The BBC’s Christmas Christie adaptations from Sarah Phelps have become a highlight of my festive viewing. And Then there were None was one of my favourite dramas of last year, the only bad thing about it was that I’d already published our ‘best of the year’ weeks before its Boxing Day transmission.
In 2016, the family and I sat down to The Witness for the Prosecution. Some people who had seen the 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution may have thought they knew what they were getting here, but the BBC had decided to adapt the story of Christie’s short story and not the play which the film was based on. Toby Jones’s public defender John Mayhew takes centre stage here. Jones’s small stature suits the character who seems to shrink into himself. He’s a man that no one really notices him as he hobbles down the dark alleys. He’s a man with a past that is weighing heavily on him and a nasty cough that often takes him off his feet. When he meets a young man in the cells who has arrested for murder Mayhew’s instincts seem to overtake him.
The man in question, Leonard Vole (Billy Howle) is another haunted figure. Plagued by thoughts of his time at the front, Leonard Vole has been spat out of the war restless, disillusioned and incapable of settling on a job. A friendless innocent in a corrupt world, the odds stacked against him, Leonard is accused of the brutal murder of a glamorous and wealthy widow it seems Mayhew might be his only hope.
You’re never really sure what it is that draws Mayhew to Vole or what makes him so certain of his innocence but the young helpless man certainly doesn’t present as someone capable of murder. Vole hadn’t known the victim Emily French very long but French had taken a like to him and according to her fiercely protective maid Janet McIntyre Vole knew that French had left her her fortune in a brand new will. Once a shrinking violet Mayhew throws himself into Vole’s case desperate to save him from his grizzly fate. Mayhew’s home life doesn’t provide him any relief. He and his wife appear strangers in their own home, both only speaking occasionally when the long silence becomes too much for either of them to bare.
In an attempt to prove Vole’s innocence Mayhew tracks down Vole’s partner Romaine Heilger. A child of the First World War, she emerges from the depths of the European bloodbath an ingenious survivor and afraid of nothing. At heart a loner, this Austrian singer’s enigmatic allure commands attention wherever she roams; Romaine is destined to enter the limelight sooner or later… He finds her singing cabaret and is instantly captivated by her voice. Her rendition of ‘let me call you sweetheart’ brings him to tears. Romaine confirms that Vole was with her on the night of the murder and Mayhew is happy. All seems to be working in his favour until he is called to meet a woman down a dark alley. The woman dare not show her face but she calls into question Heilger’s sweet natured facade. Mayhew doesn’t want to believe that the woman who’s voice so deeply affected him could be misleading him but when the trial begins it’s Heilger that gets the spotlight as she is revealed to be The Witness for the Prosecution! What possible reason could Heilger have for turning her back on Vole and Mayhew? Was Vole guilty of the brutal murder or Heilger just keen for her time in the spotlight?
As I say this version puts Toby Jones as Mayhew front and centre. He’s an incredible presence on screen even though he is playing a very quiet and put upon character. The other central performance from Andrea Riseborough is mesmerising. Riseborough plays Heilger with so many layers that even the audience aren’t quite sure whether to believe her. She’s not an obvious villain but she’s cloaked in ambiguity. Everything works here, the gritty backdrop only adding to the feel unease that wraps itself around you throughout the two episodes. I would consider myself a fairly recent convert to Christie and thanks to Sarah Phelps and the way she has of making of these stories feel as real and relevant now as they did in their time. Witness for The Prosecution draws you in with its mysterious characters and wonderful visuals like French’s bloodstained white cat licking his owners blood from his paws. Flanked by outstanding performances from Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Monica Dolan and Billy Howle this is for anyone who likes a good mystery that keeps you on your toes. Roll on next Christmas for another Christie adaptation.
The Witness for the Prosecution is available on DVD now.