The first part of The Pale Horse set things up with all the deftness we have come to expect from Sarah Phelps’s Agatha Christie adaptations. It painted a stylish but sinister version of early Sixties England, a world of lascivious socialites and eerie village fairs and women who may or may not be witches. At the heart of it was Rufus Sewell as Mark Easterbrook, a philanderer with impeccable tailoring, a jaw you could use as an anvil, and a fat deck of dark secrets.
The second part – and how nice it is to watch something in two clean halves, rather than a six-hour “limited series” or a 24-episode bingeathon – makes a clean run for home. It’s a satisfying conclusion, even if it necessarily swaps some of The Wicker Man horror for more traditional whodunnit thrills. With corpses – both human and animal – piling up around him, Easterbook grows increasingly desperate. He keeps telling himself he is a rational man, who believes in science, but evidence of the occult is becoming more compelling by the hour. Witchcraft is a kind of conspiracy theory, which exploits our need to seek patterns where there aren’t any. Once you start believing, everything falls into place to fit the theory.
Adding to Easterbrook’s woes, Inspector Lejeune (Sean Pertwee) suspects him of something, and so does his new wife Hermia (Kaya Scodelario). He pays a visit to the witches in the village of Much Deeping in search of a solution. The reality proves more prosaic but just as scary as his worst fears. It is even more Sewell’s show than the first episode, and he rises magnificently to the occasion. We never feel sorry for him, exactly, especially as we learn just how badly he treats the women in his life, but we can understand the pressure he feels.
Like all Phelps’s adaptations, The Pale Horse plays fast and loose with the original story and punches up the language with a few choice four-letter words. The changes inspired predictable amounts of pearl-clutching from the quality family newspapers. But the decisions are justified, and modernise the text without losing the novelist’s talent for misdirection, distraction and surprise. It draws out contemporary issues, in particular misogyny of a certain kind of pompous, entitled upper-middle class male, but not at the expense of the yarn.
The dialogue, in particular, with its realistic levels of swearing, is vital. An audience can hardly be expected to believe in murders and witchcraft and general entitled bastardly if everyone talks like an Arthur Ransome character. As the eccentric shopkeeper Zachariah Osborne (Bertie Carvel, continuing to graze on the scenery) says to Easterbook: “That’s the point, isn’t it? Making people believe?” These classy Christies make us believe. It would be a shame if The Pale Horse marked the end.