LONG before David Brent sidled his way into Ricky Gervais’ imagination, and a whole generation before Malcolm Tucker uttered a single swear word, Drop The Dead Donkey was reinventing television comedy.
In doing so, the ground-breaking Channel 4 series has since influenced many of the best sitcoms. Series like The Office captured its often uneasy realism, while The Thick Of It ran with the concept of an up-to-the-minute political agenda.
“All of us thought, back at the beginning in 1990, that we were at the vanguard of something new,” recalls actor Robert Duncan, who is currently appearing in Go Back For Murder, at The King’s.
“The whole logistics of the show was like being in a weekly Rep in front of the camera; you got the script on the Friday, learned the lines over the weekend, and then the topical stories were grafted into the script as we got nearer and nearer the Wednesday transmission,” he explains.
Set in the offices of Globelink News, a fictional TV newsroom, Drop The Dead Donkey ran for eight years.
Created by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, Duncan played Gus Hedges, the station’s manipulative chief executive. He believes that strong writing was the key to the series’ success, something that could equally be said of his latest project - after all, few scribes have sold as many novels as legendary crime writer Agatha Christie.
Now in its eighth year, The Official Agatha Christie Theatre Company bring their thrilling production of Go Back For Murder, to the Leven Street stage this week, where it runs until Saturday. Carla Le Marchant has to live with a disturbing family secret - her mother, Caroline Crale, died in prison while serving life for killing her husband. But on finding a letter in which Caroline claims that she’s innocent, Carla becomes obsessed, determined to clear her mother’s name.
Enlisting the help of Justin Fogg, the son of Caroline’s defence lawyer, Carla tracks down a number of people from her mother’s tragic past, only to uncover a shocking truth...
“Christie has a wonderful way of selling the red-herrings and the dénouements, the surprises and the twists,” says Duncan.
“She has a wonderful quality of place. She knows the period she is writing about and, of course, in this show the actions flashes back 20 years to discover the events that really happened.”
Joining Duncan on stage are a host of TV favourites, including, Bergerac star Liza Goddard, Sophie Ward of Land Girl and Heartbeat fame, Gary Mavers of Peak Practice, Lysette Anthony, who appeared in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, and Soldier Soldier’s Ben Nealon.
“It’s a nice company,” says Duncan, who is no stranger to the works of Christie, having appeared with the company in previous productions.
“What I find amazing, although I shouldn’t, is that people come in their droves to see an Agatha Christie. That means one feels a kind of responsibility to put on a classy show for them, because they really do know their Agatha Christie. They may know the writer’s work, but bizarrely many don’t let the fact that they probably already know who-did-it get in the way of their enjoyment.
“I did one recently where the murder took place on stage before the interval, and still the audience were discussing it - they thought that was just a ruse and that it was really somebody else,” he laughs.
“Audiences just want to suspend their disbelief and go through the process of working it out, and you have to honour that.”
The latest in a series of productions to bring the Cornishman to the Capital, Duncan, who initially trained as a journalist, reveals his very first trip to Edinburgh was actually while working as a teacher.
“Many years before drama school I took a show to the Festival. That was my baptism into the glories and tragedies of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
“We were doing the play at Boroughmuir High and people used to walk out regularly during one of my soliloquies.
“I remember, one night, I looked up and thought, ‘Nobody has walked out...’ Then I heard a strange clattering from the big double doors into the hall... it was someone in a wheelchair trying to get out! But I still had a glorious time.”
Thankfully, Duncan can rest safe in the knowledge that there’s unlikely to be a repeat this week at The King’s.
Agatha Christie’s Go Back For Murder, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, until Saturday, 7.30pm (2.30pm), £14-£27.50, 0131-529 6000