Why Hugh Laurie Wanted to Adapt and Direct Agatha Christie’s “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” for BritBox

“When an author is as loved and as revered as Agatha Christie, you'd better be careful because people have very strong feelings about these things,” explained actor Hugh Laurie, who adapted the legendary mystery writer’s novel Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? as a three-part miniseries for BritBox, which premiered today. “It’s a daunting honor,” he added during a TCA press conference for the series, which he also directs. “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.”

(BritBox/BBC Studios/ITV)

(BritBox/BBC Studios/ITV)

As a lifelong Agatha Christie fan, Hugh Laurie met with the company that manages her work to discuss adapting a different novel that would’ve had a role in it for him. It wasn’t available, but another one of his favorites was, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? “I said, ‘Well, there’s no role for me in it so I would love to be involved, but it wouldn’t be as an actor because I don’t see a role, but I’d love to try and write it.’” Write it he did, and he also found a role suitable for him to play, that of Dr. Nicholson. Adapting the novel was a fun challenge as it’s lighter in tone than a lot of Christie’s work. “The real mystery is what does the question of the title mean? It’s like a 100-dimension Wordle where you’re trying to solve this puzzle and until you solve it, it’s not really satisfying. You might catch the killer, but until you understand, decipher the question, and answer the question, it doesn’t really satisfy. And I think that is her genius.”

“Casting is always fraught,” Hugh Laurie shared about filling all of the roles, a process he is familiar with from both ends. In some cases, he even had an actor in mind as he was adapting the novel. “When I was writing I had Conleth Hill as Dr. Thomas, couldn't get him out of my mind. I've absolutely worshipped him as an actor for decades and I could not really see anybody else doing it. Will Poulter, of course, a fair bit younger, but as soon as I saw him and spoke to him, we chatted for a long time. I thought this is James Stewart; Will Poulter is James Stewart. He’s very modest, laconic, gentle, but he’s got a sort of steel to him the way James Stewart did. And Lucy [Boynton], of course, is sublime… She is so, so quick-witted, so bright. She just sort of glitters with this intelligence and this sort of pluck.. All of these actors I thought filled their roles in ways beyond what I could have hoped for.”

“I think it also helped to have a brilliant script and to have such a brilliant script would attract such fantastic casting,” executive producer Gina Cronk added, praising Laurie’s work on the script. “That was a huge bonus on the show. It wouldn't have happened if Hugh hadn't written such a brilliant script and we wouldn't have got such a fabulous cast. So he must take more than some responsibility for both sides for providing a brilliant script and for directing those actors so fantastically. Because I think sometimes if you've written and you're directing a show, there might be a feeling among the cast that, oh, I can’t really step out of line and I have to do exactly what’s asked of me. But I think Hugh is a very generous director and everyone inhabited their characters so brilliantly. And I think that’s through Hugh’s vision for the whole show, from the script to the direction to the casting. And that really was magnificent and contributed to the casting coming across so well.”

“We did have a terrific crew and I think that we only had a terrific crew it’s because Hugh was leading them to be terrific,” Producer Claire Jones praised. “I think people step up their game if they’re being asked to step up, if you know what I mean. Going back to the actors on set, I genuinely believe that having Hugh’s experience as an actor meant that he took the time with the actors every day before we started shooting to walk them through, allow them to find their pace, allow them to find what was right for each scene, in a way that I rarely witness other directors to do. And I think that is one of the key elements to why it’s so successful is because the acting, the performances are so charming and wonderful. And you can’t imagine anyone else playing those roles, and that’s because Hugh spent so much time every day with those actors. And we’re lucky that we had that opportunity to do that”

“Agatha Christie… she said, ‘I’m going to do something here where the real mystery is not a who-done-it; it’s kind of a why-done-it or how-done-it,’” Hugh Laurie concluded about what makes Why DIdn’t They Ask Evans? such a spectacular piece of work in the author’s library of works to adapt. “I can still sort of make myself shiver remembering the first time I realized what the twist of the story was and I still, to this day, get the same feeling when I watch it happen on screen. So that is the one moment I cling to because I think, well, my God, if that still works on me all these decades later, at least we got one thing right. And it’s a really important thing because I think that is her genius — Agatha Christie’s genius — to construct this bizarre puzzle that you cannot let go of; even if you know who killed and you know why, until you solve the puzzle of the title, you're not laying it to rest. And I think that is just a moment of genius on her part.”

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is now streaming exclusively on BritBox.