Netflix’s share price has collapsed and a major factor, people are saying, is its relentless pushing of agendas. I think I have the solution. Perhaps it should follow the BritBox model and instead of making dramas it feels that audiences ought to like – e.g. the very creepy-sounding He’s Expecting, a Japanese series about a man who gets pregnant – it should instead capitalise on our growing yearning for a lost age of chocolate-box innocence and relative normality.
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is a good example. Written and directed by Hugh Laurie, it’s the kind of Agatha Christie adaptation they don’t make any more: fairly light on discordant, anachronistic diversity casting and shoehorned lesbianism, rich in affectionate period detail, agreeable motor cars and crafty old publicans played by Paul Whitehouse dispensing warm ale.
The star of the show is Lucy Boynton as perky aristocratic sleuth Lady Frankie Derwent. And I’m not just saying that because her dad Graham used to send me on splendid freebies like the one to Africa’s most remote safari lodge on the Namibia/Angola border in his days as the Telegraph’s travel editor. No, I like her because she’s natural, captivating, believable – and a gentle reproof to the hammier elements in the cast, such as Laurie’s old Cambridge Footlights mucker Emma Thompson, who these days seems capable only of playing exaggerated versions of her luvvie self.
This one opens on a Welsh links course. Bobby Jones (Will Poulter), a former Royal Navy lieutenant, is out caddying for the village doctor when he hears a terrible scream. A man in a cream suit stuffed with clues (photographs; a fish key ring) has tumbled off a cliff and his last and only words are the series’ gnomic title. Did he jump or was he pushed? Well, obviously it’s the latter and my money’s on Bobby’s dad the vicar because, as is the way with Christie, he has no obvious motivation, he looks totally innocent and the only way he could conceivably have done it is through plot devices so tortuous that you’re left screaming in such frustration and agony you wonder why you bothered.
Though Poulter is good at capturing his character’s bumbling innocence and dogged decency, his accent, to my snobbish ears, sounds insufficiently pukka for an ex-Navy lieutenant in the 1930s. But such nitpicking, of course, is one of the great pleasures for connoisseurs of the period genre. Half of you can relax and let all the amiable nonsense wash over you; the other half is on the edge of your seat going: ‘No. Sorry. The vernacular looks far too Home Counties for a supposed Welsh seaside village!’ Or: ‘She’s having another cigarette. Good! Everyone should be smoking because everyone did.’
Bobby’s car-mechanic sidekick Ralph ‘Knocker’ Beadon (Jonathan Jules) is from the Caribbean, which I doubt he was in the original book (published 1935). I would double-check except that I haven’t seen the end yet so don’t want to risk any spoilers. But of course I understand the pressures exerted on casting directors these days (there’s a quota system you have to observe before you’re even considered for a Bafta; same goes, of course, for the Oscars, etc.) and actually, in this case it’s not an annoyance. Perhaps – the back story given – a Jamaican could, conceivably, have served alongside Bobby as a midshipman. Also, Jules makes the character such a delightful cheeky chappy, it lifts every scene in which he appears.
Anyway, consider this a recommendation. Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is what TV ought to be but so rarely is these days: honest entertainment that neither tries to hector you with indignant politics nor to drag you through the emotional wringer leaving you distraught and unsettled. Give me Hugh Laurie doing Agatha Christie, any day, over hysterical tosh like Anatomy of a Scandal (Netflix, natch) which I briefly watched just to check it was as bad as I feared it would be.
It was. I’m quite prepared to believe that politicians in real life are at least as depraved, slippery, sexually voracious, dishonest, corrupt and so on as the ones in Sarah Vaughan’s chick-lit potboiler. But so much of what I saw in the first episode just didn’t ring true. The scene, for example, where the Prime Minister’s flakcatcher/spinmeister Chris Clarke (Joshua McGuire) comes to James Whitehouse’s home as the papers prepare to reveal he has been having an affair with a parliamentary assistant. All right, so he’s supposed to be a cynical sleaze bag. But would even the most insensitive creep really be gloatingly reading out the tabloid story in front of the betrayed wife (Sienna Miller)?