Hugh Laurie Brings a Classic Agatha Christie Mystery to TV

The House star takes on his passion project, writing and directing a three-part adaptation of an Agatha Christie tome

The House star takes on his passion project, writing and directing a three-part adaptation of an Agatha Christie tome 

Hugh Laurie has a confession to make: “Frankie Derwent, the heroine of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, was my first-ever crush,” says the English multihyphenate, whose latest endeavour is directing a new version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel. “I wanted to be Bobby Jones, but only to allow me to spend time with Frankie Derwent, because I found her absolutely intoxicating. She’s quick and funny and bold and ready to take a chance.” 

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? marks the first time in decades that the star of House and The Night Manager tackles screenwriting, a gig that came about after a discussion of his love for the novel with Christie’s estate… and the admission there really wasn’t a role for him to play. “I said I’d love to try and write it, because I remember responding so keenly to the comic spirit of it,” says Laurie. “It’s a murder mystery, but it has a slight screwball feel to it. And one of the most remarkable things about it is that—and this I believe is unique for Agatha Christie—the real mystery is not who the killer is. The real mystery is what does the question of the title mean? You might catch the killer, but until you decipher the question and answer the question, it doesn’t really satisfy. I think that is her genius.” 

Laurie may be the man behind this screenplay, but the wit and charm of the characters remains pure Christie, according to the writer-director. “The female characters have strong opinions and take some strong positions, which I like a lot,” he says. “I would never in a million years dream of taking any credit. Along with the rest of us, I am just hanging on to the coattails—well, it wouldn’t be coattails—hanging on to the hem of the skirt of Dame Agatha for the ride.” Why Didn't they Ask Evans?BritBox

Of course, being the person to put your stamp on a classic, however magnificently written, is a tad nerve-wracking. “The esteem in which that author is held has a great deal to do with the stress you place on yourself,” says Laurie. “When an author is as revered as Agatha Christie, you’d better be careful because people have very strong feelings about these things, as they should—as I would.” At the same time, Laurie considers it an honour to reinterpret the famed author’s work. “You feel like you’re taking a Fabergé egg, and you’d better not drop it because plenty of people will point out that you’ve dropped a Fabergé egg,” he says.  

A big part of the process was, of course, getting the ensemble just right. “Casting is always fraught,” admits Laurie. “It’s fraught for actors certainly, but it’s also very fraught for producers to try and match particular tones and rhythms and energies to tell the story you want to tell.” The most important role to land was Laurie’s childhood crush, Lady Frances Derwent, who takes form in the shape of Bohemian Rhapsody’s Lucy Boynton. “Lucy, of course, is sublime. I mean, Lucy is playing the character I had a crush on, so she better be sublime,” Laurie chuckles. “She is so quick-witted, so bright. She just sort of glitters with this intelligence and pluck.”  

And while he was a tad too old to portray amateur sleuth Bobby Jones, the director was equally taken by Boynton’s screen partner, Will Poulter, calling the 29-year-old Brit a young James Stewart. “He’s got this straight-arrow [quality]—he’s very modest, laconic, gentle, but he’s got a sort of steel to him the way James Stewart did. All of these actors filled their roles in ways beyond what I could have hoped for.”  

Tasked with helming the largest BritBox original series to date, Laurie admits that being a director on this three-part series feels a little like the work of seven people. “I’m not as calm as I would like to be,” he says. “I think the problem is that any job you do is only difficult or easy in relation to how much you care about the outcome. Brain surgery is pretty easy if you don’t mind the patient dying. But if you care a lot about something, things could be almost infinitely problematic.”  

The solution, says Laurie, is surrounding yourself with an exceptional team. “My vocabulary of women’s hats from the 1930s is pretty narrow, so when Laura, our costume designer, would say, ‘You could do that, but you could also do this,’ I would immediately go, ‘Oh my God, that’s so much better than what I could’ve thought of,’” Laurie says. “The same with art direction and production design. You become very dependent on other people’s expertise, all the time knowing that you are going to steal their credit at every possible subsequent opportunity, which is sure enough what I have done and plan to do.” 

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? streams Tuesdays on BritBox