The Pale Horse is the culmination of a body of work that Sarah Phelps set out to achieve more than five years ago. The British writer has gone from never picking up an Agatha Christie book to completing a quintet of memorable adaptions based on some of the iconic author’s most famous works.
Phelps’ journey began with And Then There Were None in 2015 and continued with The Witness For the Prosecution, Ordeal By Innocence and last year’s The ABC Murders, starring John Malkovich as detective Hercule Poirot. Each provided a distinctive twist on the Christie genre, with Phelps hoping to tease out unwritten meaning from prose that will be familiar to millions of readers.
In an interview with Deadline to mark The Pale Horse landing on Amazon in the U.S., Phelps said the Mammoth Screen drama starring Rufus Sewell is the Christie text with which she has taken “most liberties.” It tells the story of the grief-stricken Mark Easterbrook, whose name is discovered on a list in a dead woman’s shoe. As he attempts to investigate why he is on the list, he crosses paths with three mysterious women at The Pale Horse pub in the British village of Much Deeping. In the book, Easterbrook appears to be a “boys own” hero, but Phelps says this hides something more sinister.
“You get these weird details about him. The way he talks about the smell of a girl’s unwashed hair. It makes you go: ‘That’s really strange.’ There’s something really prurient about that,” Phelps says. “There’s a tension between the book she wants people to read and the book she wants to write, and I always think when I’m reading: what is that doing there? Is it a mistake, is it a lapse in concentration, did she mean for it to be there? I think it’s a clue. They give you an undercurrent of a very different story. When I follow those clues I come up with my version of The Pale Horse.”
It’s this undercurrent that drew Phelps to Christie, not the folksy “cozy pleasure” often associated with the author’s work — the sense that everything is going to be all right in the end once the famous detective has solved the riddle. Instead, Phelps believes Christie’s murder mysteries are “dressing” for darker, grander themes.
“What she is really writing about is power and how people lie to hold on to their power. It’s not so much the murder, it’s the lying. It’s not what weapon was used, it’s why is that person dead. That’s what I pursue,” she says.
Phelps says the Christie stories she has chosen to adapt have been more about the availability of copyright than a considered approach to her vast collection of work. She adds that the copyright constraints have actually been helpful because she has not become “swamped” by the Christie brand. There has, however, been a chronology of sorts to the five stories, which provide a snapshot of 50 years of the 20th century through the eyes of Christie. “I said I wanted to write a quintet and I’ve written a quintet. What was really important was to frame the work, rather than just ‘doing a Christie’ and trundling along on the same old track. Boring, boring, boring,” she says.
Would Phelps consider other Christie adaptations in the future? “If I was to do more, I would have to find another way to frame them, to validate them being done. Otherwise, the next thing you know, you’re back in kind of cozy Sunday evening TV. You’re not doing anything brutal with it. It deserves a brutality. She deserves to be paid attention to as a writer, not just as a brand,” she replies.
For now though, Phelps is focusing on other projects. She is keen to write a second season of her BBC One and Starz drama Dublin Murders, while she has also started work on the second season of A Very English Scandal. Deadline revealed last month that she is officially attached to the project, which tells the story of a 1963 sex scandal involving Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll. “I am writing a three-hour show about an extremely famous blowjob, because of course, what else would I do once I’ve finished killing people?” Phelps jokes.
She’s a writer in demand, but laughs off the idea of signing a big-money exclusive studio deal like her compatriots Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Peter Morgan.
“I can’t see that ever happening,” she says. Apart from anything, Phelps is not sure she would cope well with the pressure of being bound by golden handcuffs. “I find it quite scary, the figures that are chucked about. It does make me feel quite scared. You’re not getting paid that for a favor. With that kind of money hanging over you, how the f*ck are you going to write?,” she says. “But who knows? If someone wants to offer me a load of money, I’ll give it a fair crack of the whip and see what I can come up with.”
One thing she is certain of is that there has scarcely been a better time to be a dramatist. “All the time you’re seeing writers and stories coming through that otherwise would not have been seen. The fact there is room for them on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu is so exciting,” she says. Regardless of the platform, however, the uncertain rush of seeing her work in front of an audience for the first time never leaves her. “I never get used to it. The skin gets a bit thicker. You learn to roll with things, but that moment when you know it’s being broadcast and people are watching it for the very first time, it makes your blood run backwards a little bit. I don’t ever want to feel blasé about that moment.”
The Pale Horse is currently streaming on Amazon in the U.S. and BBC iPlayer in the UK.