Adapting Agatha 5 – Evil Under the Sun. A tribute to Dame Diana Rigg

Dame Diana Rigg as Arlena Stuart in Evil Under the Sun

It was a huge sadness to hear of the death of Dame Diana Rigg – a glorious actress in so many ways. Not just beautiful but immensely talented, with an effortless glamour that was magnetic. She had an inherently intelligent, astute nature that meant she could play in Shakespeare, The Worst Witch and Game of Thrones with equal grace, intellect and a truly beguiling screen presence. She was both Emma Peel and James Bond’s on screen wife. This column is all about Agatha Christie adaptations and I had begun work on writing about Evil under the Sun when the sad news broke that Dame Diana Rigg had sadly passed away. I had considered not putting this out but I thought it might serve as my small tribute to her in one of her most iconic roles and one loved so very much by Agatha Christie fans. How very fortunate we are to have her as Arlena Stuart forever. She embodies the character Agatha Christie wrote.

Poster for 1982 Guy Hamilton Evil Under the Sun

As usual I will begin with a ***SPOILER*** alert. I find it almost impossible to talk about adaptations without giving something away so please don’t continue if you haven’t read the book or seen the films. It’s a good one!!

The 1982 version of Evil Under the Sun is one of the best adaptations of her novels. This is Agatha Christie at her best, an island populated by the good, the bad and the suspicious, there’s a death and everyone has a motive. It’s Hercule Poirot at his finest too, in full holiday mode and sipping cocktails whilst analysing his fellow guests’ every move. The movie star, Arlena Stuart now Marshall after her recent marriage, is perfectly played by Diana Rigg. She is the icon, the demandingly gorgeous superstar who can command a room just by walking through it. One of the most magnificent moments in the film is when she sings You’re the Top to a room of captivated guests. Dame Maggie Smith, playing the wonderful hotel owner, Daphne Castle decides to join in and the most fantastic duel of the divas ensues. It is a classic scene.

Dame Diana Rigg and Dame Maggie Smith battle it out to see who’s the top.

The two great actresses are wonderful in these roles and deliver some fabulous lines such as:

Arlena Stuart: Oh, dear! I’m the last to arrive.

Daphne Castle: Have a sausage. You must be starving having to wait all that time in your room.

Incidentally, a small piece of Agatha Christie adaptation trivia is that the children of both these wonderful actresses appeared together in a later Agatha Christie adaptation – the 1989 Poirot episode of Five Little Pigs in which Toby Stephens (Maggie Smith’s son) was cast alongside Rachael Stirling (Diana Rigg’s daughter).

In every scene that Diana Rigg is in, she is utterly enthralling. Her costumes are magnificent, she is groomed to perfection and the audience immediately knows this is an icon in her prime.

Arlena Stuart

But she does, as with every major Agatha Christie adaption, have the benefit of a magnificent cast. There are some wonderful performances in this version. Colin Blakely is fabulous as ‘muck and brass’ Sir Horace Blatt; James Mason is very suave as Odell Gardner and some have suggested that he takes on a very ‘meta’ voice in that he outlines the principles of the ‘whodunnit’ for the author; Jane Birkin and Nicholas Clay are very convincing, beautiful murderers; Maggie Smiths’ Daphne Castle (an amalgamation of Mrs Castle and Rosamund Darnley of the books) is a perfect blend of brash and heart-warming; and Roddy McDowall is on flying form as the flamboyant Rex Brewster. This character has been changed to a man for the movie instead of being Emily Brewster. A few other characters have been dropped entirely, including Reverend Lane and Major Barry. Then, of course, there is Peter Ustinov’s Poirot.

Peter Ustinov appeared as the Belgian sleuth six times. There were three made for TV movies (Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man’s Folly and Murder in Three Acts). Thirteen at Dinner was based on Lord Edgware Dies and also starred David Suchet as Inspector Japp. Peter Ustinov had previously appeared as Poirot in the magnificent Death on the Nile in 1978 (also starring Jane Birkin and Maggie Smith). However, Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks observed Ustinov during a rehearsal and said, “That’s not Poirot! He isn’t at all like that!” Ustinov overheard and remarked “He is now!

For many, sadly, Peter Ustinov did not embody the Poirot of the books. His version was fun, endearing and extremely charming but was not the Hercule Poirot of the books. There is a comical, almost farcical nature to him at times. He is the bon viveur on tour, the reluctant celebrity who performs magic tricks with eggs for children. In some ways, he appears as a comedy version of a bombastic colonel at times veering into a musical hall or Carry On persona. The scene where he pretends to swim is somewhat ridiculous, particularly given the bathing suit which Peter Ustinov himself designed, complete with hat. The character of Poirot in the books does, of course, have a lighter side to him and at times his slightly eccentric behaviour is marvelled at by others. This is a new and criticised aspect of the Kenneth Branagh version of Poirot but those traits are there in the books. However, I feel they were somewhat over-played in this Peter Ustinov adaptation. The whole tone of the film is, although fun, a little tongue in cheek.

Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot in that bathing suit.

That said, it is a joy of film that didn’t do particularly well at the box office but has a huge cult following amongst many fans. Sadly, this Guy Hamilton version put an end to the franchise of producers John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin which is sad as it comes through very strongly just how much fun the cast and production crew were having on this film.

In 1999 the excellent Joh Moffatt starred in the radio adaptation that had a fabulous Iain Glen as Patrick Redfern and Fiona Fullerton as Arlena Marshall. I would have loved to see these actors play in a TV or film adaptation. They are absolutely perfect in the roles and it’s a wonderful radio play I would recommend to anyone.

Unusually, this is one of the very few occasions that I would say the David Suchet 2001 version does not quite live up to the earlier 1982 film. David Suchet is a far more nuanced Poirot and has had the advantage of an enormous number of years to carry this character forward and really embody the role. For some, he is the Poirot. However, his version of Evil Under the Sun is not quite as fulfilling as the 1982 film version.

The setting, however, for this David Suchet version, is one of my favourites and one I have spoken about before in this column – Burgh Island, the Devon Island that inspired Agatha Christie. Pixie Cove is based on The Mermaid Pool (which I’ve recently had the honour of swimming in but I’ll save you from the photos of that!)

The Mermaid Pool at Burgh Island.

It’s also the island that inspired And Then There Were None. This David Suchet version of Evil Under the Sun is beautifully shot there. He travels over on the fantastic sea tractor and what better way can there be to journey to a hotel? It’s the most unique and wonderful way to arrive and on the way over you can even see the beach hut where Agatha Christie did some of her writing.

Travelling on the sea tractor across to Burgh Island for dinner.

The 1982 film version chose a more exotic location of Mallorca, Guy Hamilton having lived there for many years. The aerial shots are of the uninhabited island of Sa Dragonera. Cala d’en Monjo  was used for the exteriors of Daphne’s Cove and Hotel; the hotel itself was a private estate. It does bring an extra, more exotic element to the production. After all, it’s Evil under the Sun and that can’t always be guaranteed in Devon.

However, in spite of the wonderful Burgh Island being the location that pays homage to Agatha Christie, in the David Suchet version it is transformed in part into a health retreat, given that Poirot has health problems at the time. This somehow, for me, takes away from the glamour of it all. Poirot should not be drinking health smoothies – well, he probably should but not when he’s solving a crime. As with the book there is the drug smuggling aspect which never seems to hang very well in the story and is sensibly removed from the 1982 film version.

David Suchet version of Evil Under the Sun.

Although directed by Brian Farnham and dramatized by one of my favourite authors, Anthony Horowitz, this version falls a little short. It’s good to see Miss Lemon, Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon added to this one but the rest of the cast is not as good as the film version. Louise Delamere does not have the film star attraction that Diana Rigg has and Rosalind March and Marsha Fiztalan don’t measure up to Maggie Smith. Michael Higgs is a more sinister Patrick Redfern but Tamzin Malleson as Christine Redfern is not as enigmatic as Jane Birkin. Russell Tovey makes a very young appearance as Lionel Marshall, a part that was changed to a girl in the 1982 version.

Unusually for the David Suchet versions, this adaptation is a little drab and has a slow pace in parts, particularly those around the smuggling. It doesn’t have the dramatic tone most of these Poirot’s have and Poirot himself is somewhat cowed by being forced to cut back on all the things he loves. It doesn’t have that wonderful sense of escapist glamour and fun that runs through the 1982 version. But then it doesn’t have the magnificent Dame Diana Rigg in her prime – the very essence of an iconic movie star. Which is how she will always be remembered.

Dame Diana Rigg
20 July 1938 – 10 September 2020

4 thoughts on “Adapting Agatha 5 – Evil Under the Sun. A tribute to Dame Diana Rigg

  1. Excellent analysis. I think both adaptations of EUTS have a lot to offer, and both have flaws. One drawback I find in both adaptations— and not the fault of either actress who played Arlena— is that they missed Christie’s clever twist that Arlena was really more perpetual victim than heartless predator. I also feel the Ustinov version somewhat fails in not calling to attention until the denouement the necessity of a very powerful strangling grip in the (thus the need for a complex conspiracy— otherwise Christine alone could have committed the crime). And perhaps my appreciation of the film was slightly hampered by the fact that it was the very next Ustinov Poirot film after the similarly-plotted and solutioned Death on the Nile, (and I consider the plot somewhat a poor man’s DOTN — I wonder how many casual cinema-goers, not familiar with the wide variety of her novels, saw these two films and came to the conclusion that Christie was a one-trick pony). That said, the film is loaded with pleasures, and is an absolute feast for the eyes.

    1. Hi Scott,

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think you may have a point there, that it is a little like DOTN and, of course, there was similar casting (Peter Ustinov, Jane Birkin and Maggie Smith). I love them but maybe cinema audiences did think it was a sort of rehash. It’s a shame, as I think they have such a wonderful sense of fun and nostalgia to them. They really capture that by-gone glamour that a lot of the grittier adaptations sacrifice. Let’s see what Mr Branagh does with DOTN!!

      Thanks for reading and have a lovely week,
      Best wishes,
      Victoria

  2. Thanks for the review.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Ustinov movie versions of Death On The Nile and Evil Under The Sun. Diana Rigg was magnificent. A great shame she has died. Iconic in The Avengers and one of the best, if not the best Bond Girl in On Your Majesty’s Secret Service. More recently her scenes in Game of Thrones kept you gripped.

    RIP Diana

    1. Hi Simon, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I too loved the Ustinov movies, although he’s not my favourite Poirot. Diana Rigg was indeed magnificent. She was also very good in another Agatha Christie – Witness for the Prosecution which I wrote another article on. It’s on the blog.

      Have a lovely week and thanks for reading and commenting.
      Best wishes,
      Victoria

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