The Witness for the Prosecution review: world where any evil possible

Kim Cattrall is tender and quietly desperate by turns in this expertly cast, perfectly crafted murder mystery. Plus: West Side Stories: the Making of a Classic

It’s 1923. He’s a poor young man, she’s a wealthy widow in a Holland Park mansion. There’s a jealous housekeeper and a weighty candlestick in the drawing room. It’s Agatha Christie on Boxing Day.


I don’t think I’ve had a happier hour all Christmas than last night’s opening episode of The Witness for the Prosecution (BBC1). Perfectly crafted, expertly cast and beautifully scripted by Sarah Phelps, who gave us her brilliant adaptation of And Then There Were None last year, it was simply all you could want from your Boxing Day treat.

Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall (to give her her full official title) is the wealthy widow, Emily French, who buys and discards young lovers under the watchful, appalled and fascinated eyes of her housekeeper Janet (Monica Dolan). It sounds like a retread of her Samantha role in SATC, but in fact she made French tender and quietly desperate by turns in a performance far more akin to her subtle, heartbreaking turn as Rudyard Kipling’s wife in My Boy Jack a few years ago. And may I say that her English accent survived the line: “After that debacle with plates and glasses, what will you do?” – which is quite the cruellest collection of words ever put into the mouth of anyone charged with reproducing postwar British vowels without being born to the purple – with an aplomb that I think deserves a special Bafta. See to it, please, could you?

The story, at least so far, is relatively simple. French is found bludgeoned to death in her home shortly after Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), her latest lover, whom she has made sole beneficiary of her will, is – according to Janet – seen leaving the house. Vole’s girlfriend Romaine Heilger (Andrea Riseborough, genuinely enigmatic, and genuinely shocking in her pivotal scene) says she can alibi him but when she finds out the extent of his infidelity, withdraws her testimony and is immediately, gleefully gathered to the bosom of the Crown to become a witness for the prosecution.

His lawyer, John Mayhew (Toby Jones, as delicate and nuanced as ever) remains convinced of Vole’s innocence. But is Janet or Romaine lying? Or both? Or, double-bluffingly, neither? Maybe Vole – who, in Phelps’ and Howle’s version, seems less of a chancer or con artist than a naive young man as hopelessly out of control of his destiny in French’s world as he was in the trenches of France where we first meet him – finally rebelled against life as a lapdog and killed her. All will be revealed, but it is a measure of the production’s quality that it almost doesn’t matter. The evocation of this shell-shocked, grief-stricken period of history is really the thing – in the hostility of her fellow chorus girls to the Austrian Romaine, to Howle’s reduction to “being priced like a piece of meat” instead of coming home to the hero’s welcome his savaged generation were promised, to Mayhew’s ruined lungs and his broken wife (Hayley Carmichael, mesmerising with barely a word spoken) sitting in their late son’s empty bedroom, there is an all-pervading sense of people moving reluctantly into and about in a world where any evil is now possible. No certainties any more, and no comfort anywhere.

I doubt there has ever been more brought by a cast, crew and writer to Agatha Christie. It is the most gorgeous gift to the viewer and this one at least looks forward with delighted anticipation and gratitude to unwrapping its second half next week.

West Side Stories: the Making of a Classic (BBC2) threw up a plethora of ways to ensure that 2017 effaces the memory of 2016. One – we spend its entirety celebrating the 60th anniversary of the 1957 musical. Two – we spend it worshipping Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, who blazed like a meteor through her father’s music (ya wanna brief explanation of the point of usin’ a tritonic score? You got it!), anecdotes about his creation and anything else she wanted. And three – we watch more programmes like this, which though it had obviously caved into commissioning pressure early on and agreed to Bruno Tonioli as one of its presenters, thereafter kept his potentially smothering presence as marginal as possible and concentrated on the music, the lyrics (“‘It’s a sound like there’s music playing’,” said Jamie disgustedly of her father’s lyrical attempts. “‘It’s a sound like in church when they’re praying.’ ‘Say it loud and there’s music playing – say it soft and it’s almost like praying.’ THAT’S a lyric! THAT was Stephen!”), the choreography; much of it recalled by the people who were there. Dryly by Stephen Sondheim, lushly by Broadway’s first Maria, Carol Lawrence, and joyfully by everyone.

Music and praying. There could be worse prescriptions for the new year.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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