WHY DIDN'T THEY ASK EVANS? Episode 1 Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony asks the all-important question.
Agatha Christie was a writer forever seeking new formuli and new characters to lead her detective novels. As though frightened of the very thing that ultimately happened to her – a public clamour for one or two of her lead detectives that would make her produce continuing adventures for them – she regularly floated new potential amateur (and sometimes professional) sleuths.

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is an example of this type of kite-flying, and despite never leading to a follow-up for its two amateur detectives, Bobby Jones and Frankie Derwent, it gives the sense of being a successful, if deliciously barking, mystery novel in its own right, with an almost enormous distance of probability travelled between the circumstances with which we’re originally presented and the events that ultimately unlock the secrets of what on earth is really going on.

The recent trend to dramatize Christie’s non-Poirot and non-Marple stories has tended towards the dark and melodramatic – though it’s fair to say that in some cases, like And Then There Were None, there’s plenty of inherent melodrama in the original texts.

Episode 1 of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, the spanking new adaptation from Britbox though, strikes a very different note. It begins with light, bright, relatively carefree life in a Welsh coastal town. Bobby Jones (played with an unassuming ease and undemanding likeability by Will Poulter) is the son of the vicar of Marchbolt. When we first meet him, he’s caddying for the local doctor, Dr Thomas (Conleth Hill), and chatting about their respective naval and military careers.

Bobby has had introductions to higher-class society than his own, both through his father’s position (which brought him into contact with the local aristocrats, Lord and Lady Marcham, and their daughter, Frankie), but is facing the fact of his own impecunious future, and trying to raise the cash to start a second-hand car showroom with his wartime friend, Knocker Beadon (Jonathan Jules).

When Thomas and Jones hear a cry, golf is abandoned in favour of investigating a body at the foot of the cliff – seemingly newly arrived after falling (or being pushed?) off the edge.

Miraculously, the man’s not dead when Bobby reaches him – a situation which alters after the dying man utters one perplexing sentence: “Why didn’t they ask Evans?”

With Thomas (who acquired a wooden leg at Passchendaele) having gone off to get help, Bobby investigates the now quite dead body, revealing a key with a fish-shaped fob, and a black and white photo of a dramatic, beautiful young woman in his pocket.

Then suddenly, as if by magic, a man with a preposterous name (Roger Bassington-ffrench – played by Daniel Ings) appears out of seemingly nowhere. He hasn’t seen the disappearing doctor, he claims, and is in the area looking for a home that will be restful. And in one of the most absurdly Agatha Christie twists (don’t try this with your novels, Christie got away with figurative murder when plotting her literary murders), Bobby leaves the body in his care, because he’s late for his next job – playing the organ in his father’s church.

Because, sure. Find a body, rifle it for clues, leave it in the custody of a complete stranger with a stupid name. You would, wouldn’t you?

Things get slightly odd after that.

No, really, that was the sane part of the episode.

An inquest is held and Bobby, attaching no importance to the dead man’s final words, omits them from his testimony. Meanwhile, the dead man is given the name “Alex Pritchard” by a woman claiming to be his sister – who also claims the picture in his pocket is of her in her youth.

Bobby’s unconvinced, because the picture-girl seems beautiful, and the sister’s a harsh, older woman, and as the picture-girl has been haunting his dreams (in one of the only bits of noirish melodrama in the episode), Bobby can’t reconcile the two. Because he’s a bloke, certainly. When it later turns out that he’s right and the picture has been switched, it’s a slightly unfortunate vindication of his macho certainties.

But it’s when Frankie gets intrigued by the case that things start really (ahem) motoring in Episode 1 – and that’s down to a combination of three things. Firstly, Christie loved a dapper debutante with a brain, and wrote them relatively well, even when they weren’t the investigator in her stories.

So Frankie comes replete with a lack of naivete and an incisive brain that’s more or less exactly what the ever-so-nice but not overly bright young naval officer-cum-car-salesman needs to buck up his ideas about the mystery in which Frankie insists he’s involved.

Secondly, the director and screenwriter of Christie’s vision for this outing is none other than Hugh Laurie (who’ll be along in the flesh directly in Episode 2). Laurie is the quintessential upper middle-class polymath, able to turn his hand to most things, and deliver results that appear effortless, but are above the standards that others in the field might give you.

Whether as an oarsman, part of a stand-up comedy team, a comic actor, a dramatic actor, a pianist, a vocalist or a novelist, Laurie adds value wherever he goes, in much the opposite way to [Insert your own figure of “How do they even have a career” here]. Seriously, if you’ve never read Laurie’s novel, The Gun Seller, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy immediately. If nothing else, it will show you that he understands plotting, intrigue, and above all, the light touch of compelling characterisation and storytelling.

So with him at the helm of both the screenwriting and the direction here, you get a production that skips along with a surface innocence and a brooding undertone. And in particular, he lets Christie’s dogged, quick-brained heiress come to the fore, where she not only deserves to be, but where she can do the most good in terms of holding our attention and pulling us forward into the mystery.

And thirdly, of course, there’s Lucy Boynton.

Casting Lucy Boynton as Frankie Derwent is a stroke of genius, because it’s important to realise that these are characters from what is now over ninety years ago, and making someone like Frankie both entirely believable, full of the phrases of her class and her day, and hugely likeable into the bargain is no mean feat.

But Lucy Boynton convinces utterly – there are scenes in the hospital in Episode 1 where you actually squint, slightly unable to believe that you’re not really peering at someone from the first half of the 20th century, slightly unwilling to concede that someone named “Lucy Boynton” exists at all in 2022 – her characterisation is so en pointe she’d challenge a prima ballerina for pure precision of movement. It’s a joy to watch, and, like Laurie’s direction, it elevates the episode to a whole new level.

Wait, hang on – the hospital?

Ah yes, because the plot, being Agatha Christie, thickens. Along with the arrival of the dead man’s ‘sister’ at the inquest comes a sinister, scowling, skulking figure in a black bowler hat.

After Bobby omits the dying man’s final words from his testimony, he gets an offer that seems too good to pass up – the opportunity of a ridiculously well-remunerated job in Argentina. But he would have to leave immediately to take up the position, and figures that he’s given his word to his friend, Knocker Beadon, to make a go of the car selling business, and that he can’t in all conscience leave him in the lurch to go faffing about in the Argentine.

Then, when doing another odd-job as tilt-a-whirl spinner at the local carnival, Bobby gets a more sinister offer. The man in the black bowler hat – now with an added bobbing red balloon of terror (Thank you, Stephen King) - sends him a bottle of beer, using a pair of local twins to hand over the gift.

In a potent warning about not accepting drinks from strangers, Bobby collapses, waking up in the hospital after both vomiting over Frankie and having his stomach pumped. Both of which have helped to expel some 30 grains of morphia that had made their way into his system – serious toxicological overkill and no mistake.

Between them, Frankie and Dr Thomas reckon there’s something deeply suspicious afoot, and in the episode’s most exposition-heavy scene, Thomas reveals he’s done some digging while Bobby’s been unconscious – the Argentinian company doesn’t exist. Someone, he claims, wanted Bobby out of Marchbolt in a hurry, and when money failed to lure him, they moved on to the more drastic measure of trying to murder him.

This in itself is fine – it’s Agatha Christie, she frequently put in passages like this to make sure her readers were up to speed with where she wanted them to be.

What unbalances the scene is the doctor’s next speech, about a famous case of a man convinced he was dying of cancer, who then committed suicide – one John Savage by name, millionaire and general tycoon. This is the first time that case is mentioned, and it lands with a soft little clunk of obviousness, because it comes relatively out of the blue.

What’s more, the doctor goes on at some length, explaining that if HE were ever going to commit suicide, he’d do it outdoors, rather than following the example of the inconsiderate people who hanged themselves over perfectly good carpet, with no thought to who discovered them and the biological grimness they would unleash on the carpet at the moment of death.

When the episode ends with the doctor hanging over his OWN hall carpet, it feels extra-specially heavy-handed because generally, with the exception of the lurking presence of Bowler Hat Man, the whole of the rest of the episode has shown lightness of touch and lightness of heart in most of its surface action. That lightness of heart includes getting Emma Thompson and Jim Broadbent in as Frankie’s parents, to deliver a kind of Mr and Mrs Bennet couple, with a PG Wodehouse twist, in an Agatha Christie adaptation.

The doctor’s words being so very on the nose feels forced and obvious, so late in the run-time of Episode 1, and it’s a shame because it’s more or less the only clunker in an opening episode that sets up all the right questions: who the heck is Evans? (a not-inconsiderable question in a Welsh coastal village); what was Roger Bassington-ffrench doing within up-popping distance of a mysterious corpse – and where has he gone?; what could Bobby possibly know or have that would lead someone to want to trick him out of the area – or even kill him?; and what exactly is Creepy Bowler Hat Man’s game?

It's a breezy, confident, thoroughly engaging beginning, with one unfortunately mishandled moment right at the end. The balance of goodwill remains with the adaptation though, and it does enough excellent work here to hook us in to try and get some questions answered in Episode 2.

Coming soon…

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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