The Version Interview... Billy Howle on BBC One's The Witness for the Prosecution

The Witness for the Prosecution is the major new Agatha Christie adaptation by Sarah Phelps for BBC One. The two-part drama reunites the team behind last year’s critically acclaimed And Then There Were None, which achieved ratings of over 8 million.

Adapted from Christie’s short story of the same title, The Witness for the Prosecution is directed by the acclaimed film and television director Julian Jarrold (The Crown, Kinky Boots, Becoming Jane, The Girl, Appropriate Adult) and produced by Colin Wratten (The Musketeers, One Of Us).

The all-star cast includes Toby Jones (Detectorists, Marvellous, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Andrea Riseborough (Bloodline, Birdman, Oblivion), Kim Cattrall (Sensitive Skin, Sex and the City), David Haig (The Thick Of It, Mo, My Boy Jack), Billy Howle (The Sense of an Ending, The Seagull, Cider with Rosie), and Monica Dolan (Appropriate Adult, Eye In the Sky, The Casual Vacancy).

1920s London. A murder, brutal and bloodthirsty, has stained the plush carpets of a handsome London townhouse. The victim is the glamorous and rich Emily French (Kim Cattrall). All the evidence points to Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), a young chancer to whom the heiress left her vast fortune and who ruthlessly took her life. At least, this is the story that Emily’s dedicated housekeeper Janet McIntyre (Monica Dolan) stands by in court. Leonard however, is adamant that his partner, the enigmatic chorus girl Romaine (Andrea Riseborough), can prove his innocence. Tasked with representing Leonard is his solicitor John Mayhew (Toby Jones) and King’s Counsel, Sir Charles Carter KC (David Haig).

Can you tell us about your character?

Leonard Vole is a young, ex-soldier who fought in the First World War. Leonard met Romaine in combat during that time. He comes home from action and, I think like lots of guys his age, found the promises the Government made to people returning from the First World War weren’t necessarily honoured. They thought they would come home as heroes and that Britain would be this land of opportunity and of course the reality was very different.

There wasn’t a lot of employment and young men were coming home from awful trauma, so finding a job and sticking to it became increasingly difficult. It’s a very interesting time period, particularly for young men who fought in the First World War. There’s an air of
desperation about Leonard, desperation and need, needing or wanting, a kind of hunger that hasn’t been sated yet.

How do you feel about the period? Is it a time you would have chosen to live in?

It’s an incredibly interesting period in our history. Everyone thinks of the roaring twenties and associates it with decadence and flappers, female sexual liberation, the freedom of women to express themselves, the beginning of feminism. But it was also a time of huge, huge change. The inter-war years witnessed a lot of change; society’s mentality was changing, the class system was shifting, the idea of servitude was changing and the idea of the British Empire was becoming something else entirely. It was a very exciting time.

Did you enjoy wearing the 1920s costumes?

The 1920s was also a really interesting time for fashion. For me, I tend to enjoy wearing any period costume. I love how fashion and clothing has changed and evolved through time. The men’s suits, and especially the slightly more expensive ones, are very beautiful.

Do the costumes inform your performance?

It’s an interesting question because it’s a question of what your character would choose to wear. As an actor, it is these sorts of small decisions, like how you wear your clothes, that force you into the mind of the character. Would Leonard wear his jacket open? What colours would Leonard be drawn to? What personal items are available to a man in Leonard’s situation? These small things and attention to detail is where you start to find things out about the person and the role you’re portraying. So I’d say yes, clothes are incredibly important.

Were you familiar with previous Christie adaptations before this role?

Absolutely! As a kid I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. My maternal grandmother would sit, before binge watching existed, and watch Poirot until the cows came home. You couldn’t pull her away from it. I remember watching the Ingrid Bergman film, Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and as a kid having that morbid curiosity about the intrigue and mystery. I think it is something that became fascinating to me. I caught the bug and became interested (or morbidly curious) in murder stories and the darker facets of our shared human existence.

Why do you think Agatha Christie remains so popular to this day?

Agatha Christie writes as a social historian. She comments on the society around her in her stories; she documents things and brings them to life in an entirely normal way in a way that a history book can’t. It’s these stories, the people and the way they interact with each other that really informs you about the social history of that time. That’s what’s fascinating about Agatha Christie. She has documented such a wide scope of time and strata of society. I think that is what people find interesting because, in some way, you’ll be able to relate to one or more of the characters. And it’s that idea that we are natural sleuths and detectives anyway. It’s that curiosity, that idea that when you watch something, particularly if it’s a mystery with unanswered questions, it’s in our nature to carry on asking questions and work it out in a forensic way to put the pieces together. I think that’s why people enjoy puzzles; it’s all part of the same thing. Being engaged with something as though it’s a game, as though
it’s something that you need to solve whilst also being entertaining is a really wonderful thing.

What were the biggest challenges in this production?

Every new day was a challenge in itself, that’s why I love it and why I love what I do, because I’m always learning. I think if you stop learning there’s not much point and so I always hope to be challenged. That’s the beauty of this job.

The  Witness for the Prosecution starts Boxing Day, 9pm on BBC One.