Christmas isn’t complete unless there’s an Agatha Christie adaptation to watch and this year we’re treated to John Malkovich’s take on the great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as he trails a serial killer in The ABC Murders.
This isn’t the celebrated figure we know from previous adaptations but a man who’s fallen from grace – forgotten by a once adoring public, he’s mocked by those at Scotland Yard and treated like a social pariah by a country that’s grown wary of outsiders.
“He’s nearing the end of his life and it’s a phase we don’t see very often and that’s what interested me,” says Malkovich of his character. “He’s lived in England for almost two decades and the world has passed him by. That was the part that interested me most. Everybody, myself included, has felt an outsider and unwelcome in various places and situations. I think there are interesting parallels with today. I don’t think it’s easy to be an immigrant, to leave what you know and strike out for a new existence.”
The screenwriter Sarah Phelps, who also adapted Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence, specifically chose to set the action in 1933 because it’s when the British Union of Fascists started to gain traction, and highlights Poirot’s marginalised existence. It’s against this hostile backdrop that Poirot receives letters from a serial killer known only as A.B.C.
“He sends taunting missives saying things like, ‘You’re making a mess of this, you’re screwing this up’,” says Sarah, who revealed she’s never previously held any desire to work on a sleuth story. “I don’t want cut glass accents and people bounding in with a tennis racket only to discover someone’s been brained on the carpet. If I’m going to do a sleuth, then the sleuth has to be part of the mystery. Who is the person behind the persona? Who is Hercule Poirot?”
She hadn’t read Agatha Christie before adapting the books and, even now, only reads the novels she’s offered: “It’s so I’m shocked by them rather than over familiar with them. There’s this idea that Agatha Christie’s quite cosy and I don’t think she is. I think she’s quite waspish and challenging and incredibly intelligent. I think people like to be shaken so I’ll say what I want to do [with each adaptation] and then there will be some tensing of buttocks around the table and people will go a bit pale but generally I have so much support creatively.”
The three-part drama is helmed by the Brazilian director Alex Gabassi who’d never seen David Suchet’s famed portrayal of the detective, or read the book. “The only thing I knew was the script but reading Sally’s script is like reading a novel. I just saw texture and images, and that appealed to me even more than the plot,” he said. “I just came with a blank page and not having lived with the weight of familiarity allowed me to bring something new and approach characters differently.”
Before the cameras started rolling, John invited Alex to his home in Marseilles so they could get to know each other. “He produces wine and one thing led to another, and I was drinking two bottles and saw his glass half-filled with Perrier water,” remembers Alex, laughing. “He was very happy with the script, so we talked about how his accent would progress and specifically about what I didn’t want, which was the cartoon French, and we also just talked about his films.”
The three-month shoot was logistically difficult with 30-plus locations, as the serial killer traverses the country; period detailing and a large ensemble cast including Rupert Grint, Andrew Buchan, Tara Fitzgerald and Shirley Henderson. There are also less familiar faces, such as rising star Freya Mavor who plays the glamorous and manipulative Thora Grey.
“I see her like a spider, this delicate but powerful thing weaving her web and waiting until her moment comes,” says the Scottish actress. “She’s in this grand house and working for a wealthy family but there’s a question mark about her motives and intention.”
The beautiful period costumes are intrinsic to her character. “A lot of her arc is told through her look because she has this huge transformational journey and she’s someone who tells a story about herself through the way she looks,” explains Freya. “To play innocent, she dresses innocently, and if she wants to play seductive, she dresses seductively and moves and presents herself in that way. So, there was a lot of discussion about hair and make-up and costume because there is a big change with her.”
Another newcomer is Eamon Farren who plays the damaged recluse Cust. “It was so much fun because he’s such a weirdo,” says the Australian actor who makes his British drama debut. “It’s Agatha Christie and the BBC so I had nerves but the creatives on this were just a delight from the beginning. It was one of those jobs I couldn’t wait to get to work every day and there was a lot laughter on set, even in the middle of all the dark stuff.”
Eamon thinks Agatha Christie’s enduring appeal lies in the fact “she nails humanity”: “It’s almost Shakespearean in the way it cuts through to what makes us tick, and Sarah’s the perfect shepherd for adapting Christie’s work into a modern context for television.”
He believes he knows why we can’t get enough of a murder mystery at Christmas, too: “Agatha Christie writes a lot about the possibility of a man or a woman turning into a murderer and what that takes, and how little that can take. The jokey answer is it’s Christmas and you’re with your family, but I think there’s something in that. The line between absolute love and destruction can sometimes be quite thin.”
The ABC Murders begins at 9pm on Boxing Day on BBC One.
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