Sunday , March 29 2020
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DEBORAH ROSS: Agatha Christie purists will be livid but I’m intrigued. Ish

The Pale Horse

BBC1, Sunday



Channel 4, Wednesday


The screenwriter Sarah Phelps has been taking liberties with Agatha Christie murder mysteries for quite some time. Plots are revised.

Characters are redrawn or may be ejected. Language is updated – here we had one ‘raddled arse’ and also one ‘F off!’ – and sensibilities are reshaped.

The purists are always livid. Why bother, when what’s left isn’t really Christie at all? What treachery is this? Get a life, Sarah Phelps.

But for the non-purists, as well as those who, perhaps, suspect Christie couldn’t be kept going any other way, there is only one question, and it is: is it entertaining? And in this instance? Yes. Ish.


Rufus Sewell (and cheekbones) with Kaya Scodelario in The Pale Horse. The atmosphere is, from the off, one of thick dread

The Pale Horse, a two-parter, is Phelps’s fifth adaptation and opens with a trio of ‘witches’ telling the fortune of a young woman who wants to know if she will make her new husband happy.

The ‘witches’, as we will discover, live in the small village of Much Deeping amid pickled snakes in jars and what looks like an armadillo foetus. 

The atmosphere is, from the off, one of thick dread, and this never accedes to anything pacier even if you may be longing for it to do so.

(If you remember, Phelps’s Poirot, played by John Malkovich in The ABC Murders, was so heavily depressed it was like we were all swimming uphill through treacle.) 

The Fifth Man was so prickly even the Russians couldn’t.


With rich flavours and sunshine bottled from less wintry..


Anyway, the young woman is later found dead in mysterious circumstances and her husband, Mark Easterbrook (Rufus Sewell, whose cheekbones have been awarded their own appreciative Twitter account), is absolutely heartbroken.

But then he marries a woman he doesn’t appear to like very much, which did seem odd. Next, his side-totty, a showgirl, also dies in mysterious circumstances, and then yet another woman, who has a list of names hidden in her shoe.


Some of the names are already dead and the rest are about to be, presumably. Mark is on the list, as is a hysterical shopkeeper (Bertie Carvel with comedy teeth).

Inspector Lejeune (a dour Sean Pertwee) begins to investigate. And the dread continues as dead rats are found in sinks, corn dollies are left here and there, and the ‘Lammas Tide’ festival in Much Deeping draws us into folk-horror territory.

(There’s more wicker in Much Deeping than there is in The Wicker Man, you should know, if you’re thinking of a day out there.) But creepiest of all, we can tell who is about to perish because they will lose a lock of hair.

A clump will fall out, just like that. It did make you shudder.


There are elements to like. Sewell, and his cheekbones, are excellent.

Plus, he can do piercing looks of the sort that pin you to the wall. (Those eyes, which are what? Yellow-green, like a cat’s?) And also subsidiary characters are given some heft, especially the second Mrs Easterbrook (Kaya Scodelario) who, consigned to the life of a Sixties housewife, is bored piping fillings into vol-au-vents and, despairing of her marriage, frenziedly attacks a feather bolster cushion with a knife.

(That is, frenziedly as shown in slow motion. Nothing is ever done fast.

) She is fascinating. As for modern sensibilities, I did rather enjoy Phelps’s little pokes at male entitlement.

I don’t believe in fortune-telling, Mark tells the witches, because ‘I’m a rational man.’ ‘A master of the universe?’, responds one, sceptically.


So that’s all good, but there are negatives too. Thick dread, yes, but tension? None at all.

And there are plot holes aplenty. Why would the inspector have even been at the autopsy of the woman with the list in her shoe? Plus, the attention to Sixties period detail is so fetishised it’s distracting.

Those freestanding kitchen larder cupboards, are they worth anything now? Mark’s car, with the gleaming walnut dashboard and the doors that open the wrong way? How many cyclists would you kill with doors like that? The green of Lejeune’s office – would it work in my hall? 

I was so busy studying the mise-en-scène that I often lost track of what was going on and would have to rewind. 

Still, as we left it, Mark gets into his car with its gleaming walnut dashboard etc, runs his fingers through his hair… yes, indeed.

I may watch next week’s conclusion as I am intrigued. Ish.


A quick shout out for Home, the comedy written by Rufus Jones about a Syrian refugee who ends up in Dorking and, while the premise sounds unlikely, it is delightful and sweet, and Sami (Youssef Kerkour) should never have been ousted from that marmalade competition. (You’ll know what I mean if you watched; it wasn’t fair, was it?) 

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Rebecca Staton in Home. At first, I couldn’t see why Katy had partnered up with Peter but now I’m rather fond

It also stars Jones as Peter, who inadvertently smuggled Sami to the UK in his car boot, and voted Leave, and this week he lost his job due to Brexit.

Still, when the penny dropped, he took it very well and only went mad with a yucca plant while stripped naked. 

This is a sitcom that has allowed its characters to grow – at first, I couldn’t see why Katy (Rebekah Staton) had partnered up with Peter but now I’m rather fond – and it’s generally kind rather than cruel.

Highlight of my week.