Television review: What the Dickens? Agatha Christie classic steals the Christmas show

‘And There Were None’ proves a compelling piece of costume drama, while Luke Kelly gets an affectionate, enjoyable treatment


It will not come as a great shock to discover that veteran Eastenders writer Tony Jordan is the man behind BBC’s ambitious Dickensian (BBC One), a sprawling 20-part drama that sees famous characters torn from their native Dickens novels, placed within one story and made to do soap-opera bidding.

Here is Marley sending a note to Fagin via a messenger boy (Oliver, is that you?) with instructions to send young, dewy- faced Nancy over at 8pm for some “company”. Here is Oliver Twist’s Mrs Bumble, Bleak House’s Capt Hawdon and Martin Chuzzlewit’s apple-cheeked Mrs Gamp all brushing shoulders on the street and knocking back gin beside each other down in the Dickens equivalent of the Queen Vic. The wispy-haired Scrooge is there as well.

Given that most of what we know happens to these characters hasn’t happened yet, I suppose Dickensian is a sort of prequel. Dickens pedants can watch in horror as we get a whodunit in the murder of Marley, as well as a look at the epic unravelling of the feminist sensibility of a young Ms Havisham. Stephen Rea plays the inquisitive Inspector Bucket, the moral centre, and Alexandra Moen is wonderful as the hurt and cunning Francis Barbary. The engaging Tom Weston-Jones is the sexy shirtless divil of the piece, playing Compeyson with a Talented Mr Ripley flair.

The drama is an Old Curiosity Shop in itself. You can imagine the research, the sprawling diagrams on white boards in the BBC offices. But I’m not sure the idea is cohesive and compelling enough to engage viewers beyond the Christmas hush.

There is something annoyingly old-fashioned about the production: costume dramas have become so lavish that the tight, foggy wooden set here feels claustrophobic, the church bells ringing, the shop bells jingling, the endless snow. I keep thinking of the end scene in Scrooged, with its tiny antlers glued on mice.

It’s been called an “irreverent adaptation”, which is fine, of course. We can’t always indulge the purists. But there is that constant distraction of the characters’ other lives in their own books, the things about them that we are supposed to know. What level of knowledge is the writer assuming on my part? This is the sort of anxiety I don’t need in the lost days between Christmas and the New Year. (There is a lot of googling.)

If Dickensian is the colourful tin of Quality Street you absentmindedly rustle your way through, And Then There Were None (BBC One) is the be-ribboned box of fancy truffles that your mam keeps for the visitors. At this stage of the Christmas proceedings, watching 10 strangers getting increasingly paranoid, hysterical and drunk in an isolated house may be a little near the bone. But control yourself. You are not a sumptuous adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel.

This latest telling of the best-selling crime novel of all time is brilliant, compelling and gorgeous to watch. As the number of guests starts to whittle down in the style of the Ten Little Soldiers poem, it becomes clear that the madman must be among us . . . them, I mean, them.

As the story unfolds each guest reveals their demons, which they have been brought to the island to face. Every old trope is here. The big house with no electricity, the imprisoning sea, lightning-filled skies, little boy ghosts. But it is fun and intensely watchable.

There is a cocaine-fuelled trippy Last Supper. It is Lost, with less rambling and more tea-drinking, and somehow the dialogue and theatrics of the violence throw the terror into camp relief.

Irish actor Aidan Turner is the star of the show and not just because he broke Twitter when he was standing in the corridor in a teeny towel in that one very important scene. He does an excellent turn as a sort of arch-browed Machiavellian type called Phillip Lombard, smoking on his cigarette with blood-stained hands, not a bother on him while the murderous rampage gallops on, except for his coiffed hair slipping charmingly out of place. He gets all the deliciously portentous lines. “Death is for other people, not for us,” he says, surely realising that no one survives a line like that.

“There’s people who own truth, and he had it very much in his voice,” says Glen Hansard of Luke Kelly in this touching new documentary, Luke Kelly, Prince of Dublin (RTÉ One), which is more a tribute to the man than an exploration. Thirty years after Kelly’s death, his legacy continues and contributors young and old lend their thoughts and memories: among them Kodaline singer Jason Boland, Imelda May, Paddy Reilly, Phil Coulter and Luke’s brother Paddy Kelly.

RTÉ archive footage is used effectively throughout: we see Kelly practising his steps for a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the mop of fiery curls getting wilder with the years, the voice staying steady, full of grit and determination.

May speaks passionately about Kelly’s iconic performances of Scorn Not His Simplicity and Raglan Road (“You want to be his girl when he’s singing that”), and Reilly’s recounting of visiting Kelly in hospital when he was dying is particularly heartrending. They all agree. You could not sing like that and be afraid.

A lot of the footage won’t be new to anyone who has scanned YouTube on a homesick day, but you find yourself singing along to this well-packaged, enjoyable documentary, which provides a new way to hear an old song. Old fans will be thrilled.

While The Prince of Dublin gives us more of Kelly’s life’s work than his inner world, Roy Orbison: One of the Lonely Ones (BBC Four, Tuesday) is a thoroughly insightful documentary of another iconic balladeer. Using Orbison’s own voice, as well as interviews with close friends, collaborators and his sons, we learn about the tragedy that fuelled his songs: the death of his children and beloved wife Claudette.

We get a picture of Orbison as a man who displayed emotions at a level of intensity that was not the norm in a macho time. “My success came from the freedom I demanded. The will to go on is relentless. It’s like the devil chasing me around.” It is a strong story of resilience that includes footage of duets with Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen.

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