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 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
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
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.
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
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.)