An Agatha Christie Thriller as a Metaphor for Clinton's Presidential Run

'And Then There Were None' is a stylish BBC adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel and, give or take the odd digit, it's also a title that could apply to the U.S. presidential race.

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The cast of 'And Then There Were None.' Produced and acted in the fine style we have come to expect from the BBC.
The cast of 'And Then There Were None.' Produced and acted in the fine style we have come to expect from the BBC.Credit: Courtesy

In Yiddish, they say that when man plans, God chuckles — if not laughs outright. For all ye of little faith and even less Yiddish, it can be non-denominationally rephrased as “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans,” a John Lennon lyric from his 1980 song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).”

I originally planned to tell you all about the British-American miniseries “And Then There Were None,” based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name (more on that anon), all three episodes of which can be savored, or binged, on Yes VOD. (It was first screened in Britain last December, and the United States in March.) But then Hillary Clinton stumbled while boarding her getaway car during the 9/11 memorial, and all hell broke loose.

All our TV fare comes in two basic “incarnations,” so to speak: the live one (newscasts, breaking news of all kinds and at all times, sports events or awards ceremonies, like last Sunday’s Emmys); and the prerecorded or prepackaged one (TV series, movies, reality TV or quizzes). The ratings for all these are trending down, if not actually in a spin, with less and less viewers tuning in for live broadcasts of TV shows, partly because one of the inherent qualities of the fare being continuously shown on air, cable and all kinds of channels 24/7 is the “repeat” or “rerun”: Very little of it is new, and most of it comes around again and again. There is no chance of missing anything. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re bound to eventually — whether you want to or not.

That creates a sort of general disorientation in viewers’ minds as to what is actually happening, when, why and how important (or not) it is. It becomes even more misleading since the newscasts — usually labelled as being of the “live” variety — are actually, more often than not, endless “reruns” or “repeats” of a news clip, which becomes the nucleus of a news story and is aired again and again to illustrate a point being debated, proved or disproved.

All this happens to be Hillary Clinton’s current undoing, leaving aside the real issue of her well-or-unwell-being, the right or wrong way her team went about handling the press, and the whole notion of PC double standards in the presidential race coverage — where an overqualified, even if somewhat flawed, female runs against an arrogant and blatantly shameless male.

A news clip showing her being unstable on her feet, and then almost collapsing while trying to get into her car, is shown again and again, and gets etched into the “common viewer’s mind.” This leaves an indelible image of a woman who can hardly walk, let alone run, for the White House.

It’s not that the newscasts are there to do her wrong (OK, some Foxes are): It is the nature of the TV news beast, which makes the most visual mileage of any recorded news clip — taking mere seconds of one’s life and, by repeating it, turning it into a visual icon that “brands” the said life forever. In that way, time stands still on the screen while moving forward in “real life,” and it may eventually shape the outcome of events in the future.

Before the world went crazy

A TV miniseries like “And Then There Were None” has time traveling in the other direction, allowing us (through the BBC’s proven ability to recreate “period pieces”) to relive different times, before the world went out of whack.

Agatha Christie’s thriller, on which the miniseries is based, was published at the end of the 1930s and its action takes place in August 1939, mere days before the outbreak of World War II. And yet the 10 characters — seven men and three women — who find themselves on an island off the Devon coast, haunted and hunted by an unknown (or U.N. Owen) nemesis (no spoilers, I promise you), are completely unaware of the world going awry around them, just as we are unaware of the world going even more awry around us — and as we contemplate, with relative equanimity, the possibility of the U.S. election being decided on an unfortunate news clip being rerun for the umpteenth time.

At the time Christie published her thriller — which would go on to become her most successful novel — she had already become a “cottage industry.” She was producing two crime novels a year, having created a couple of fictional detectives who had acquired a life of their own: the pompous Belgian Hercule Poirot, and the quintessentially English Miss Marple.

Here, she tries her very steady hand at a crime novel without a detective, in a formula novel that spells its own end, with all of its characters doomed from the beginning yet trying to fight impossible odds. She was very happy with the way she managed to rise up to the challenge she set for herself, making the inevitable suspenseful and plausible.

The 3 x 60-minute miniseries, produced and acted very much on the level to be expected in such a genre from the BBC, rises to the challenge equally well, with a woman, Vera Claythorne (played by Australian actress Maeve Dermody), staying in the race to the bitter end, only to be tricked and trapped by an unscrupulous male (can’t tell you who — I promised no spoilers) at the very last moment.

The miniseries proved a big hit in Britain, with the folks behind the show currently working on adapting another classic Christie novel: “The Witness for the Prosecution.”

One interesting aside to the show is the history of its title. The novel was originally published in Britain as “Ten Little Niggers,” with its plot based on a nursery rhyme of the same name: a group of 10 individuals who undergo assorted mishaps, with their number diminishing by the stanza just as it happens to the characters in the story.

When the novel was first published in the United States in 1940, for reasons of political correctness its title was changed to the last line of the nursery rhyme: “And then there were none.” Oddly enough, when it was republished in 1964, it was renamed “Ten Little Indians.” But when you embark on the PC trail, you eventually end up with “Ten Little Soldiers,” as the rhyme becomes in this miniseries.

This title change serves to highlight the futility of it all: Whatever these 10 characters are called at the beginning, by the time we reach the end there were — or are — none, and it doesn’t really matter who they were originally.

And that sort of applies to the U.S. presidential election, too, albeit with one striking difference: By November 8, it will be down to the Last Man (or Woman) standing. With the woman having some problems standing, based on that news clip re-re-re-running. And we will be none the wiser.