to feel some sympathy for Oliver. In short, he doesn’t seem bad enough. Which leads me to a final note of bemusement. In this adaptation, the trial of Fagin offers him the chance to avoid hanging if he converts to Christianity. This is not in the original text and I find myself unable to understand why this note of anti-Semitism should have been introduced.
So this version of Oliver Twist is good in part, but fundamentally undercut by the central performances of Timothy Spall as Fagin and Edward Fox as a completely wooden Brownlow. Insofar as they are intended to be binary opposites, the view of Fagin offering Oliver sausages for breakfast is just too much like the gesture you might expect at the hand of Mr Brownlow. Sadly, the production is let down by the script and some of the decisions taken by Coky Giedroyc as director. If only the team had taken off its rose-tinted glasses, we would have had a better view of the London Dickens was describing.
Agatha Christie was sometimes tempted into flirting with the supernatural. There’s the collection appropriately named The Hound of Death, and some of the stories involving Harley Quin. Then we have the séances. Some are explicitly fake as in The Sittaford Mystery and Peril At End House. But there are others where, at first sight, there might be real “spooks”, e.g. Dumb Witness. The novel, The Pale Horse, is more explicit in the tradition of Dennis Weatley with its black magic theme, and then there’s this slightly atmospheric novel with the murder taking place during Halloween. If there’s a consistent theme, it’s the effect the dead have on the living. Many characters are left with the feeling there are loose ends from the past. Some bear burdens of guilt. In a sense, this is perfectly consistent with the literature with which Agatha Christie grew up. There’s a wonderful Gothic tradition that mixes in with both the bottom, penny-dreadful end of the market and the more classic work of Conan Doyle, H G Wells, and so on. It’s not surprising she should have tipped her toe in the supernatural pool from time to time, e.g. to spice up a murder in an exotic location as in Murder in Mesopotamia.
In this adaptation, there’s a deliberate attempt to create atmosphere both at the beginning and later when Rowena Drake (Deborah Findlay) is walking back through the woods to her country home. I confess to being slightly ambivalent about this. Although I accept the legitimacy of creating an ambiance for the children’s halloween party, the murder itself has no supernatural connotations and there’s nothing else to justify the notion there may be a deranged stalker lurking in the woods — it’s a bit like a poor man’s slasher film and somewhat out of character with the rest of the programme. The other shift in emphasis comes from the change in the manner of the earlier school teacher’s death which is used to substantiate several hints she and the child victim were witches who went through a form of trial by water.
Putting aside these minor aberrations, the rest of the production is played straight and without any more obviously supernatural hints (allowing for the fact Agatha Christie did set one scene on an altar supposedly used for pagan rituals). Charles Palmer follows on from The Clocks with another stylish adaptation, this time penned by the increasingly ubiquitous Mark Gatiss, that stays reasonably faithful to the spirit of the original. I forgive the decision not to allow the murder(s) to escape justice. The final confrontation we see does quite perfectly capture the extent of the narcissism involved although, as I recall the original, there maybe one too many murders listed in the reveal at the end. I’ll have to dig out my copy and refresh my memory. But, more seriously, there’s the problem of the supposed lesbian relationship and the less than convincing explanation of how it ended. It’s a slightly tiresome feature of several of these Christie adaptations that a sexual subtext has been added or overemphasised. Once the decisions are taken to drop The Elms school and to change Janet White’s cause of death to generate more emphasis on the supernatural side, I suppose Mark Gatiss is forced into the open, but it runs completely contrary to the spirit of a story transplanted back into the 1930s.
As to the cast, it’s always good to see Zoë Wanamaker, this time returning as Ariadne Oliver. There’s a timeless and effortless quality to her acting and, although she’s left somewhat in the background here, she has some nice moments with David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. There’s a nice cameo from Timothy West, Julian Rhind-Tutt is eminently watchable despite all the hair, and Deborah Findlay is one of these stately-as-a-galleon matriarchs who runs a tight ship of a household despite the presence of two unprepossessing children gratuitously introduced by Mark Gatiss.
So, Hallowe’en Party is quite a pleasing version of a novel that came towards the end of Agatha Christie’s writing career, i.e. it sags a bit in the middle. The core mystery is fairly obvious from quite an early stage, but there’s some nice misdirection as to who’s responsible for the deaths. David Suchet shows no sign of slowing down although his feet hurt a little during the filming. There are only a few more of the Christie canon left to adapt. Roll on 2012.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)