ITV to cut suicide scene from Death on the Nile

But should Agatha Christie be a target of the censors, asks David Brown

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Murder has long been a defining feature of daytime TV, where corpses scatter the schedules in repeats of Poirot, Midsomer Murders and Lewis.

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So it comes as some surprise to learn that a scene from the 1978 movie Death on the Nile – in which a character shoots her lover and then herself in the head – will be cut from any future broadcasts before 9pm following a single complaint to Ofcom.

ITV executives will edit the sequence from the PG-rated mystery should it receive another pre-watershed outing, after the independent regulator commented that, “her suicide was shown in some detail and was not appropriately limited”. This is despite the fact that the Peter Ustinov-starring film has been transmitted on either ITV1 and ITV3 on over 20 occasions since 2004 in pre-watershed slots.

For whodunits, the issue of not showing the results of homicide could prove a bit of a problem, even in Agatha Christie land where murder has long been treated as a parlour game.

In Death on the Nile, for instance, the suicide scene isn’t the only flash of violence captured on film. The key murder – which involves the shooting in the temple of a wealthy heiress played by Lois Chiles – is shown from various angles throughout the movie, while various suspects are done away with in similarly sensational fashion.

So should these moments be excised also? And what about Murder on the Orient Express, where (and apologies if you don’t know this already, but then again it is a story that dates back to 1934) each passenger takes a turn at stabbing an incapacitated victim to death?

Baldly written like this, it would seem that Agatha Christie is as out of place at mid-afternoon as Quentin Tarantino. But – as perverse as it may sound – crossword-puzzle crimes such as hers are tremendously reassuring fare. 

Sure, the body count is high but the camera is always focused on the case rather than the cadaver. As Poirot unmasks the wrongdoer in the drawing room of a country house or in the saloon bar of a paddle steamer, what he’s really doing is restoring the equilibrium. The guilty are punished (in, admittedly, extreme fashion in the case of Death on the Nile) and the innocent return to their clearly delineated class hierarchies.

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Such sentiments may not be to everyone’s tastes (and even many modern-day Christie devotees recognize these anachronisms for what they are), but to single out this one scene for opprobrium is to surely miss the point. Murder is television’s cosiest commodity and Ofcom should have had enough “little grey cells” to recognize this.