Why Didn't They Ask Evans

Hugh Laurie, Lucy Boynton and Will Poulter on Agatha Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

It’s been over 100 years since Agatha Christie first set pen to paper and published her first murder mystery but the intervening years haven’t dulled the appeal of her work. Almost every story has been adapted multiple times for both the big and small screen–some decidedly more successfully than others–and there’s no sign of that stopping any time soon. 

Christie’s detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot have become household names on both sides of the pond but the English author also wrote several stand-alone cases which feature neither famous sleuth. It’s one of her most famous, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, that award-winning multi-hyphenate Hugh Laurie has chosen to adapt as a limited series exclusive to streamer BritBox.

Produced by the film and television arm of the author’s estate, this particular tale follows Bobby Jones (Will Poulter), an amiable young Welshman who finds himself in the right place at an unfortunate time. He happens upon a dying man just in time to hear his last gasp, a cryptic question that provides the story’s title. Together with his friend, Lady Frances “Frankie” Derwent (Lucy Boynton), the two embark on a crime-solving adventure that puts them squarely in the face of danger as they strive to find out what really happened and who is responsible. The result is a witty adventure that will delight existing Christie fans and may just entice brand new ones. With breathtaking scenery, fabulous period costumes, and excellent performances from its two leads and their supporting cast (including Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent and Laurie himself, there’s not much more audiences could ask for.

THAT SHELF got a chance to sit in on a roundtable with Laurie and his series’ two young stars, Boynton and Poulter. The discussion ranged from the lasting appeal of Agatha Christie to Thompson’s “clanking” Oscars to just what made this particular foray into the classic mystery genre so much fun. 

And no, they don’t give us any clues as to why they didn’t ask Evans! To find out you’ll just have to watch the series’ 3-episode run, which hit BritBox in Canada and the U.S. yesterday.

 

What do you think it is about Agatha Christie’s stories that make them so timeless and ripe for adaptation?

Hugh Laurie: I don’t know that they are timeless. Exactly. I mean, I don’t know that many people have done Agatha Christie ‘in the future’. I don’t think people have done many contemporary settings of Agatha Christie. Maybe they have, I should know, but I don’t think so. There is something about the time in which they are set that is lastingly appealing. It’s a sort of golden age between the wars. She wrote much later than that, obviously, but that was when she came to fame. And there’s something about that golden age–a sort of innocence, or a desire to recreate an innocence, after the trauma of the first war. And in that world, that sort of beautiful, gentle world, terrible things can still happen. And for some reason, we seem to be endlessly fascinated by what that means. We are in the Garden of Eden, but even in the Garden of Eden, there is a serpent and the serpent will mess you up. And it’s sort of an endlessly fascinating story. How did the serpent get in there and what does it do once it is in there?

Lucy Boynton: Speaking especially in the context of this [series] and this story. There’s something really unedited about these characters and very honest in how they present and how they come to the table and I think that’s always incredibly refreshing. We’re definitely in a period of time where we are checking ourselves more often and kind of wanting to tread quite carefully–and I think that’s a great thing. But when you see it in characters that also feel kind of trusting of themselves, I think it’s very empowering to marry both of those two things together. 

Will Poulter: One of the strengths of this particular story that attracted me to it–and admittedly I don’t know the full breadth of Agatha Christie’s work–was two characters that you really wanted to spend time with. And to see them go from amateur sleuths and very relatable, everyday people to sort of a professional and legitimate organization by the end was a really thrilling development. The mystery is a big propellant for the story but so too is watching how these characters develop and grow. And I think for audiences watching, the hope is that they’ll be able to put themselves in the shoes of Bobby and Frankie and enjoy some of the same thrills that you see the characters [experience].

Lucy Boynton in Why Didn't They Ask Evans

Frankie and Bobby are both very intelligent and they have both charm and humour. The dialogue between them is very dynamic, very rhythmic. When you’re playing these kinds of characters, do you have the space to play around with your scene partners or to improvise, or do you usually feel like you have to get it right on the first take? (Fandom Wire)

Poulter: I feel like I seldom got it right on the first take. At least I didn’t feel that way! But I think the dialogue did have this kind of really wonderful natural cadence and pep to it that we definitely wanted to engage in, without betraying any sense of authenticity. We didn’t want to sort of force that in whatsoever. But I think Hugh naturally wrote in this very lovely, organic rhythm that made the thing tick along brilliantly. I think if Lucy and I had one note, it was for Luce to slow down and me to speed up, so we had to kind of try and sort of synchronize our rhythms. 

 

For Hugh: What takeaways did you have from years of being in front of the camera that you could draw upon as you approach a project where you’re directing and producing behind the camera. And do you find it to be a challenge to direct yourself? (Tellyspotting)

Laurie: Second part first, yes. A challenge. In fact, a number of times I put myself in the hands of these two good people. In fact, there was a scene that Lucy and I had together and I said: ‘Look, there is no director here. I’m saying words and you’ve got to tell me if it sounds right to you.’ What I noticed was–and this is a fairly shaming confession–that I was giving very tricky notes of what I thought were little tiny calibrations or little tiny adjustments that these two were able to execute with incredible accuracy. And then when it came to my turn [in front of the camera], I just had basically ‘on or off’. I don’t have any calibrations at all. So that was rather shaming in a way. I felt that I was giving instructions that I myself was not able to execute, but thankfully, they could.

 

Can you talk about sort of the difficulties in balancing what you take from the original version versus what you decide to add creatively? (Sci-Fi Vision)

Laurie: Wow, that’s a tricky one. I suppose you just have a sort of instinct that, ‘oh, no, that’s not going to work here and something else needs to happen. We need some other ingredient here.’ You can’t really explain why it is. 

Sometimes I feel when writing, I am partially acting as a reader. I’m just reading rather than writing. And when acting, I feel like I’m watching just as much as acting. And as a reader or as a viewer, you just get a sense of ‘I need something different to happen here. I need some surprise or I need some alteration of energy or pace or something.’ So as far as I know, there’s no great theory to it–or if there is, I don’t know what the theory is. I probably should know what the theory is, shouldn’t I? I should have read a book on the theory. I didn’t read the theory, whoever wrote it. I think it’s just an instinct that I don’t even claim to have correctly. I’m just saying that’s really all I could bring to it–that sense of ‘I need something scary here’, or ‘I need something funny here’, or ‘I want something slow or quick. It’s just sort of just a rhythmic thing.

Jim Broadbent, Emma Thompson, Lucy Boynton and Hugh Laurie Why Didn't They Ask Evans?

I wanted to ask about the Emma Thompson and Jim Broadbent scene. Can you talk about how much fun that must have been on set? (Blog Critics)

Boynton: That was a hell of a lot of fun. I mean, just getting a front row seat to their dynamic. Obviously, they all go way back and with Patrick Barlow on set as well–their comedic timing together is so in sync and it allows them, I think, a greater freedom to really bounce off of each other. But within the realms of that scene specifically, it was just really beautiful to watch. I would try to exit that scene as quickly as possible and join everyone at the monitors. [They were all] sitting like six inches from the screen, just grinning. 

Poulter: It was so cool to see such experienced actors, who you’re a fan of, also have so much fun. Actually watching them enjoy it as much as I feel they did. It was so cool and inspiring to see that.

Laurie: Can I add, though? May I add? Because Jim and Emma turned up with their clanking Oscars, because they bring them…they actually bring them to the set. 

Boynton: They actually line them up outside our trailers.

Laurie: Exactly. So that everyone knows what’s what. But lesser actors might easily have been intimidated or thrown by this sort of history and status and all those kinds of horrible words. But for me, it was absolutely joyous to see all five of you in that scene just sort of immediately dispensing with any of that. And so chatting away, either chatting about the scene or not, in a relaxed, fearless, easygoing way. It was a remarkable thing. Lots of people would not be able to do that in your position.

 

Hugh, you talked about acting as both a reader and a writer as you’re adapting the material. Now you’re obviously very familiar with Agatha Christie and her stories, but I was wondering if there was anything you discovered for the first time about her writing or even the story in particular, as you were adapting it and then directing it? (THAT SHELF)

Laurie: Oh, wow. Wow. I felt like I knew it. I first read it when I was quite young. People always boast about how young they were when they read something but I’m not going to do that. I was just young, all right? And I remembered it very, very clearly. I particularly remember the way the meaning of the question ‘why didn’t they ask Evans?’ is revealed, and it is a stroke of absolute genius, I think. I think she was unique in the way she constructed things and the way she just paid out the information very gradually, with such a perfect sense of timing, so at the exact moment she could just flip over the card and you go, ‘oh, my God, that’s been right in front of me all this time, and I never saw it’. It’s just so beautiful. I remember that so clearly. But I feel like I knew it well enough not to be sort of thrown by anything. I don’t think we came across anything…but maybe we did come across something that either didn’t make sense or was a sudden revelation but I can’t think of one. 

I also feel like the actors were very diligent. All of them had done their homework. They all came to the set knowing what it was, what the scene required–the rhythm of it, the music of it–and how to play it, essentially. So I feel very lucky that a lot of my work was done for me. (jokingly) Well, they’ve literally done. I mean, they did it. So it wasn’t me playing all the parts. It was them playing, not me. So we sort of shared it out like that.

Why Didn't They Ask Evans?

It’s cute seeing the adorable chemistry that Bobby and Frankie have–how when they’re forced to confront their feelings–and how sometimes you sort of see them revert to their childhood selves. We sort of get a bit of their history without even having to actually see their history. Could you tell us about building that chemistry together on screen and how you crafted that together? Maybe some anecdotes about your preparation? (Mr. Will Wong)

Boynton: It was very much on screen because we didn’t get to meet before.

Laurie: Explain though that you didn’t refuse to meet. (laughs)

Boynton: Well, we did. (laughs) But COVID obviously prevented us from having an in-person read through. But I think we both individually fell in love with our characters. And I think you’ve made the point before, that you can’t really fall in love with Bobby or fall in love with Frankie without falling in love with them together as a kind of duo. And it’s really beautiful seeing them–they were childhood friends, as you mentioned, and now they’re reuniting for first time as adults–and seeing how both of them really want to shortcut right back to that initial repartee they had and the dynamic they had, and yet they still have to go through this process of re-learning each other. I think seeing those two characters trying to wrangle that with such beautiful intentions and with that foundation from such a formative part of their lives, with the colloquial dynamic they have. It’s incredibly endearing. And then the wit that they share, the sense of humour they share kind of offers that shortcut. Trying to wrangle that was a really beautiful experience.

Poulter: Hugh would often remind us of that. I can recall a note you gave us where you said: ‘This is like an occasion when you were kids and found something really funny and were both trying not to laugh but you knew if you looked at each other, you’re going to laugh. Channel that kind of energy.” And it was cool to see these two characters falling in love but punctuated with moments of them just being kind of silly kids. And what rehearsal time we didn’t have, we were able to kind of compensate with some sort of proverbial table time. Again, it was on Zoom. But Hugh, Lucy and I had a lot of discussions, furnished by Hugh. It was really informative as far as understanding the journey that our characters had been on, again individually, but also together. How much contact we would’ve had as young people and how friendly we had been and what amount of time had passed in between the last time they met and the time that you meet them. All of that was really helpful in revealing the kind of history you’re talking about.

And lastly for Hugh: Which of your three roles here was the most fulfilling for you–writing, directing or acting? (British TV Place)

Poulter: You can say writing.

Boynton: No you can’t!

Laurie: No I can’t say writing. I can’t say that because they’re here (pointing to Poulter and Boynton), although I did enjoy that. But I think the directing. I was just thinking about that scene of you being on the doorstep outside the house. For me, just sitting in the monitor and watching, that was just so touching and funny. And the brilliant thing you do in trying to shake hands with them, which is just so exquisitely done. Because what’s so great about these two is that they don’t let on that they think they’re funny. It’s so beautiful. That can quickly get tiring if you have people who are pleased with how funny they are but it came so naturally to them that they don’t. It was such a lovely thing to watch that relationship. That was probably the most satisfying, most fulfilling part. To actually see that made flesh, as it were, after I sort of dreamt of it for so long. To actually see it happen. It’s really exciting.

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is now available to stream exclusively on BritBox in Canada and the U.S.



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