The Pale Horse, review: Sarah Phelps’ new take is an elegant, folksy horror – but it might be time to move on from Agatha Christie

Rufus Sewell in The Pale Horse: Mischief Screen Limited 2019/Ben Blackall
Rufus Sewell in The Pale Horse: Mischief Screen Limited 2019/Ben Blackall

The latest of the Agatha Christie adaptations by Sarah Phelps tackles The Pale Horse, one of the writer’s more supernatural tales. The new versions have had plenty of style to go with their horror. Phelps’ looseness with the source texts has mainly wound up the right people, which is to say people who think what the TV world needs is another to-the-letter version of Poirot.

The Pale Horse of the title is an ominously named old pub in a village called Much Deeping, in a version of Surrey that looks suspiciously like the Cotswolds. (It was in fact shot near Stroud, with Bristol unconvincingly doubling up for Sixties Soho). Here, a coven of three “witches” practise fortune-telling. One of their clients is Delphine Easterbrook (Georgina Campbell). Eager to please her new husband, Mark (Rufus Sewell), she drops by to ask the witches whether she will make him happy. She is found dead soon afterwards, in mysterious circumstances.

In general, it proves, a familiarity with Mark Easterbook is a bad sign for one’s life expectancy. He is a wealthy playboy in swinging Sixties London, with a square jaw and an elastic idea of marital fidelity. His name is found in a dead woman’s shoe, along with the names of several others, including eccentric engineer Zachariah Osborne (Bertie Carvel). Detective Inspector Stanley Lejeune (Sean Pertwee) quickly starts putting the pieces together, while Easterbook tries to find out what’s going on without his new wife Hermia (Kaya Scodelario) catching on to his philandering. On a trip to Much Deeping, they run into an occult festival. In prime-time weekend television, there are few omens as bad as villagers in costume. “Do you ever feel that something’s coming, something bad?” Mark asks Zachariah. Yes, yes we do.

The cast is stronger on paper than it turns out on screen. The witches have fun, but what’s easier than playing a witch? Sewell is a suitably shifty lead, all Don Draper suits and askance glances. It’s obvious why you would want to marry him but also obvious why it would be a very bad idea. Pertwee gives his somewhat underwritten detective instant gravitas. With a hunch, a silly voice and crooked false teeth, Carvel plays Osborne like a missing League of Gentleman character. And it’s hardly her fault, but viewers with happy memories of Skins might have trouble taking Scodelario seriously as a put-upon housewife uttering clipped accusations over the lamb.

This is the fifth of Phelps’s Christie adaptations, and she has said it could be the last. It might be time. A Pale Horse is as polished as the other pieces, showing a folksy horror beneath elegant surfaces, but the energy no longer feels fresh. Her quintet has covered half a century of murderous British history, and it has mainly been bloody good fun.

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