Bearing Witness

*Spoiler alert throughout*

I hadn’t intended to write this post. I have been making a very conscious effort this holiday not to do any work until today anyway, and I was planning (still am, I hope) a short post reflecting on the labours of the past year and the promises of the new one, to be written tomorrow.

But then last night, while watching the BBC’s flagship Christmas drama, The Witness for the Prosecution, as a double bill on catch up, I found my husband attempting to soothe me as I harrumphed in irritation at the First World War backstories supplied to both the Voles and John Mayhew.  Having tweeted indignantly and non-specifically about it, I feel it behooves me to explain why in more detail.

To start with, I should say that the production as a whole was beautifully shot and acted extremely well by its stellar cast. It is hard to go wrong with Andrea Riseborough or Toby Jones, and they were, as expected, exceptional.  I wasn’t so keen on the adaptation which, padded out to fill a full two hours felt baggy and lacking in tension.  Was the whole twist involving the cat (very much not part of the original) necessary or even credible?  Given the amount of time which passes between the murder and the discovery of the cat’s body, surely it wouldn’t be in such an uncorrupted state?  But that is, perhaps, a minor criticism.  The bones of Christie’s original plot were maintained, even if the twist she wrote had less impact after nearly two hours than it did in the compact half hour dramatisation that was my introduction to this story.

So I could live with this production of a classic mystery drama, with all its updated bad language and sex scenes.  It was with the First World War back stories that I found I could no longer sustain my suspension of disbelief.  To start with the second, that of the solicitor, John Mayhew, whose poor health and blood-spattered coughing underscore almost every scene he appears in.  The cough, we are told, is the result of being gassed in the war, in which he lost his son, age 17, also to gas.  In the final scenes of the drama we are informed that Mayhew lied about his son’s age in order that they could enlist together and his motivation throughout the play is ascribe to the guilt he feels that he came back while his son did not, thereby destroying his wife’s love for him.

This narrative is physiogologically unlikely, but perhaps not impossible, although Toby Jones as Mayhew looks old enough to have had lie about his own age to have been accepted for service before 1916 (when the dual enlistments must have happened if the two men ‘volunteered’ together. His eyesight, given his spectacles, would have made doing so when overages particularly difficult.)  Equally unlikely would be for them to be serving in the same unit, causing them both to become casualties of the same gas attack (as is strongly implied).  Mayhew’s son apparently learned about motor vehicles during the war, which would suggest a posting either to the Army Service Corps or the Tank Corps to me.  It is just possible that Mayhew Senior would be assigned to the ASC which, as a non-combatant unit, might take volunteers with impairments that disqualified them from combatant duties.  Even so, the chances of father and son ending up in the same unit seem slim.  Psychologically, however, this story seems nigh on impossible.  Fathers certainly supported and even encouraged their sons’ decisions to enlist, may have in some cases turned a blind eye to a teenager lying about his age, and there are examples of fathers and sons both serving, as Laura Ugolini [1] has shown, but the idea of a father supporting his son to the extent of both lying about his age and enlisting alongside him assumes a level of war enthusiasm that has been effectively undermined by historians such as Catrionna Pennell and Adrian Gregory [2].

So Mayhew’s back story is unlikely in the extreme, calling into question the attribution of his motivation to old man’s guilt, as in Owen’s Parable of the Old Man and the Young, over the loss of his son and his son’s generation.  By forcing Mayhew into the role of both guilty old man and, apparently, a witness to war, a ‘man who was there’ [3], the story ensures that he is incapable of properly representing either.

Which brings me to the second backstory, that of the Voles who, in the opening scenes of both episodes, are shown meeting in a bombed-out trench during the war, before walking hand-in-hand across a shell-pitted landscape oddly denuded of any individuals, given that this was apparently the scene of a major battle. For the military historian, this is a frustrating piece of representation.  Setting aside the question of what the hell Romaine as a woman was doing on the battlefield in the first place, somewhere that military authorities on both sides went to great lengths to ensure did not occur, the recurrent emptiness of no-man’s-land is an extremely irritating trope of contemporary televisual dramas.  Even if the battle itself was over, and night had not fallen, in which case Leonard and Romaine would have been fair game for snipers, there would still be wounded men around, as well as corpses, human and otherwise.  Desolate here does not mean empty, but presumably the scene is meant to be symbolic, as much as literal.

I hazard this suggestion on the basis of the final scene in which Leonard and Romaine appear, as they pursue Mayhew down the corridor of a luxury hotel, taunting him with their brutal success.  ‘We are what happens when you butcher the young’ says Romaine, following up her husband’s dismissal of Emily French’s murder ‘just one more life after so many’.  And it was at this point that my husband had to stop me from yelling something very rude at the television screen, because this interpretation of Christie’s story, and the relationship of the whole genre of Golden Age detective fiction to the war, is just plain wrong.  Yes, this narrative of disillusionment existed in contemporary modern novels, the ‘war books’ of the 1920s boom.  But as Rosa Maria Bracco and Alison Light have both shown [4], it was not the narrative of genre fiction, including detective fiction.

In fact, the relationship between interwar detective fiction and the war is a complex one, but the idea that the war brutalised society to the extent of making murder acceptable is, in fact, the very antithesis of the message the genre holds.  There are remarkably few interwar murderers (although rather more murder suspects) who are explicitly ex-servicemen or whose motives can be traced back to wartime experiences.  More common, indeed, are ex-service detectives (some, but not all, attempting to assuage their guilt a la Mayhew), the very people whose role in such fiction is to reassert the social order by bringing the murderer to justice.  War, like murder, may disrupt society in these narratives but in the case of murder, social order reasserts itself; civilisation and society are restored, not distorted.

The significance of this reading can, in fact, be seen in Christie’s own treatment of The Witness for the Prosecution, which she rewrote to ensure that Leonard does not get away with murder.  In this second version, Romaine stabs him as he is about to leave her for his lover, Christine.  The Law in this story remains an ass, but justice, in the classical sense, is served and Emily French’s death avenged.  No life, in interwar detective fiction, is ‘just one more death after so many’.  It isn’t until post-Second World War detective fiction (such as Marjory Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke and Ellis Peter’s The Funeral of Figaro) that we start to see the war-brutalised ex-serviceman emerge as a hardened criminal.  By attempting to attach this narrative to the First World War, the adaptors of The Witness for the Prosecution do a disservice to both the ex-servicemen of the First World War whose main aim was to reintegrate themselves into civilian society in spite of the trauma they had suffered, and to the writers of detective fiction in the interwar years who sought, through their fictions, to make it easier for them to do so.

References:

NB: As I am not in the office, I don’t have all the notes to hand for full references for this.

[1] Laura Ugolini, Civvies: Middle-class Men on the English Home Front, 1914-1918 (Manchester University Press, 2013).

[2] Catriona Pennell, A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2014); Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[3] Samuel Hynes, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War (Allen Lane, 1997).

[4] Rosa Maria Bracco, Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919-1939 (Bloomsbury, 1993); Alison Light, Forever England: Feminity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars (Routledge, 1991).

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4 thoughts on “Bearing Witness

  1. There is the case of Serjeant George Lee (44) and Corporal Robert Frederick Lee (19), father and son, killed together on 5/9/1916 with A Battery, 156 Brigade RFA and buried in adjoining graves in Dartmoor Cemetery, Becordel-Bécourt which suggests the scenario is not entirely implausible in the abstract

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