The week in TV: The Pale Horse; Endeavour; The End; The Split – review

Sarah Phelps retro-fettles with aplomb in her latest Agatha Christie adaptation; Endeavour hits a tricky 1970; plus, all of life and death – and Harriet Walter – in The End

The Pale Horse (BBC One) | iPlayer
Endeavour (ITV) | ITV Hub
The End | Sky Atlantic
The Split (BBC One) | iPlayer

The Pale Horse was the fifth and allegedly the last – but please, no – in Sarah Phelps’s (generally) celebrated Agatha Christie adaptations for the BBC, which began with The Witness for the Prosecution in 2016. Again, she’s probably going to get pelters from purists, the type who watch the telly with a dog-eared 1956 paperback in their lap (think also those characters who attend the front row of orchestral concerts with a matching score or libretto, a sharpened 2H pencil and knowing tuts), and enjoy fretting hugely about, actually, very little.

In this two-parter, Phelps had certainly taken a few liberties with arguably the most modern of Christie’s mysteries. No Ariadne Oliver – worse, no Ginger! Although it harked back to ancient pagan wicker man fears, this Pale Horse was firmly rooted in 1961 and fast-changing moral sensibilities, which allowed the adapter to retro-fettle, with subtlety (with Phelps the message is never a rabbit-punch to the back of the neck, just a wispy, catlike twitch of the coat-tails).

So we saw, again, the way in which especially single women can be so easily “othered” as witches. We saw, too, our allegedly forgotten class divide. “And ’ow would someone like ’er know someone like you?” asks a peasant washerwoman (or some such) of our suave antihero Rufus Sewell. It might not be so stubbornly accented, or dependent on trousering, but there’s a great case to be made that today’s class divides are even more vast.

But, along the way, what serene spook! What twitchy witchery! What style! The parade of grotesques in the Much Deeping “carnival” was genuinely unsettling; as were Kaya Scodelario’s traumatised pill-popping scenes as the perfect 1961 all-mod-cons second wife. And, for all that Sewell’s probably a bit of a bad ’un – his first wife’s bath-time electrocution was… ambiguous, no? – I couldn’t help but yearn, in my male way, to be possessed of a tenth of that style. That suit! That tie-pin (and stud); that just-so top-pocket ironed hankie; that car. Say what you like about the patriarchy: we had it good for a while.

Rufus Sewell in The Pale Horse.
Rufus Sewell in The Pale Horse. Photograph: Ben Blackall/Mischief Screen Limited 2019

Immensely strong cast throughout: Thyrza, Bella and Sybil, the three “witches” of Much Deeping (Sheila Atim, Rita Tushingham – for it was she! – and Kathy Kiera Clarke) fluttered flirty cobwebs up and down spines throughout; Sean Pertwee had a voice like anchors through gravel; and, I suspect, we’re hardly through with Bertie Carvel, chewing the scenery with his wooden teeth.

The only argument I’ll grant the reactionaries is the following: with fresh writing and production this bloody good, why the need for an adaptation, for a “source author”, atall: other than to let the broadcaster sell it as “Agatha Christie’s Pale Horse”? Why not just… write and produce and film a wholly original drama?

Similar arguments could be made for Colin Dexter’s legacy of Morse, the third iteration of which returned in the shape of a seventh series of Endeavour. Creator Russell Lewis, ably assisted by Shaun Evans – who also directs now – as the star, and of course Roger Allam, has given us an entire new world. This three-parter – boo at only three – is, no matter that it’s still gripping and evocative, faintly depressing, in that Fred Thursday (Allam) is essentially losing it. He’s just worn down, his poisoned cup of the witnessing of man’s toxicity having runneth over. And making lazy misthoughts, and is hardly an unending fountain of joy to stoic forgotten Win, who might just, in 1970, prove less stoic or forgotten than had been previously, fondly, imagined. It’s all gone a little wrong on Walton’s Mountain, Toto; mildewed even, as the decades segue.

Shaun Evans, left, in the title role and Roger Allam as DCI Thursday in Endeavour.
‘Still glorious, if gently dour’: Shaun Evans, left, in the title role and Roger Allam as DCI Thursday in Endeavour. Photograph: Kudos/ITV

I unashamedly love Endeavour, to an inordinate extent. This is what it must feel like to “bond” with fictional characters on Coronation Street or, less explicably, Love Island. And even though just a three-parter – all parts self-contained; yet there’s an unresolved thread throughout – this is still glorious, if gently dour. (A brief word to next year’s Baftas: when might it be time to honour Anton Lesser with a half-lifetime achievement, not least for his radio work?)

Harriet Walter, a “not bad” actor in the same way Judy Garland could half carry a tune, excels, of course, in The End, a winning and subtle 10-part Aussie miniseries about suicide, euthanasia, depression, ennui and gender dysphoria, which manages, despite itself, to be life-affirming, revelatory, joyous even.

Watch a trailer for The End.

Transported unwillingly by her daughter to Australia’s Gold Coast after a laughably unsuccessful suicide attempt – bag over the head after drink taken, house catches fire accidentally, Edie wakes and vomits and sighs resignedly and hurtles out of a window – she’s a snob among vulgars and finds herself in the hell of an Aussie retirement home. Here, the young and beautiful and toned patronise the old and broken and clever and having-lived. Edie adapts. As folk like Edie do. Daughter Frances O’Connor, coping – just – with a transitioning child, a jailed husband and her profession as a doctor, is violently opposed to any idea of euthanasia or suicide. She has to say things such as “I’ve seen people, they often grow at the end, it can be a special time…”

Hence the stage is set for a staunch war of wills between daughter and suicidal mother: yet it’s so much more than that. Little less than an exploration of life’s vicissitudes, and what children can teach us, and also what the broken old can teach us, and also of the narcissism of diaries. Also, if you allow it, quietly and deeply funny. There are some savage jokes, and some gentle ones, and many savagely gentle. A beaut.

Barry Atsma and Nicola Walker in The Split.
Barry Atsma and Nicola Walker in The Split. Photograph: Mark Johnson/BBC/Sister

A welcome return for Abi Morgan’s The Split, even though the first episode of series two might fall foul of those too willing to decry it as too huggily privileged middle-class. As it boulders on, apace, at least two things become crystal clear. The fact that Nicola Walker is one of those astonishing actors who can act without seeming, ever, to act. And the fact that all their problems, despite taking place within the surround of a relatively high-flying family law firm, are problems just of love, of longing, of loneliness-with-money, of perennial dissatisfaction.

There’s also a great series-long turn from Donna Air as a beautiful and successful TV presenter, controlled and besmirched for long years by hubby. You will learn to twitch, too, at those ring-tones: as you will learn, it is to be hoped, at every social-media “innovation”. I said it 15 years past, I will say it again: just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. In fact, you probably shouldn’t.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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