The Mousetrap, and the unfortunate deal for its movie rights

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Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is the longest running theatre show in London – and the assorted attempts to bring it to the movies had all failed.

If plans stick – and heck, if we’ve learned anything this year it’s that there’s no guarantees that they will – then the work of Agatha Christie is heading back to the big screen this Christmas, with Kenneth Branagh’s movie of Death On The Nile.

The writing of Christie, of course, has provided ample fuel for film and television productions in the past. And it’s also at the heart of one of the West End of London’s most successful stage productions.


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The murder mystery play The Mousetrap debuted on stage all the way back in 1952, and since that time it’s played at both the Ambassadors Theatre and St Martin’s Theatre since it transferred to London. Until its enforced shutdown earlier this year, it was the longest continuous running show in the West End, playing for nearly 68 years. Plans remain afoot for the show to open up again once current events are – hopefully – behind us.

There hasn’t been a movie of The Mousetrap though, which is something of a surprise given just what a huge commercial success the play has become. Yet that’s not been for the want of trying.

The first attempt to mount a film of the play came at the end of the 1950s, when a deal was struck with United Artists. This attempt got as far as casting, but for reasons that were seemingly undisclosed, the project hit the buffers.

However, over time it’s become clear just what the problem appears to be.

The actual film rights to The Mousetrap were sold to British producer John Woolf back in 1956, just a few years after the play opened. He was pleased to land them, and signed off on the condition of their sale. That by snapping said rights up, he was agreeing that a film couldn’t be made until the show’s run had ended, and a further six months had elapsed after that time.

Of course, nobody back in 1956 foresaw that The Mousetrap would then continue its run for a further six decades and change, but the condition of the original rights apparently remains in place.

The reason for the condition goes to one of the things attendees of the show are told. I finally caught The Mousetrap at the end of 2018 – I couldn’t tell you the performance number – and the audience I was with, along with pretty much every audience for it before or since, are very politely asked to keep the show’s secrets. That the production is a classic Agatha Christie whodunnit, and the reveal at the end remains a shared secret amongst those who’ve seen the show.

The fear with a film version was that the cat would be permanently out of the bag (a consideration when it came to pressing ahead with the eventual movie of the more recent West End hit Ghost Stories a few years back). That with the film out in the wild as it were, there wouldn’t be any appetite for audiences to go through it all again on stage.

That clause, then, was written in, and here we are.

Still, it’s not stopped people having a go. Notably, at the end of the 1990s, Jonathan Woolf – the son of John – decided to have another go at getting a film made. He recruited director Stuart Urban (Our Friends In The North, Preaching To The Perverted) to write and helm the feature, and as this Guardian report notes, it got as far as a screenplay being completed.

Unfortunately, legalities ensued, and they would ultimately scupper the project. The producers of the play remained determined – as they were legally able to do – to dig in and refuse permission, given that the production was ongoing. Whether the six months of darkness the show has now gone through would release the clause would take a better legal mind than mine to unpickle. But what’s clear is that initial negotiation all the way back in the 50s has very much held water.

One further film related story surrounding The Mousetrap, incidentally. Amongst the original cast of the stage play in London was a young Richard Attenborough. Even then, his brain was a sharp one. Sensing the commercial potential of the production, he struck a deal with the producers that was even smarter than the one the producers struck with John Woolf. Rather than take a fee for appearing in the play, he’d be happy to take a percentage of the production itself. With no great suspicion that the play was to become a juggernaut of the stage, Attenborough had a deal, one that would make him a very rich man.

He talked in his memoir about this too, in particular that he would over time sell off small chunks of his share in the show to fund some of the projects he’d planned to make, and some of the things he wanted to buy. But he finally cashed out in the 1980s. Up against a lack of investment for a movie he wanted to make, he sold the remainder of his stake in The Mousetrap to help finance the film.

That particular project? Gandhi, a hugely profitable and successful film, that would earn Attenborough Oscars, and put a few more quid in his pocket.

All the while as he did so, The Mousetrap kept playing. And all the while, audiences kept protecting his secrets. So much so that if it does ever make it to the screen, there’s a sporting chance that the vast majority of attendees won’t have any idea who’s about to do it…

Lead image: BigStock

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