The first of many good jokes in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (the first of a three-parter airing on consecutive nights) is a scuffed tee shot. A few lines of beautifully economical dialogue establish that the golfer in question, playing with the sea behind him on a gorgeous Welsh links course, regularly disdains the wise counsel of his younger, fitter caddie, to the gentle amusement of them both. After he has insisted on using his driver (“Are you sure, sir?”), the way the ball grubs pathetically along the ground is just right. Everything in this three-part period whodunnit – originally shown last year on BritBox – is just right.
But the golf round is soon interrupted by a cry from the bottom of the nearby cliff. The caddie, Bobby (Will Poulter), scrambles down and finds a man, broken and dying, who utters the phrase that gives the story its title before his eyes become finally glassy and still. Bobby checks the corpse for clues, coming across a photograph of a beautiful but distressed woman, and is then joined (rather suddenly, given the remoteness of this part of the shore) by a friendly chap named Roger Bassington-ffrench (Daniel Ings) – “Two small Fs, don’t ask me what they stand for”. He offers to wait with the body until the police arrive, but is not seen again afterwards.
In the ensuing days, as Bobby wonders whether to try to decipher those peculiar dying words, he is followed by a sinister, staring, bowler-hatted man. Soon it is clear that anyone digging into the circumstances of the fatal fall will be in grave danger.
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is a 1934 Agatha Christie novel, but it’s non-Marple, non-Poirot Christie, which gives the writer adapting it some freedom. In recent years on the BBC, Sarah Phelps has seized the opportunity to bring out the pitiless darkness of And Then There Were None, The Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal By Innocence. This version of Christie is written and directed by Hugh Laurie, and is at the other end of the sleuthing spectrum.
Laurie’s dramatisation is … not comedic, as such, or at least not too much and not all the time. What it is, is a joy. It seeks out and expertly amplifies opportunities for delight in every scene, be it the thrum of a sturdy bicycle or a lone cough accentuating the boredom of a congregation listening to a sermon in the coastal village of Marchbolt. Its rendering of a between-the-wars idyll – picnics, carnivals and striped pyjamas; lawns, quiffs and curvy cars – is exquisite: Laurie is well versed in the lost world of Wodehouse and Waugh, and here he shows he has the deftness of phrasing required to revive it.
Nothing, however, is ever more delightful than romantic chemistry, of the kind where within a minute of two characters meeting, we know they love each other and so do they, even if they never say it. After witnessing death on the seashore, Bobby returns to the village and has his breath taken away by a familiar face. Frankie (Lucy Boynton) is an old childhood friend, from the days when she and Bobby were young enough not to care that she was an aristocrat and he merely a vicar’s son. She has returned to Marchbolt from London (“It’s full of people, and yet there’s nobody there”), soon after Bobby has come back from a stint in the navy.
Brittle and bold where Bobby is rugged and dependable, Frankie leaps over police cordons, rides her horse recklessly, quotes Keats and Shakespeare, and generally dares Bobby to keep up with her. She is the sort of woman who uses the phrase “see above” to refer back to a previous conversation days earlier. She is a dream, embodied perfectly by Boynton, who nails the blazing outer confidence and the lonely disaffection beneath it.
When Boynton and Poulter get their screwball dialogue purring, you wish it would never end. Then again, the same is true of Poulter’s scenes with Alistair Petrie as his fussy father – an ineffectual vicar who delivers the aforementioned unremarkable sermon – and with Conleth Hill as Dr Thomas, an eccentric but canny surrogate father figure and player of the terrible golf shot (“see above”). You could also stand for a lot more of Frankie’s interactions with her eccentric parents, the lord and lady of the local manor, since Laurie had the power to cast Jim Broadbent and Emma Thompson to play them.
But, there is a mystery for Bobby and Frankie, potentially a fine detective duo, to solve. By the end of a neat first episode, another man has died and something is assuredly afoot, as Laurie sticks closely to a plot that some previous dramatisations have seen fit to alter. There is nothing here you would want to change.
The first episode of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? aired on ITV and is now available on ITVX. Episodes two and three will be available on ITVX on Sunday, and air on Monday and Tuesday.