Sarah Phelps on Dublin Murders, sexing up Agatha Christie and removing Ed Westwick from Ordeal by Innocence
The screenwriter tells Ellie Harrison about the new adaptation that makes her 'blood bang' and what it was like reshooting a show in the wake of a #MeToo scandal
I go for massive, yomping walks, kind of cursing to myself, and then I write, fast and in an angry way while I rage-eat Dairylea triangles,” says Sarah Phelps, sitting in a tea room in a central London hotel. The master adapter of no fewer than five Agatha Christie novels is explaining her unique writing process. She is funny, vivacious, unapologetic.
A stalwart of British drama, Phelps spices up Christie’s work for the small screen at Christmas, from And Then There Were None to The ABC Murders – the latter of which saw Phelps add sexualised torture rituals into the plot, much to the horror of many purists.
Phelps was also a writer on EastEnders for many years, with her most notable storyline being the death of Barbara Windsor’s Peggy Mitchell. The beloved character, who had terminal cancer, died of an overdose after a visit from the ghost of Pat Butcher. Agatha Christie eat your heart out.
Her newest project is another adaptation, but this time of the Dublin Murder Squad series by crime novelist Tana French. Phelps says when she first read French’s work, she felt “that sensation of having a hook put in your mouth and getting pulled into the dark stream of a completely immersive world”.
The series, which runs on BBC1 on Mondays and Tuesdays for the next four weeks, is a chilling, psychological mystery starring Killian Scott and Sarah Greene as detectives investigating two murders in Ireland. Despite first appearances, it is not a straightforward whodunit, which is why it appealed to Phelps. “It asks, ‘What is at the centre of the tangle that is us?’” she says. “The story just made my blood bang.”
But it is her reimagining of Christie tales that Phelps is best known for. When I put this to her, she shifts uncomfortably in her sequined skirt. “It’s one of those things where you go, ’How has this happened? Totally accidentally,’” she says.
Phelps grew up in the London suburb of Molesey reading Ian Fleming, rather than Christie, and had devoured the entire set of James Bond novels by the age of nine, which, she admits, “perhaps doesn’t give you quite the view of the world that somebody should have, but there you go”. She scoffs over the debate about whether a non-white actor can play 007. “Oh my goodness, ’He’s got to be white,’” she mimics the more vitriolic end of Twitter. “Oh, f*** me sideways, Jesus Christ.”
Her language is just as colourful in person as it is on social media, with one post describing grouse hunters as “clammy arseholes”. Her Twitter bio is simply: “Screenwriter. Pervert. BBC Monster.”
Phelps was thrown out of school at 15 for being “a pain in the arse”. “I was just bored like all 15-year-olds,” she explains. “Irritated and fractious. Even to this day I have problems with rooms, my knees start to twitch.” And I believe her, her eyes keep darting towards the door as if she’s trying to locate the quickest escape route.
After leaving education, Phelps worked as a horse groom, before starting night school at the local FE college and signing up for English on a whim. “Suddenly everything made sense,” she says. Later, talking about her university degree in English, she gushes: “I loved it, it was like being high for three years.”
Fast-forward a few decades and a dozen TV shows, and Phelps’s next project is Christie’s The Pale Horse, due to air this Christmas. That is, unless “something goes horribly wrong – but I bloody hope it doesn’t”. Phelps is surely alluding, here, to the scandal that engulfed her series Ordeal by Innocence, which was supposed to be shown over the 2017 festive period but was postponed until Easter 2018 after one of its leads, Ed Westwick, was accused of sexual assault.
When the allegations came to light a month before Ordeal by Innocence was due to air, Westwick was dropped from the show and replaced by Christian Cooke. Westwick has consistently denied the allegations made against him and it was confirmed by the LA District Attorney in 2018 that he would not face any charges due to insufficient evidence.
Phelps remembers the chaos well. “I came away from that thinking, when people go, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a bit of a problem,’ you want to go to them, ’That ain’t a f***ing problem, mate. That’s not a f***ing problem,’” she says, shaking her head.
“When you’ve weathered that, which was really tricky and incredibly traumatic and painful to everyone – well, it was just horrible.”
Was the BBC right to remove Westwick from the drama?
“It wouldn’t be fair to answer that,” says Phelps, “because it wouldn’t be fair on Ed and the other actors and the woman who made the accusation. We didn’t have any other option but to do that at that time. It’s just the way it was. If we’d gone ahead, what would that have looked like?”
I ask whether she had any involvement in the decision to replace Westwick. “No, that is up there,” she replies, wide-eyed and reaching her hands up to the ceiling. “That was people in very, very high rooms because of the situation. It was just like, ‘Well, this is how it’s going to be,’ and then we scurried about and made it happen.”
Phelps says she doesn’t want the whole story to “belch up again” because of the emotional impact it had on Westwick’s mother. “When you’ve met someone’s darling mum and watched her son help her over the roots in the pine forest and get her a chair and make sure she’s got a cup of tea you just think, ’Christ sake, everybody goes through hell.’”
Just two months before the BBC announced it was cutting Westwick from Ordeal by Innocence, Kevin Spacey was removed from All the Money in the World and replaced by Christopher Plummer following sexual assault allegations. Spacey’s scenes had to be reshot just six weeks before the film’s release date. Phelps’s mouth drops to the floor at the thought of it. “F***ing hell,” she breathes. “I’d forgotten about that. What the f***? It’s not going to be the last time that happens, is it? Bloody hell, what a time it was.”
Given how much of Phelps’s career has been dedicated to adapting Christie, is it strange when Hollywood gets its claws on the writer’s work? What did she think of Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded and widely panned Murder on the Orient Express, for example? Phelps simply purses her lips mischievously, does a cheeky side-eye and says, after a long and meaningful pause, “It’s completely nothing to do with me.”
Phelps is no stranger to criticism herself, with some purists taking issue with how she modernises Christie’s stories. “They’re entitled to their opinion,” says Phelps, who has clearly spent a lot of time trying to unpick the reaction of her critics. “The personal devotion [for Christie fans] is strong, and it’s probably difficult when somebody comes along and changes things, but everything is subject to change, all of it.
“I did a panel once after I did Great Expectations and there was a woman there who said to me, ‘You ruined Great Expectations. You RUINED it. You took out all the jokes.’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s the strangest book in the world: a man’s going to lose his life and a child gets stolen and given this depraved sexual education and it’s all about betrayal and somebody’s going to swing at the end of a rope unless, you know, and I don’t get the joke and I don’t think Dickens does either. I don’t think he does.’
“People get really, really attached and I think it’s all about saying, ‘Your personal experience, which you imagine to be everybody’s experience, doesn’t exist, it’s not valid.’ I suppose that’s pretty painful.”
Phelps says there's there's only one way she can interpret Christie's work, and that's in her own way. “Writers want to be read," she continues, "they don’t want to be venerated, they don’t want to be a brand, they don’t want to be a heritage trail, they don’t want to be fudge, they don’t want to be a tea towel.
She pauses. “They’ve got something to say and they want to be read.”
Dublin Murders begins on Monday 14 October at 9pm on BBC1