Introducing: The Unicorn and the Wasp

There’s a murder, a mystery and Agatha Christie.

Doctor Who’s been playing with the idea of pseudo-historicals since 1965’s The Time Meddler, and regularly since the show’s return in 2005, with The Unquiet Dead, which mixed Charles Dickens with – what else? – ghosts at Christmastime! The life and works of Christie are, of course, a perfect fit for Doctor Who (just look at The Robots of Death, or the Stephen Cole novel, Ten Little Aliens, inspired by And Then There Were None), and she even watched the show in its infancy.

Now then: smell that air. Grass, lemonade – and a little bit of mint.

The Usual Suspects

the unicorn and the wasp

The production team behind Doctor Who in the mid- to late-2000s was heavily populated with Agatha Christie fans. It was producer, Phil Collinson who first came up with the idea for a story solving the mystery of the ten days the author disappeared in 1926. Russell T. Davies, then-showrunner, offered the plot to Gareth Roberts, who’d written The Shakespeare Code for Series 3 and so had previous with pseudo-historicals and writing for well-known historical figures.

Gareth was also a big Agatha Christie fan.

He was particularly influenced by one of his favourite novels, Crooked House – Agatha even notes that the Eddison household is a ‘crooked house’ – and Davies pushed for the script to be funny; perhaps as a reaction to the somewhat darker tales that follow it, Silence in the Library/ Forest of the Dead and Midnight.

Aside from the humour, the story is laced with tropes familiar to Christie’s works. There’s a jewellery theft, a dinner party, plenty of family secrets including questions of birth rights, revenge, secret liaisons, a broken watch, love affairs, cryptic last words, ripped documents, and a revelation about Colonel Hugh Curbishly that mirrors a couple of Christie works.

Furthermore, the important Fire Stone, owned by Lady Eddison and soon stolen by the fabled Unicorn, is a reference to 1868’s The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, one of the earliest detective novels.

Obviously, a plethora of suspects was needed, and the 2008 episode boasted a cast including Felicity Kendal (The Good Life); Tom Goodman-Hill (Moses Jones); future Oscar winner Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything); and Christopher Benjamin, who previously played Sir Keith Gold in Inferno (1970) and Henry Gordon Jago in 1977’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Tenth Doctor, David Tennant suggested Fenella Woolgar for the role of Agatha Christie after he’d worked with her in Bright Young Things and He Knew He Was Right. And Tennant even managed to get his father, Alexander McDonald, to feature in a cameo as a footman when the latter visited his son on set!

Connections with Christie

Agatha Christie, surrounded by some of her 80-plus crime novels.

Surprisingly few cast members had already appeared in adaptations of Christie novels: Woolgar had starred in Lord Edgware Dies (and since in Hallowe’en Party); Catherine Tate in A Murder is Announced; and David Quilter (Greeves) in The Million Dollar Bond Robbery.

Nonetheless, The Unicorn and the Wasp is steeped in nods to Christie. Roberts and Davies even had a contest to smuggle in as many novel titles as possible. Some were quite obvious, particularly the Doctor’s attempt (“Murder at the Vicar’s Rage… Needs a bit of work”).  The Doctor also mentions The Moving Finger when summing up the evidence; Christie believed the Wasp to be a fake, stating that They Do It With Mirrors; and Donna talks of The Body in the Library.

Then there’s Cards on the Table, Cat Among The Pigeons, Taken at the Flood; N or M?, Nemesis – and plenty more besides!

Some are only cheekily hinted at. Professor Peach’s last words, for instance, are “why didn’t they ask…? Heavens…” (a reference to Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?).

And some are so subtle most would miss them completely. At the dinner, for example, in which the Doctor has laced the soup with the ‘jolly spicy’ pipperine, yellow irises are on the table; a nod to the short story, Yellow Iris, which was turned into Sparkling Cyanide (also quoted in the episode).

Russell even tried to smuggle in the original name of And Then There Were None, with Donna saying the situation was a bit like “Ten Little Ni – – ” (though Davies cut this, deeming it too risky).

The Real Disappearance

Agatha-Christie

Sadly, the comedic nature of the episode is at odds with the life of Agatha Christie at that time.

Christie had been feeling alone and isolated in the London suburb of Sunningdale for some time, and she hit a particularly low-point when her mother, Clarissa “Clara” Miller died in April 1926. The brilliant author had been close to her mother her entire life, and was said to have felt an ‘inexplicable chill’ pass over her when she was sent for to visit Clara, ill with bronchitis, but didn’t reach her in time.

With her husband, Archibald “Archie” Christie, away, and her sister, Madge, forced to stay in Manchester, Agatha was left with no support, and appointed herself to sort out her mother’s affairs. Agatha was left Ashfield, her childhood home in Torquay, but Archie refused to visit her there, seeing the trip as unnecessarily expensive and inconvenient.

Grief overtook Agatha, and she once forgot her real name when signing a cheque.

Things got worse when Archie confessed to falling in love with another woman, 26-year-old Nancy Neele, a secretary, and he told his wife:

“I can’t stand not having what I want. I can’t stand not being happy. Everybody can’t be happy. Somebody has got to be unhappy.”

After telling her daughter’s governess (and Christie’s friend), Caroline “Carlo” Fisher, to take the day off, Agatha drove off in her car at 11 o’clock on the night of Friday 3rd December 1926.

She perhaps needed to get away after she’d had an argument with Archie and he had gone to stay with Nancy for the weekend.

Agatha’s car was found at Newland’s Corner on the Surrey Downs near Guildford, and with it an expensive fur coat, something she strangely left behind despite it being a cold Winter’s night.

agatha disappearance

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had found both Agatha Christie and her Belgium detective, Hercule Poirot, fame, so the press were free to speculate on what had really happened. The car had been found amongst the bushes, as if she’d lost control of it, leading some to ask if she were injured. Others suspected suicide or murder. Planting the idea that she had disguised herself and run away, in a fashion similar to some of her tales, Archie told the press:

“I want to believe she is alive.”

On Saturday 4th December, Agatha checked into the Swan Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan Hotel) in Harrogate as ‘Mrs. Theresa Neele of Cape Town’ (using the surname of her husband’s mistress). Though she was very withdrawn and didn’t really mix with the other guests and hotel staff, some began to suspect her real identity – and two members of staff eventually contacted the police.

On 14th December, Archie was sent for and identified the author, but it was clear that she was very ill. The hotel’s manager, Mr. Taylor, witnessed their reunion, but said that Agatha greeted her husband as if he were “an acquaintance whose identity she could not quite fix.” She even struggled to remember her daughter, Rosalind, upon initially seeing her again.

Rounding up the Evidence

DWUnicornAndWasp

After returning to her home, two doctors confirmed she’d suffered “an unquestionably genuine” case of total amnesia. Even up to her death in 1976, Agatha said she couldn’t remember what had happened to her.

Still, she picked herself up and was determined to support herself and Rosalind solely through her writing. After selling their home, Styles, and being issued a decree nisi in April 1928, Agatha never saw Archie again (though she kept her married name as it has become a sign of quality detective fiction).

Her life did become more positive, thankfully, with Rosalind quickly settling into a school in Sussex, and Agatha booking herself on a life-changing trip on the Orient Express. As the Doctor claims, she remains the best-selling novelist of all time, with her estate states that her 66 detective novels, six romances and 15 short story collections rank third in the world, after the Bible and Shakespeare. Agatha truly is the “Queen of Crime.”

8.41 million watched The Unicorn and the Wasp, and it received an Audience Appreciation Index of 86 out of 100, considered ‘excellent.’ Even though its positive, jovial tone didn’t match her state of mind in 1926, it did echo Agatha Christie’s life as a whole.

(Thanks to The Agatha Christie Book Collection.)

  • TheLazyWomble

    Thank you, Philip, for an interesting and informative article. I consider myself a bit of a Christie fan. But I didn’t know some of the details of the disappearance.

    • Philip

      No, I didn’t know much about it either despite being a big fan of hers. It’s really interesting though. It’s that frustration of never knowing…

      • TimeChaser

        Not sure if you’ve ever seen it, but there was a very good program once featuring David Suchet investigating the whole mystery of Christie’s disappearance. Along with his Orient Express special, they’re really good television.

  • Dr. Moo

    An interesting article that somehow managed to hold my interest despite being all about one of the most tedious TV episodes I’ve ever seen – I’m dying? Nothing a game of charades won’t fix! – but since it’s by Gareth Roberts the fact it’s rubbish is hardly a shock.

    I like these “Introducing…” articles you’ve started to do here. Keep them coming!

    • Philip

      Thanks Moo – we’ve more planned! 🙂

  • Edward Delingford

    Interesting background. Thanks. This is one of my embarrasing guilty pleasures. Silly as a wheel, wildly and irritatingly overacted by Tennant – I am surprised none of the other cast members didn’t want to either knock him on the head or throttle him themselves, but Fenella Woolger gives a sincere performance as Agatha in the midst of the riotous hamming up by the rest of the cast, the costumes and period detail are fab, including the cars, and loved trying to work out the book titles in the text. If anyone has seen the deleted scenes which have the older Agatha reminiscing, they will be more thankful for what we got in the end. It may be schlocky, but a darn sight better than Roberts’ initial version.

    • Philip

      Yeah, that deleted scene is really quite cringy, isn’t it? Good-intentioned, but you can see why it was deleted!

      • Edward Delingford

        It really would have changed the entire tone of the episode. I likei it just being a fun romp snd silly historical pastiche.Fenella Woolger gave the charscter sufficient poignancy without the maudlin bookend with the elderly Agatha.

  • Tidgy’s Dad

    Fascinating article, though many have claimed the whole disappearance was nothing more than a cry for attention or even a publicity stunt.
    I love ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’. Silly, fun nonsense that always makes me smile.

    • Philip

      Thanks Tidgy’s Dad – glad you enjoyed it! Yeah, some did think it was all a stunt, but I never believe that really. I think her popularity was on the rise anyway after Roger Ackroyd, but again, we’ll never know. People will always want to reduce the antics of celebrities to simple publicity stunts; I guess it proves you’re a success!

  • TheLazyWomble

    For a treatment of the whole disappearance episode, watch “Agatha” starring Vanessa Redgrave (Mummy Kate Stewart), Dustin Hoffman and Timothy “Rassilon” Dalton.
    Agatha Christie went on to marry renowned archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan.

    • Philip

      Ooh that’s interesting – I didn’t know about that film. Thanks! 🙂

  • Ranger

    I love the Unicorn and the Wasp – good, silly fun that is a needed uplift before the darker finale. Well acted by everyone – the charade scene is my favourite.

    Christie’s breakdown is a well documented mental health problem – the brain, not being able to cope with the pressure of a bad situation, can create a fugue state that can sometimes last quite a time. I’ve experienced it myself – luckily it lasted just short of an hour, but I really have no idea what I did or what happened to me in that time. It shows strength of character that, basically unaided, Christie got herself back on an even keel.

    Great article Philip.

    • Philip

      Crikey, that sounds horrible. Sorry to hear you’ve gone through it yourself. As you say, though, Christie was an amazingly head-strong person, and I think this episodes does her justice.

  • TimeChaser

    One of my favorite episodes from Season 4. I grew up with a mother who is a big mystery fan, so we watched a lot of classic British mystery on TV, and I mean the good stuff – Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett, Poirot with David Suchet, and Miss Marple with Joan Hickson – so I was primed from childhood to enjoy this one. I loved trying to pick up on all the title references in the dialogue, and I think the story is well-acted straight through. I fine cast.

    Despite the seriousness of whatever Christie really went through with her breakdown, I think it would be impossible for Doctor Who to do a Christie pastiche with any real tone of seriousness. There’s no way this one could have been anything other than a comedy. As stated, I grew up on the Christie TV shows of the 80s/90s, but I’ve actually read very few of the actual books. Frankly, TV does Chrtistie better. I find the books more than a bit ridiculous, and in tone more like this episode. Poirot is constantly the smartest man in the room, while Hastings and practically every other ordinary person is so… “British” (no other way to describe it) as to be ridiculously dense.