Doc On The Box – The Pale Horse

After the death of his first wife, Delphine – the old story of accidental electrocution in the bath by a radio – Mark Easterbrook quickly remarried but is not a happy man, already indulging in an affair with one Thomasina Tuckerton. But his life starts to fall apart – not that it’s that good anyway – when he wakes up to find Thomasina dead in his bed, with her hair falling out.

Meanwhile, Jesse Davis, a shopkeeper, is found dead in the street with a list of names on it. Inspector Lejeune soon realises that the names on the list link to people who have recently died, with one primary exception. And why is Mark Easterbrook’s name on the list? All roads lead to the Pale Horse, an old pub home to three witches…

Well, that sounds a bit like the book, doesn’t it? Yes, Easterbrook is more directly involved in the set-up than in the original, which makes sense dramatically, giving him more of a personal stake in matter, and he seems to have acquired two extra wives. One other primary difference is the use of what Christie used as a clue, as, instead, an indication that someone’s life is in danger – to be honest, I thought this worked pretty well, given that the number of people who will recognise the murder method from this.

Other differences include a different reason to include Osborne, the chemist – he’s on the list of names as well as Easterbrook – but the first episode ticks along nicely enough. Cast-wise, Rufus Sewell does a reasonable job as Easterbrook, making the most of a small number of facial expressions – as I said, it’s a reasonable job, but he’s done much better work, in my opinion. Bertie Carvell makes the most of Osborne, and Sean Pertwee is good as Lejeune, the police officer, but Hermia is left as something of a cipher and the rest of the cast don’t really get much chance to shine, even the three witches. So by the end of the episode, there have been a few deviations from the book, but they make sense…

… and then along came episode two. In which we discover that Easterbrook is a much different character than we thought he was. A character that we are supposed to be identifying with suddenly, when he meets the witches, is revealed to be someone that we have no sympathy with whatever. Things pick up as the confrontation with the murderer – unchanged from the book – is very effective, mostly due to the performance from the actor in question, but then… excuse the profanity, but what the fudge? I’ll be honest, I was expecting a whiff of a certain John Dickson Carr book, but the ending here made no sense and was dramatically incoherent in my book – and that undermined the whole thing. Oh, and not including the only other suspect in the second episode did undermine the mystery. There’s an attempt to make a character who Christie basically ignored into a suspect, but it becomes clear she isn’t involved far too early – in fact her arc is rather odd, looking like it’s going somewhere, with implications of mental health issues, and then it just gets derailed.

Overall, it started promisingly, with understandable deviations, but by halfway through episode two, it had just fallen apart. Although, to be fair, there isn’t two hours of plot in the book, which is somewhat padded in the first place, but once again from these BBC adaptations, the alterations do nothing to add to the original story and end up taking a lot away from it. A missed opportunity.

Just read the book instead – it’s not perfect, but it’s far better than this.

11 comments

  1. Just watched this and I agree, slimming down the plot and reducing the characters works OK in part 1 but a lot of it is seriously over the top (all the stuff with Hermia is just absurdly hysterical) – and then in part 2 it turns into a nihilistic, miserablist and utterly humourless farrago like most of Phelps’ ‘so-called’ adaptations. What I find depressing is that a lot of people seem to like this approach despite the many anachronisms in the dialogue. Mostly it seems engineered to create people you are invited to sneer at and condemn. No heroes just victims and villains. The supernatural gumph belongs in s different show. Certainly nothing to do with Christie.

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    • The Hermia plot baffles me – her mental issues are introduced for some reason, possibly to make her a suspect, but when she gets sidelined… and as good as the confrontation with the villain is, due to the actor’s performance, his plan, basically to mess with Easterbrook for no particular reason, makes even less sense than the one in the book. As for the ending – supernatural or just insanity? Who knows? And, more importantly, who cares?

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      • Well, exactly! The ending can be explained sensibly only in part (the poison did its work) but the witches become largely superfluous after the plot changes except for how his name got on the list (I did quite like that). But it’s really not worth the trouble as they want go have it both ways. Was it you saying they were doing the ancient Egypt one next? I really hope Phelps gets the boot. Certainly don’t need to see that green fog effect again (they seem to have taken “pea-souper” literally in these adaptations). And what was the obsession with showing the back of people’s heads?

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      • I thought Death Comes As The End – a non-Phelps adaptation – was supposed to be made before this, but it seems to be in limbo at the moment.

        If the idea is that the stories need to be rejigged because people know them to well, then why not pick another author? I can think of a couple of corpulent locked room investigators who are overdue a television series… I can just see Colin Baker making a wonderful H.M.

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  2. So better than I’d expect from Sarah Phelps it sounds. No turning it into “the book Christie really wanted to write”, and with only a soupçon of Phelps’s usual contempt for Christie, her contemporaries, and her readers.
    Missed opportunity sounds ironically apt: it’s just a generic hatchet job any bad writer could have produced, not the kind of amped up travesty you look to Phelps to provide.

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  3. Showing the back of someone’s head used to be a way of indicating that they are the villain! But now it seems to be used to confuse people who need to see people speaking in order to hear every word they say. Did not watch, sounds ghastly like all of Phelps’ messing about.

    I know someone who did, though. Someone who would never watch a straight adaptation or read one of the books. I’m not sure why…

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