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THE PALE HORSE Showrunner Sarah Phelps on the Striking Subversiveness of Agatha Christie

When you think of Agatha Christie you might think of old ladies, charming but sedentary sleuths, and beautiful locations. Maybe tea in ornate china cups, the steam rising slowly as you look out onto a provincial village square. This decades long cozy and often saccharine tradition of adapting Christie’s numerous mystery novels has undoubtedly shaped the way that her stories are culturally remembered. But over the past few years, British writer Sarah Phelps has been changing that assumption one chilling, brutal, and brilliant Christie adaptation at a time. Her newest is The Pale Horse.

“Before I did And Then There Were None, I hadn’t really read any Christie,” Phelps told me when we chatted over the phone. “I think there are people who always had Christie on their bookshelves growing up, and when you’re young and you read something that has that adult tinge to it, that murder and depravity, those undercurrents of sex, you fall in love with it. But they were never on the shelves at my house.”

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BBC, Lifetime 

That lack of connection didn’t mean that Phelps wasn’t aware of Christie as living in England means that was a near impossibility. “You can’t escape knowing about Agatha Christie. Of course you know who she is! But I’d never even watched any adaptations of her books. I’d known Peter Ustinov and David Suchet had played Poirot. I knew Joan Hickson had played Ms. Marple along with many others. I just thought this is not for me; I don’t have a taste for that sort of cozy ‘somebody’s been murdered during a tennis match but nobody really minds it’s just a bit of an inconvenience because they’re bleeding on the rug.’ I felt that it didn’t appeal to me at all, I hadn’t even considered out of curiosity going to look at it, I just thought this is all very English and it’s all rather aggressive.”

But that changed when Damien Timmer from Mammoth Screen forced Phelps into reading And Then There Were None. “He said, ‘Read And Then There Were None.’ And I said, ‘I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna, it’s not my thing!’ And he said, ‘Just shut up and read it.’ So I read it under duress and was just totally blown away by how brutal it was. The savagery was just astonishing, and I was reading it and thinking, ‘This isn’t fucking cozy–this is Escalus!’ There was something about the rhythm of it. It’s remorseless, it’s just action begets action begets action.”

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BBC, Amazon

As Phelps sat and read the book, inspiration struck her immediately. “I thought, ‘I know exactly how I’m going to do it.’ So I went and pitched the Christie Estate for the version that I wanted to write. They said, ‘Why don’t we do it in the modern era?’ And I was like, ‘No, it’s the summer of 1939. And it is the eve before the Second World War begins. And I want to tell a story of what it feels like to stand on the very edge of the world, as your doom hastens towards you, your obliteration.’ It is wide eyed, unblinking, and remorseless, and it doesn’t care how many people you killed or whether you didn’t quite kill somebody, you just looked away. It doesn’t care what your circumstance is. It is merciless.”

With a newfound respect for the iconic mystery writer, Phelps awed at the speed in which Christie wrote and put out her books and how the author upturned societal expectations. “You have these 10 characters on this island, and all of those characters are archetypes. You could say they are all absolute products of the First World War if you like, and they sound like figures on a on a games board. The spinster, the mercenary, the butler, the school mistress, the judge, the general, etc, etc. And as you get to know them, these people with whom you feel safe, because they’ve got the same accents as you, because they feel like people you know, you find out that they’re all murderers. And more to the point, you find out that actually they don’t really care. They only care that they’ve been caught.”

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BBC, Amazon

Phelps continued. “I just kept thinking, ‘This is so subversive.’ Everybody thinks that she’s cozy and what she’s saying is, ‘As you look down the barrel of another World War where we should be united in national identity, you have no idea who you are standing next to or that there’s a red mark of pain upon their brow and all they really care about is the fact that they’ve been caught.’ I thought, ‘You sly old bitch, Agatha!’ You’ve been coming across as this cozy lady who just likes a bit of a puzzle, and there’s this stealthy, incisive, narrow eyed, flinty way of absolutely eviscerating the norms, prejudices, and behaviors.”

It was this realization that lit the spark that would become the brutal and brilliant body of Phelps’ exhilarating catalog of Christie adaptations. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought that there’s something to be done here. Christie had such a long writing career and I kept thinking, ‘I wonder if you could basically tell a story of 50 years of the 20th century–the tumultuous, blood soaked, warlike 20th century–via the medium of murder mystery, seen through the eyes of Agatha Christie like we’d never seen her before.’ You have to think, she’s writing from the early 1920s until the late 1960s. I mean, holy hell, what an extraordinary attempt to write across that extraordinary amount of time. It’s just staggering.”

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BBC, Amazon

So what were the novels that Phelps chose to tell that greater story? It began with her stunningly savage vision of And Then There Were None. From there Phelps turned her eye to Christie’s searing stage play Witness For the Prosecution. Next up was a dark meditation on motherhood and murder with Ordeal by Innocence. Then she gave us John Malkovich as an elderly Poirot facing down facsism and masochistic killings in The ABC Murders. And her next Christie adaptation is the upcoming folk horror inspired take on The Pale Horse.

“I created this kind of rubric internally in the shows where they all kind of talk to each other, which is there for me and it’s there for the really nerdy people observing it. For example, And Then There Were None is set in 1939 and in Witness for the Prosecution the date of the murder is the same date as the Beer Hall Putsch which was the first time the world heard the name of Adolf Hitler. Then in 1933 and The ABC Murders it’s all about the rise of the British Union of Fascists, and when we get to 1961 and The Pale Horse it’s the year that Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem and you can watch the trial on TV.”

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BBC, Amazon

Phelps continued. “That’s when Hannah Arendt coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ and I thought, ‘What a way to kind of pack everything together from Witness for the Prosecution through ABC Murders, And Then There Were None, and Ordeal by Innocence right into The Pale Horse.’ So yeah, it was a good, kind of mad idea, and then it happened.”

The Pale Horse lands on Amazon on March 13th, and you can watch all of Phelps’ other brilliant Agatha Christie adaptations on the streamer right now.

Header Image: Amazon