BritBox kicked off March 2024 with a new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery classic Murder Is Easy. BritBox, along with production company Mammoth Screen and ITV, officially took over from the BBC stewardship of the made-for-television and streaming Christie adaptations starting with last year’s premiere of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

Agatha Christie’s mystery novels and short stories have never fallen out of favor with mystery fans. Her novels and short stories have influenced generations of authors and screenwriters to adapt her works or incorporate elements of her themes into original stories. Recent television and movie adaptations have decided to remove racial and antisemitic slurs, and toned down the sexism of Christie’s era. Murder is Easy takes this to the next level by confronting the spoken and unspoken bias in the text head-on.

The whodunit starts with Luke Fitzwilliam (David Jonsson) who is traveling to London to accept an appointment to a position at Whitehall. His seatmate on the train, Miss Pinkerton (Penelope Wilton), tells him she’s traveling to London to report to the police that several people have died in her home village under mysterious circumstances. She believes it’s the work of a serial killer, but local officials have dismissed her and ruled the mysterious deaths suicides or accidents. Fitzwilliam then travels to the village to see if the coincidences are intentional. He discovers quickly that very few of the people he meets are trustworthy except for TK (Morfydd Clark).

GBH Drama spoke to screenwriter Sian Ejiwunmi-Le Berre and actors David Jonsson and Morfydd Clark about how Murder Is Easy makes the viewers not only think about who the killer is, but also the way racism, sexism, and ageism/ableism affect everyone in the supposedly idyllic English village.

Mammoth Screen pitched Ejiwunmi-Le Berre directly to write Murder is Easy via her agent. She read all of the book in a single night before making her pitch about how the story should be adapted. “I think this is a furious little feminist, culturally challenging, experimental novel,” Ejiwunmi-Le Berre said. “When you're adapting a book — and I've adapted a few now — it's like meeting somebody at a dinner party and you have a conversation with them and you find these points of interest, and you're not going to get to know them inside and out. It's not like you're writing the biography. I'm not here to write Agatha's biography. I'm here to adapt this book. It was who she was, and what she was thinking about on that particular day. On that particular day, I think she was steamingly furious about women's position in the world, and that was going to attract me. I also felt that it was really interesting, and obviously in a time-constricted, period-constricted perspective about class and culture and the stratifications of a British class system within the microcosm of the English village, which has been the purview of British novelists from Jane Austen and Fanny Burney onwards. We write villages: the village is the world.”

The English village in period dramas, up until recent years, has been portrayed largely as a racially homogeneous idyll. However, the evidence from recent historical and cultural research clearly shows that the creation of many villages stems from slavery and colonialism going all the way back to the Austen era. Murder Is Easy joins recent MASTERPIECE period dramas All Creatures Great And Small, Grantchester, and Tom Jones plus ITV’s The Larkins in pushing back on the idea that no POC ever lived in or visited English villages before the contemporary era.

These facts are clear, however whitewashing of the source material has fooled some viewers into believing that what they’ve seen on screen is what happened. “It is disingenuous to pretend that empire and colonialism don't exist,” Ejiwunmi-Le Berre said. “I know that that causes some discomfort with people; that people may feel I've imposed on the book with an agenda. I think I've excavated the book honestly. In the book, the character of Luke Fitzwilliam, who became Luke Obiako Fitzwilliam in my rendering, is a colonial police officer returning after 20 years in empire service from a fictional place. Obviously, in an adaptation of Agatha Christie, you can't have a fictional place. Right from the start of the book, Luke Fitzwilliam is talking about where he's coming from and then he's talking to Ms. Pinkerton and she says, ‘Oh, my friend's son is over serving as a policeman in Palestine’ and the first people that he meets on the train are these two colonels.”

With this in mind, “I gave him a real place to come from and that was Nigeria, which was where my family came from. It was then really easy for me to base him on my father's experience and my grandfather's experience coming to the UK, in their case, in the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s. So we set it in the '50s.”

Murder Is Easy draws on Hitchcock and other classic movie references to create a hostile environment where Fitzwilliam doesn’t feel at home. Ejiwunmi-Le Berre said that she was also influenced by Jordan Peele’s Get Out in her approach. Last year, Tré Ventour-Griffiths, a Black British PhD student, argued in a Medium article that Get Out provided aperfect framework for exploring the dark side of the classic English village. However, Murder Is Easy falls short of involving the supernatural to influence events.

For fans who believe that Agatha Christie’s stories should not be adapted with an eye to continued relevance for international audiences, they should be aware that the current Mammoth Screen Executive Producer also worked on the 2004 MASTERPIECE Marple series adaptation, as well as the pre-BritBox miniseries adaptations found on Acorn and Amazon Prime. The corporate names may change, but the executive producers and the continued support from Christie’s estate remain a constant.

Ejiwunmi-Le Berre’s socially conscious script is what drew both Clark and Jonsson to their respective roles.

Fitzwilliam encounters several Nigels and Lady Karens who say increasingly outrageous racist and punchable things, but he doesn’t react to these the way a Black man in 2024 would. “What was wonderful about this adaptation is that we weren't going to shy away from some of those beats and not shying away from racism and other mess, that you have to bring some of your opinions to it and some of your stuff to it,” Jonsson said. “Although to stay true to the time, I think that energy and tension created a lot of the drama for our piece and I think that that's what viewers today will probably connect most with.”

Race in 1955 is not the only -ism Murder is Easy touches upon. Bridget is constantly talked down to by her fiance, and her observations on the crimes are ignored by all except Fitzwilliam. “The women in Agatha Christie's world have quite a limited life,” Clark said. “They live a much smaller life than their male counterparts. But I think also in terms of racism, it's quite interesting to look back [at] Agatha Christie's work because there was lots of racism in it and it's kind of important … as a British white woman to see where you come from and how it wasn't that long ago that things like this were being written. And that's why I think it's kind of great that we're going back to these stories and looking at them through different lenses, and I kind of think that that will continue to happen.”

Every great Agatha Christie production has an array of British drama heavy hitters playing possible suspects, and Murder Is Easy is no exception. In addition to Penelope Wilton, MASTERPIECE fans can spot Mark Bonnar from Guilt, Tom Riley from Marple 2004 and Inspector Lewis, and Tamzin Outhwaite from Ridley Road. UK drama fan favorites Douglas Henshall fresh off Shetland, Sinead Matthews from Midsomer Murders, and Matt Baynton from Ghosts UK also play untrustworthy residents of the village.

Ejiwunmi-Le Berre had to balance depicting Christie’s supporting cast from the novel and letting minor characters take valuable time away from Fitzwilliam and Bridget. ”Some of the more extreme characters we had to excise. Also, there are too many characters to put in a two-hour show, so there are composites. Then again, as with Luke Obiako, I wanted to reflect on my experience.”

For instance, some viewers may not be able to believe that Lord Whitfield (Tom Riley) is so blatantly rude, but this is exactly the experience that Ejiwunmi-Le Berre wanted to reflect. “Lord Whitfield represents a self-made man, particularly from the room at the top, 1950s generation that I recognize in my life, that I've encountered in my life and the feeling of exceptionalism,” Ejiwunmi-Le Berre said. “I thought that Lord Whitfield's religious fundamentalism, which is completely in the book, combined with his bootstrapping, narcissistic exceptionalism, was definitely a character that could speak to our times. He's a populist through and through. The doctor is a composite of two characters in the book. I won't say who, but I wanted to talk about eugenics.”

Eugenics is another topic, entwined with empire, that “purist” viewers don’t believe belongs in period dramas. “I encountered quite a lot of pushback over here with people saying, ‘well, it was post-second World War, so there can't have been any eugenics.’ Well, the guy who discovered the transistor ... and my brain has had a little blip ... and who set up Silicon Valley, was a eugenicist, and that's post-second World War. I had people coming through my family's household — my stepfather was a very eminent scientist, and his supervisor had at one point been Chair of the Eugenicist Society — and my stepfather was a Holocaust survivor. People don't realize that some of these ideas still persisted in different ways.”

Lord Whitfield is also a walking contradiction of racist and antiracist actions. “I felt completely justified in talking about that,” Ejiwunmi-Le Berre said. “I know that some people struggled with the idea that this eugenicist would fall in love with a young woman — and a much younger woman — of what we would call Asian descent; of Indian Pakistani descent. I didn't find any anomaly there at all. If white racist people didn't also want to have sex with people who are Black and brown, the world would look very different than it does.”

Murder Is Easy is the first television Agatha Christie adaptation to be written by a Black screenwriter. Hopefully viewers can set aside their preconceived notions about what the Christie canon should feel like, so it won’t be the last.