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Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1980)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1980)
LWT for ITV, tx. 30/3/1980, colour, 210 mins
DirectorsJohn Davies, Tony Wharmby
Production CompanyLWT
ProducerJack Williams
ScriptPat Sandys
Original novelAgatha Christie
MusicJoseph Horovitz

Cast: Francesca Annis (Lady Frances Derwent); John Gielgud (Reverend Thomas Jones); Bernard Miles (Dr Thomas); Eric Porter (Dr Nicholson); Leigh Lawson (Roger Bassington-ffrench); James Warwick (Bobby Jones)

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Young Bobby Jones and and Lady Frances Derwent decide to investigate when a stranger is found dying with an enigmatic question on his lips.

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The attraction of an Agatha Christie mystery, as Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express of a few years earlier (1974) had appreciated, is in the endearing contrast between the fanciful adventures and the old-fashioned literariness of her characters. This contrast was heightened by British television's first endeavour into the Christie quarter in 1980 (the first since the occasional BBC TV plays of the late 1940s).

Hoping to produce a Miss Marple story, LWT executive producer Tony Wharmby made a cautious approach to the formidable Christie Estate (who were still fuming from the legal conflagration over Michael Apted's 1979 film Agatha). Unfortunately, the Miss Marple character, as a property, was already committed to producer John Brabourne's The Mirror Crack'd (d. Guy Hamilton, 1980). As the next best thing, perhaps, and as a fitting example of 1930s nostalgia and stylishness, Christie's 1934 novel Why Didn't They Ask Evans? seemed the appropriate choice.

It would be profitless to consider whether a valid mini-serial - a four- or five-parter, as LWT originally intended - might have been made from the work, since the makers devoted more time to an almost fanatical observance of 1930s period costumes, cars and social behaviour than to the more crucial and essential ingredients of mystery and suspense.

While the production lacked the particular wit and sophistication that had made Orient Express so appealing, it did have the advantage of a vigorous scenario (by Wharmby and Pat Sandys) which precisely balanced boisterous narrative and parody; and there was about the whole affair a good-natured enjoyment of its own excesses.

After the title question is uttered by a mysterious stranger found dying on the golf links, amateur sleuths Bobby Jones (played in finest Bertie Wooster fashion by James Warwick) and the breezily aristocratic Lady Frances Derwent (Francesca Annis, modelling a chic succession of period fashions) decide to investigate its meaning.

The production fairly bristled with a colourful variety of Christie character types that skulked through the story: Eric Porter's sinister, gaunt doctor with allegiances to a Karloff mad-scientist, Leigh Lawson's suavely feline cad, Madeleine Smith's saucer-eyed ingénue, right down to John Gielgud's mellifluous vicar.

On the whole, the teleplay itself owed less to Christie than to the cosy Britishness and evocative period detail of LWT's own Upstairs, Downstairs (ITV, 1971-75), complete with class-conscious social observations (in this instance resulting in a pivotal Christie plot point).

Tise Vahimagi

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Video Clips
1. Reading the murder news (3:08)
2. Dr Nicholson's asylum (4:04)
3. Arriving at the cottage (3:50)
4. Trouble in the tea room (0:58)
Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1983-84)
Booth, Connie (1949-)
Gielgud, John (1904-2000)
La Plante, Lynda (1943-)
Miles, Bernard (1907-1991)
Agatha Christie on Television