Agatha And The Curse Of Ishtar, Channel 5, Sunday

The modern trend where dramatising Agatha Christie is concerned is to take the novels and update them. Not in terms of the period – those flapper dresses and three-piece suits are all part of the appeal – but in terms of their red-bloodedness. In other words you add enough sex and violence to make them attractive to audiences who prefer Game Of Thrones to Miss Marple, and excuse the shift in tone by explaining that sex and violence is what the books are really about anyway, right? All you’re doing is turning up the volume.

Running alongside that trend is another, which takes aspects of the author’s eventful life and turns them into a plot from one of her own novels. Channel 5’s 2018 Christmas offering was Agatha And The Truth Of Murder, which examined Christie’s famous 11 day “disappearance” in 1926. Here the same writer, Tom Dalton, focussed on Christie’s trip to Iraq to visit her archaeologist friend Leonard Wooley and her fateful first meeting with his much younger colleague, Max Mallowan, whom Christie would later marry (at St Cuthbert’s Church on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, would you believe?).

Onto those bare historical facts Dalton grafted a story turning on sex (natch), murder (natch), stolen Mesopotamian artefacts, poisoned pet monkeys, conniving diplomats and oil. Generally it was good fun (it’s hard for an Agatha Christie drama to be anything else) but you could see Lyndsey Marshal’s Agatha struggling with a script marked by jarring expletives, fnarr-fnarr sex references and po-faced discussions about such subjects as male ejaculation. Playing opposite Marshal in the role of Max Mallowan was Jonah Hauer-King and his amazing eyebrow, which he lifted to look cute or quizzical or goofy sometimes all three at once. It was easy to see why Christie fell for him.

Several scenes were downright bizarre but the one which stood out was when Christie and Mallowan undertook a forensics test using a derringer whose previous owner had been blown to bits – only rigor mortis being what it is, his severed hand was still gripping the pistol. Was it all meant to funny? Was it intended as some kind of post-modern experiment in literary criticism (unlikely on Channel 5)? Could it just not make its mind up about the sort of tone it wanted to set? Or was it just not very good? Even after two hours it was hard to judge, though the fact that the panjandrums at Channel 5 dropped it into a mid-December, Not Quite Christmas TV slot made me think the last was closest to the truth.