This is my first blog post in a while, and I’m putting it on my main website and my review blog. Over the last couple of months, I’ve started and not finished numerous blog posts and reviews (psychic vampires, a new book deal announcement with Routledge, reviews of Fiona Barton, Edmund Crispin, Henry Slesar, and more). But I’ve been having a frankly terrible go of it lately and prioritising accordingly. However, I couldn’t let the TV adaptation of the year, the BBC’s The ABC Murders, pass by without comment.
According to many self-proclaimed ‘purist’ Agatha Christie fans, I rarely have the correct opinion on screen adaptations. I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. I thought that Agatha and the Truth of Murder was fine and more authentically structured than the majority of Christie adaptations. The ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot frequently annoyed me, and I certainly don’t picture David Suchet when I read the books. I also think that Sarah Phelps, whose name has succeeded Princess Diana’s as the curse-word of choice among Daily Mailreaders, is the best dramatist of Agatha Christie’s work ever to put finger to key.
The ABC Murders is Sarah Phelps’s fourth Agatha Christie adaptation. And Then There Were None was universally praised. The Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence split viewers into two camps: those who loved them as great dramas, and those who insisted they were bastardisations of Agatha Christie’s work and essence. So, The ABC Murders was always going to cause a bit of a tizz.
Director Alex Gabassi has done a masterful job. The adaptation uses light and dark, as the previous ones did. In The Witness for the Prosecution, the shadows became slightly overdone, but here they work brilliantly. The adaptation is set in 1933, a dark time for Britain and also for Europe. There are Brexit parallels throughout, as Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective, frequently runs into fascists, openly flaunting their xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism. Others are questioning his relevance, or whether he should even be in the country, despite all that he has contributed to it since the First World War. On Caroline Crampton’s excellent podcast, Shedunnit, Phelps said, ‘I want it to feel like it’s the first time it’s ever been touched – that it’s the first of the stories to have ever been told.’ And she has achieved this with a vengeance. A remarkable reimagining of a well-known novel, The ABC Murders is also a powerful drama in its own right.
Christie’s 1935 novel is not her best. That’s another opinion of mine that many of my friends disagree with. I think that it’s a fabulous idea – the serial killer narrative, the apparently motiveless murder, and the detective who wants to read meaning into his own involvement in the case – but the execution feels rushed and the narrative too light. It feels almost bashed out. It’s brilliant – of course it is; it’s Agatha Christie – but not her best. I feel similarly about Five Little Pigs, another novel that’s widely praised by Christie fans but which I think represents a missed opportunity. Both those books have excellent premises and fabulous plots and concepts but I don’t think Christie wrote them as well as she could have. What the story does give us, though, is something that can be taken in any number of ways. Well, almost any number. The less said about the Carry On-style adaptation, The Alphabet Murders (1965), the better. But there was a perfectly reasonable frothy and earnest whodunit dramatization on ITV in the 1990s and a rather immersive video game a couple of years ago.
The world Sarah Phelps shows us is not a clean or pretty one. It’s not that smooth and simple, whitewashed past we revel in in the David Suchet version. It’s a grim, gritty, violent, and horrible one. And it’s all there in the book, if you read the book a certain way. In the final episode, Poirot decries ‘vapid nostalgia for the gentle past. Cruelty is not new,’ he adds, in a remark that Agatha Christie herself frequently made throughout her work.
The big shocker here is not the identity of the murderer (which was changed in Easter’s adaptation, Ordeal by Innocence) but the character of Hercule Poirot himself. The dust had just settled on manufactured outrage over the fact that Poirot as played by John Malkovich would not be sporting a pantomime accent or an obviously fake moustache when genteel viewers spilt their Earl Grey and soiled their finest doilies beyond repair. You see, in Episode Three, we find out that Poirot has a past.
A past? A past?! Twitter users were not happy. One Twitter user wrote:
The point of Poirot is that he doesn’t have an inner life in the books. He doesn’t need one. Detectives in crime drama don’t exist to be complex characters. They exist to be our guides out of Hades. #ABCMurders is a lesson in how not to do it.
— Jane #FBPE (@JaneP1678) December 27, 2018
I couldn’t resist responding:
Hercule Poirot begins in canon as a refugee, personally motivated to investigate because of his experience of xenophobia. He reveals in the books a struggle with faith & the perception of foreignness, as well as a mysterious history in which he killed a man as a police inspector. https://t.co/mErqXDWz8Q
— Dr Jamie Bernthal-Hooker (@jcbernthal) December 27, 2018
But it got better – or worse, depending on your perspective. Poirot, the guilt-ridden Catholic who has killed a man in his murky history, who acts as confessor and calls himself ‘Papa Poirot’, who is constantly calling people around him ‘mes enfants’ (that’s all in the books, by the way), reveals himself in flashback to have been a priest.
It’s a masterstroke. It ties the character together as neatly as any exposition in any example of detective fiction or drama. It explains so much not just about the character as envisaged by Phelps but also about the world in which Christie was writing and which this drama reflects. Poirot, with his out-dated arrogance, his uncertainties and crises in interwar Britain, has a background as a figure of religious authority. And, when faced with the greatest of all tragedies, he gave it up. Michel Foucault theorised that in the twentieth century, the authority of the priest gave way to the authority of the doctor. We see mental illness galore in The ABC Murders, and the detective finding his relevance coming under fire. Throughout the three episodes, Poirot is looking for purpose, and the serial killer is giving it to him. It’s perfect.
Even if this adaptation had been a big pile of poo (which it is not), it would hold a special relevance for me, because I make a very fleeting appearance in it! In the last few minutes of Episode 2, if you squint, you can see me getting off the underground at Paddington Station. It was filmed at Aldwych Station on the last day of shooting, in August 2018, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first – and probably only – experience of extra-ing. We were all put up in the Waldorf Hotel (which is decidedly not normal, according to other extras).
Here are ten fun things that might interest you:
- In a scene that was evidently cut, a group of drunken fascists sings ‘Jerusalem’.
- I was very confused when the wardrobe mistress lined us all up and pointed to certain young men, saying ‘You’re BUF, you’re BUF, you’re BUF.’ Then she stuck British Union of Fascists pins to their clothes and all was clear.
- Every costume is meticulous. Even though I appear for half a second in poor light in the background, I wore a full three-piece suit including period socks and braces, underneath a thick overcoat, and my hair was styled under the hat I never took off.
- When Cust appears through the smoke on the platform, he is played by a body-double.
- Nearly all extras smoke roll-ups.
- Many extras don’t get haircuts, because if the studio has to cut your hair or shave you on-set, they pay you.
- John Malkovich is very down-to-earth and friendly, but few of us dared to talk to him.
- A two-second scene took four hours to film.
- Aldwych Station is used in several period dramas. There are remnants of posters from each decade of the last century on its walls.
- The reason there’s a lot of period advertising in the underground scene is that the ‘No Smoking’ signs had to be covered.