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Don’t try to improve us, just entertain us

THE 1970s version of Death on the Nile is one of my favourite comfort films. There is something infectious about the good time Peter Ustinov and David Niven are so obviously having while Angela Lansbury is never less than joyous as she chews the scenery and much of the cast in her portrayal of Salome Otterbourne, the fictional Jilly Cooper of the 1920s.

But that is about as far as I go with Agatha Christie. The books have always left me a bit cold, while the reverence with which the David Suchet Poirot treated its source material always struck me as faintly ridiculous for what are, at heart, crossword puzzles with corpses.

It was, therefore, with no great excitement that I settled down to watch the Beeb’s flagship production of Murder Is Easy over Christmas. Having never read the book, I had no expectations, no dog in this particular fight. All I wanted was to be entertained.

As you may be aware, the Beeb decided to ‘update’ the material. In the original, the main character is British, a former policeman in India who, having returned to Blighty,  decides to investigate some suspected murders in the countryside (basically, George Orwell becomes the hero of Midsomer Murders). In the new version, he is a Nigerian. In the novel, crimes solved, he heads off to marry the helpmeet he has met on the case; in the TV programme, they separate as he returns home to fight for independence.

It was presumably in an attempt to render this plot twist plausible that Christie’s 1939 became the BBC’s early 1950s. But, as various people have said, everything is connected to everything else. One change can help the adapter make a point about the modern world, but raise questions over others. The complaints by the poorer villagers about two-tier medical provision offered by the local doctor (yay, NHS!) might have made sense pre-war, but by the time the TV series was set, the national religion was well established. Equally, the ‘German Race Science’ (boo, racism!) of which the GP was so fond might have seemed plausible in the 1930s but had rather fallen out of fashion over the subsequent decade. The arriviste lord whose war profiteering (boo, dodgy PPE contracts!) bought him his title seems oddly keen to tell everyone exactly how he had made his money, despite the social opprobrium it would, no doubt, have brought him in real life. (Gracie Fields never quite recovered her popularity after moving to America – albeit for defensible reasons – in 1940.)

Drama is, as luvvies never cease to tell us, about the suspension of disbelief, and changes which do not interrupt that can be interesting. The first couple of series of Sherlock (before the adapters were seduced by their own cleverness and invented a new character) worked because they took the original stories and asked what would need to change for them to appear plausible in today’s world. Thus Watson writes a blog, not stories for a newspaper (it is slightly depressing that he could remain the injured veteran of a colonial misadventure in Afghanistan). Holmes’s enthusiasm for cutting-edge forensics would be hard to pull off in a flat given the kit now required, so a scientist had to be invented. But, having rendered Sherlock believable for today’s world, the adapters stopped and let the story unfold as before.

However Sian Ejiwunmi-Le Berre does have things to say – the NHS is good, racism is bad, similar insights of similar profundity – and was so keen to say them in her adaptation of Murder Is Easy that she frequently jolted the viewer back into disbelief whenever verisimilitude was sacrificed to allow an IMPORTANT MESSAGE to be shoe-horned in. The Sherlock stories were treated as an end in themselves, Murder Is Easy became a vehicle for 2020s right-think, fashionable nostrum piled on fashionable nostrum, like a glutton’s plate at Christmas with similar consequences for digestibility.

At one level this is unimportant – two hours wasted on a TV drama is far from a crisis – but it is emblematic of a wider trend, an inability to allow the trivial to remain trivial. A detective story is a diversion, nothing more. Neither Conan Doyle nor Christie were trying to say anything insightful about the human condition. By contrast, the Beeb’s flagship Christmas offering had to mean something. It had to have a message. It could not just leave its viewers entertained, it had to leave them improved.

In this it is not alone. Much of today’s cultural product is boringly didactic, designed to display their creators’ fidelity to the current mores rather than entertain, to allow them to see themselves as thinkers of important thoughts and writers of important words. In this, they do both themselves and their audience a disservice. For we need to be entertained, to switch off and enter a world where nothing matters, where we can just follow a story as we did when children. The two billion copies Agatha Christie has sold attest to that. Nor is there any lack of nobility in giving the people what they want – Victor Hugo and Emile Zola are buried in the Pantheon, and so is Alexandre Dumas, 19th century France’s answer to Dan Brown. Conan Doyle is read just as much as Dostoevsky, if not more.

A little humility is needed. A book which has survived long enough to be adapted is likely to be a good book. A good book is, by definition, hard to improve. Better to produce a good, entertaining adaptation of a good work than a bad, dull adaptation of a good work. For all the sophomoric glee that the thought of tweaking the nose of the gammons might provoke, our cultural overlords would do well to remember the old medical mantra, ‘First, do no harm’.

This article appeared in Country Squire Magazine on January 4, 2023, and is republished by kind permission. 

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