WHY DIDN'T THEY ASK EVANS? Episode 2 Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony wants more.
Here’s the thing.

After Episode 1 of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, from Britbox, we said that Bobby Jones and Frankie Derwent were rendered well enough here to make this one of the most appealing of recent Christie adaptations, even though the book never led to them getting another adventure together.

After Episode 2, we want to ask the impossible - or at least the vaguely sacrilegious. We want a series of Frankie Derwent Mysteries, please. Christie-esque, absolutely, but with new writers, just to see more of Frankie Derwent in action.

What does Episode 2 give us?

Well, first of all, it gives us Bobby Jones (ex-Royal Navy, son of a vicar in the Welsh coastal town of Marchbolt, would-be London second-hand car dealer, and played by Will Poulter) heading off to London after the funeral of his friend Dr Thomas (Conleth Hill), in deeply suspicious circumstances.

Bobby tries to get the local Marchbolt police to take seriously his conviction that Dr Thomas would never have hanged himself (a conviction bolstered by a deeply exposition-heavy scene towards the end of Episode 1, in which he more or less explicitly says “I would never hang myself.”). But when you have someone hanging in their own hallway and no particular evidence of foul play, Occam’s Razor is always going to make you think it’s a suicide – which they do.

So Bobby leaves, to continue his life as he’d planned to do before Thomas died – and before strangers started plummeting off cliffs, asking him why ‘they’ didn’t ask Evans, and then dropping dead.

Frankie Derwent (Lucy Boynton) has other plans. By batting her aristocratic eyelashes at some local estate agents, she’s got a lead.

Deeply suspicious popper-up in opportune places, Roger Bassington-ffrench, who was there at the side of the dead man within a minute of Bobby himself, claimed to be looking for a house in Marchbolt. Hence the eyelash-fluttering at estate agents. Frankie, clearly the genius of the company, has found out where he’s living – with his brother and sister-in-law, Henry and Sylvia Bassington-ffrench (Miles Jupp and Amy Nuttall, respectively), in their house in Hampshire.

Cue Operation Trojan Horse.

Operation What-Now?

Operation Trojan Horse – Frankie’s bold, potentially demented plan to get into the Bassington-ffrench household as an accepted quantity, and so do some only minimally-criminal snooping around.

Planned – and indeed, filmed – like a casino heist pan from Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11, it involves a car, supplied by Bobby and his friend and business partner, Knocker Beadon (Jonathan Jules) being smashed into the wall of the driveway at the Bassington-ffrench house, Merroway Court.

This will be done on a kind of gravitational auto-pilot with some help from Knocker, so that both the wall and the car can be significantly smashed up, without Frankie herself suffering any damage. A vial full of fresh blood will be theatrically applied once she gets back in the smashed-up car, and a doctor friend, George Arbuthnot (Joshua James making an agreeable amount of a small-ish part) will ‘just happen to be passing,’ carry the wounded lady into the house, prescribe her some rest (imposing on the owners of Merroway Court, without ever of course dreeeeaming of imposing on their hospitality), and then leg it, so that the spy can carry out her work unimpeded.

When you read it, it sounds like the most preposterous bunkum, even by Agatha Christie’s often high bunkum standards.

But it’s to the credit of all concerned – Boynton, Jules, James, Poulter, and in particular Hugh Laurie (yes, that Hugh Laurie) on adaptation and directing duties – that in practice, it flows not only naturally, but flawlessly on screen. Of course this is what must be done – Frankie says so.

Bobby, meanwhile sets himself up with a watching brief at the nearby Angler’s Arms, where it’s a slight surprise to see Paul Whitehouse as the landlord, and a much more crucial one to discover their room keys come with a fish-shaped fob – exactly like the one possessed by the dead man at the bottom of the cliff, who badly needed to know about Evans.

There’s a slight hiccup in the plotting here, because, while signing the guestbook, Bobby hones in on the name of a previous guest – Alan Carstairs. Why he hones in on that name may well be because he’s looking for the date on which his cliff-tumbling friend died, but that’s never particularly shown, so it feels like a conclusion-jump that he becomes convinced the dead man is Carstairs rather than Alex Pritchard, as his so-called sister identified him in Episode 1.

Further enquiries with the landlord though tend to support the idea that Carstairs left the Angler’s Arms and met with a grisly fate in Marchbolt.

Frankie makes herself relatively comfortable in the domain of a potential murderer, and we learn more about what’s going on in the house. Henry Bassington-ffrench (Jupp, giving an unnerving performance), it turns out, is addicted to morphia, and without it succumbs to irrational bursts of anger. When Roger Bassington-ffrench returns to them, he is suave and charming, albeit occasionally rather creepy. Frankie loses the Band-Aid she applied to help along her subterfuge of concussion (her only real pretext for still being in the house). She replaces it, but isn’t sure she’s put it on the correct side of her head – potentially a dead giveaway for any intelligent murderer with an eye on the long game.

Meanwhile, Creepy Bowler Hat Man from Episode 1 continues to swing his full weight of Creepy Bowler-Hattedness around in this episode, playing the organ uninvited in Marchbolt church until asked to leave by Bobby’s father, the vicar, and subsequently turning up at Beadon & Jones’ showroom in London, asking after Bobby.

Encountering only Beadon, there’s a very tense confrontation between the two, in which Jules absolutely shines as Beadon, defining for Creepy Bowler Hat Man the hidden depths of bravery and courage in Bobby Jones, as shown during his naval service.

Bowler Hat Man goes on to attack Knocker and leave him for dead, but he’s rescued by Frankie’s butler, who has been sent to pick up and deliver a car to Bobby, so he can play Frankie’s chauffeur.

Still with us on Operation Trojan Horse? Goood. By getting both the car and the chauffeur accepted at Merroway Court, Frankie gains not only a source of potential freedom, but also bolsters her story of being a lady with a father who knows where she is, owns several impressive cars, and will be good for compensation when it comes to rebuilding the destroyed wall and showing gratitude for the hospitality shown to his daughter.

Think we’re done yet? Oh deary me, no – this is a chunky, plot-filled episode. Thankfully though, it’s chunky, not clunky – there’s only one random mention of the sensational suicide of millionaire John Savage, early in the episode (which no-one has any reason to suspect has anything to do with anything). A subsequent shot of the case featuring on the front page of a newspaper is much more skillfully done.

But as an added ripple of complication, while out on an exploratory prowl, Bobby encounters the woman from the photograph – the one that was in the dead man’s… in Alan Carstairs’ pocket when he died, but which was subsequently changed by person or persons unknown, but probably that slippery Bassington-ffrench fink, before the inquest, so that it matched up to the image of Mrs Cayman (Morwenna Banks), the so-called sister of the entirely invented Alex Pritchard.

Yes, yes, we know, the plot’s getting deeply twisted. It’s Agatha Christie – what did you think she was famous for?

So – the woman in the original photograph? Apparently, she’s Moira Nicholson (Maeve Dermody), wife of a Doctor James Nicholson, from the next big estate over to Merroway Court. The Grange, as it’s known, is a sanitorium, and Dr Nicholson is a pioneer of ECT – electro-convulsive therapy – for patients with mental health issues.

Why’s that significant, beyond her being in a picture held by the dead man Carstairs – who she then claims never to have heard of? Well, she’s roaming about at night because her husband, she says, has taken to thinking her potentially in need of his treatment.

And, while Henry Bassington-ffrench may well be addicted to morphia (the substance, lest we forget, with which someone – most likely Creepy Bowler Hat Man – tried to poison Bobby to death in Episode 1), he also, in one of his more technically lucid moments, lets on to Frankie that his family – meaning Sylvia, his wife, and Roger, his brother, think he may well be ‘mad,’ too, and are planning to get his brain zapped over at the Grange.

That gains in significance when Frankie begins to soften her stance on Roger, thinking that he has an alibi for the killing of Dr Thomas, which he does – he was demonstrably at Merroway Court the day the doctor died. She discovers that he really does have particulars for a house in Marchbolt, as he told Bobby on their first encounter, and so he begins to seem like just an uncanny popper-up in unfortunate places.

Except for two clues, dangled in our face in properly Christie-like fashion.

Firstly, there is tension over Roger Bassington-ffrench and money. He quips that his name, with its double lower-case “ff” in “ffrench” makes it hell to write and clear cheques, and his brother – admittedly strung out and waiting for his morphia – snaps at him about it. How can a man who needs to clear cheques for cash be thinking of buying a new house of his own? Is he expecting to come into money, we wonder? Or has he, secretly, come into some, about which no-one yet knows or suspects? Our thoughts are drawn inexorably to the suicidal millionaire, Savage. Is there a connection there that has yet to come out?

And secondly, his alibi on the day of Thomas’ potential murder includes doing turns and voices for the son of his brother and sister-in-law. Frankie casually relates to Bobby that he is in fact remarkably good at impressions and voices. Could that be significant somehow? Is he good at pretending to be people other than who he is?

As Bobby neatly sums up, by the end of Episode 2, we still have no idea who Evans is, who ‘they’ are, what they didn’t ask Evans or why. We also have no real answers to the question of whether suicidal millionaire John Savage actually has anything to do with the case at all, who Alan Carstairs really was, who Creepy Bowler Hat Man is or for whom he works, who the Caymans are and what their part in the whole scheme is, and why all this potential Bassington-ffrench and/or Savage drama should have ended up crashing into the lives of the peaceful inhabitants of the Welsh coastal town of Marchbolt.

What we certainly have though is a determination to see it through to the end and find the answers to our questions. And we also have that urgent box set binger’s need for more adventures starring Lucy Boynton as Frankie Derwent. And the gang, too? Sure – Will Poulter gets to do a lot more active hoodwinking in Episode 2 than in Episode 1, proving both the character’s mettle and the actor’s versatility, and Jonathna Jules shines particularly brightly in this episode, too.

Occasional cameos from Frankie’s parent’s, played here by Jim Broadbent and Emma Thompson, would be an additional treat in any future adventures, but really, Boynton’s central performance as the irrepressible, inventive, resourceful amateur sleuth is what makes us long for a series that Agatha Christie never wrote: The Frankie Derwent Mysteries.

After all, the debutante detective format worked well for Kerry Greenwood and her Miss Fisher Mysteries. Surely it’s time the Queen of Crime’s heiress detective had a series of her own? With an actor of Boynton’s conviction, with directors like Hugh Laurie, and – perhaps sycophantically – with a company like Britbox behind it, such a series could become at least almost as beloved as those starring David Suchet as Poirot, and with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple.

That’s always assuming Frankie Derwent makes it out of Episode 3 alive, of course – which as Episode 2 closes, is by no means a certainty. It looks as though Frankie may well have been rumbled as an imposter in the house, and she’s surrounded by potentially hostile people, at least one of whom may be a murderer, and another of whom may be a little electric shock-happy.

Here’s rooting for Derwent and Jones to both survive at least one more episode. We can talk series after that…

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.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! Just a quick note about why Bobby zeroes in on the name Alan Carstairs in the hotel's guestbook. It's actually not a plot hiccup—his name was written in red ink. It took me a couple viewings to realize that the pen Bobby pulled out of the dead man's pocket had red ink in it. The ink stained Bobby's fingers and that's why he kept rubbing them together in the first episode. On first viewing I thought it was blood, but then I realized blood wouldn't have stained Bobby's hand like that.


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