A star-studded small screen version of an Agatha Christie story has been a regular fixture of recent Christmas schedules on BBC1. This year was to be no different. But, after filming on 2017’s Ordeal By Innocence had finished and actors including Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor and Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson had moved on to their next projects, the production was thrown into turmoil.
It was November last year when the first of multiple accusations of sexual assault against actor Ed Westwick, who played Mickey Argyll, surfaced. The BBC put the three-part drama on hold.
Then came confirmation that, just as Ridley Scott’s film All The Money In The World had reshot all scenes that had featured Kevin Spacey with a new actor, so Christian Cooke was to replace Westwick.
For Morven Christie, who plays housekeeper Kirsten Lindstrom in the mystery, it was the best solution.
“The BBC made the only decision they could legitimately make. My biggest thought was that 100 plus people worked on this production. Must everybody be punished for the alleged behaviour of one person within it?” Christie told The Big Issue.
“The original shoot was really grueling. We worked really hard – the actors less than everybody else – and the idea it would just disappear was devastating. There was so much work in it. And so many incredible women who worked on that production”
What followed was a logistical puzzle for production company Mammoth Screen. Reassembling as many of the original crew as possible, arranging time off for actors by now working on other films, television series or plays to reshoot scenes – this time opposite Cooke in the key role of Mickey, one of the five adopted children of murdered philanthropist Rachel Argyll.
“It was difficult because Alice Eve was in LA, Anthony Boyle was in New York rehearsing Harry Potter, Luke has loads of things going on, Matthew is doing his Witches show [A Discovery of Witches, for Sky], Bill Nighy is always in demand,” recalls 30-year-old Cooke.
“But when you have a willingness from all the actors and other production companies are generous with their time, there are ways of making it work.”
Cooke has been in the industry since his childhood. But he has never been cast in such circumstances, or filmed with quite such intensity. “It was two and a half weeks of just me,” he says. “The other actors were coming in for a few days each. For all the scenes that we had to fully reshoot, I was able to do what I wanted with it and interpret it my own way. That was very important to me. It wasn’t talked about on set, everyone was sensitive, but there was a feeling that they were happy the work was going to be seen. Because the biggest fear when something like this happens is that the work will die.”
That the drama hangs together is testament to technical wizardry – from lighting, sound design, props and wardrobe departments plus skillful editing to ensure new footage fits seamlessly with what was filmed the previous year. Cooke is hoping that figuring out whodunit, rather than looking for the joins between the two shoots, will be the game of choice for viewers.
The resulting drama is dripping with its own dark secrets. A family living in luxury, but whose lies and betrayals lurk beneath the veneer.
“Sarah Phelps has such a fiery way of attacking a script,” says Christie. “Any character could be the lead character – she gets right inside each one of them. And there are things about the story that make the particular way this has been tackled quite potent.”
Themes of power, of abuse, of dark secrets being exposed, return us to the current conversations within the acting industry.
“I see the news as everybody else sees it. I read it as everybody else does,” says Cooke. “And it is clearly a positive thing that people who are abusing their power are being stopped or silenced and women feel empowered to come out and speak up.”
For Christie, the conversations now happening out in the open are nothing new. “If you are me and you have been having these kind of conversations for years now, it is refreshing to see the context change and a shift in tone,” she says. “But on a personal level, I have always been irritatingly conscious of all of this stuff. Pay parity, the balance of roles.
“One of the jobs I did quite recently was quite a prominent one where there was a pay inequality. The A Word was negotiated before all this happened. But yes, that was a conversation. It was not easy, but we had it anyway. Now it would be easier. And I didn’t get to equality either. I got to about 10% under.”
Asked if that pay inequality will change for future series, she replies: “If there is a series three, I will not be stepping on to set for a penny less than any man in that production. End of.”
Christie continues: “It is not necessarily that the will isn’t there, it’s just that there has been a precedent set for such a long time where pay is based on historical quote rates – and historically men have been paid more than women. So this is never going to get better unless you decide to pay us equally for doing an equal job. Somebody has to make the jump.”