How the BBC reinvented Agatha Christie’s classic ‘The ABC Murders’

'It’s a very different Agatha Christie. The brutality and ugliness perhaps isn’t something people consider when they think of her,' says Rupert Grint

Actor John Malkovich says it was the chance to play Hercule Poirot in a phase of his life that is not usually shown that interested him the most. Courtesy BBC. 
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It's becoming as traditional a part of a British Christmas as turkey and Top of The Pops. When the latest BBC Agatha Christie adaptation hit screens in the United Kingdom over the festive period, millions tuned in to watch a new take on super sleuth Hercule Poirot.

To say many were somewhat shocked by The ABC Murders is an understatement. There were no quips to speak of, no elegantly coiffed moustaches and no mention of little grey cells working overtime to solve crime. Instead, 1930s Britain is driven by suspicion, hatred and inequality and terrorised by a serial killer. Poirot himself is haunted by his past, his whole identity called into question.

"It's a very different Agatha Christie," warns Rupert Grint, who plays Inspector Crome, a character contemptuous of Poirot's whole raison d'etre. "The brutality and ugliness perhaps isn't something people consider when they think of her – it's still seen as cosy, I think. But this isn't comfortable. It's dark. Which is a good thing, I think."

UAE viewers can make their own minds up about whether this very different Poirot matches their vision of the enigmatic Belgian detective when the three-parter premieres on BBC First this Tuesday. One thing’s for sure, without Sarah Phelps’ fascinating adaptation, it’s very unlikely that an actor of the calibre of John Malkovich would have been interested in taking on the role of Hercule Poirot. 

An adaptation of a classic

“Christie was a very gifted storyteller,” he says, ­customarily slowly. “Very observant about people’s peculiarities and oddities. Witty. But this is Sarah’s work, that’s what sold me. It’s modern in take and sensibility while respecting the period – and it’s so clever about culture, class and personality. Hercule Poirot is perhaps not very happy, and in a phase of his life that we don’t see very often; he’s forgotten, the world has passed him by. That’s the part that’s interested me the most,” he says.

So in this adaptation we see some of Poirot’s backstory. He’s an old man with, as Malkovich puts it, “a lot of past”. Indeed, perhaps the biggest twist in this murder mystery isn’t the final reveal of the identity of the murderer, but a flashback to a pivotal point in Poirot’s life as a younger man in Belgium. It’s a genuine gasp out loud moment, almost an origin tale.

It's also entirely the work of Phelps. Before the British broadcast, she said she was happy for people not to like her changes to the original text. "I'd rather that people had opinions than to think they didn't engage with it and it didn't touch them," she explained. Reading her Twitter timeline afterwards, she was rather more irritated with those who thought her ABC Murders ventured too far from the originals – but still seemed to enjoy the debate.

What would Agatha think?

"Do you know who would be absolutely loving this?" she wrote. "Agatha. And it's amazing, really, that the character to fire the nation up should be Hercule. Job done. I'm proud." And so she should be. In these conservative times, a departure from the much-loved Poirot of David Suchet, smugly solving mysteries in posh houses, was always going to cause some consternation. But The ABC Murders features a brutal serial killer. Murder isn't pleasant. To keep a new adaptation relevant and interesting, it's vital that new ways of telling the same stories are found – and it's telling that the Agatha Christie estate, through her great grandson James Prichard, still feels it gets to the heart of the story. 

"She definitely felt that murder was a horrible business and these weren't parlour game puzzles to her," he explains. "I think that darkness is in the original stories; creating these adaptations with Sarah Phelps has really brought this darkness to light. What Sarah does with the characters is extraordinary; she takes the pen portraits that my great-­grandmother wrote and converts them into real flesh and blood, and I think that is one of the reasons why actors love these stories. 

“I wanted him to be so unfamiliar, that I never called him Poirot,” adds Phelps. “Who is this man hidden behind the cartoon quality of this familiar, rotund, irritating figure, who is going to be waspish and wax his moustache and have all the answers to the questions? I wanted to know who is hiding behind that mask and why he hides there.”

Talking of waxing upward- curled moustaches, another departure from the Suchet Poirot is that Malkovich simply sports a neat goatee. Executive producer Damien Timmer ­remembers “very long ­meetings around a boardroom table talking about the size of the moustache to the ­millimetre. There were literally weeks where we discussed nothing apart from this very small thing.” 

Reinventing Hercule Poirot

It's an interesting line, because it reveals just how suffocating it can be to remain intricately faithful to the idea of a much-loved character. In the end, director Alex Gabassi just called Malkovich and told him to keep the goatee he already had. "You know, every time somebody does Hercule Poirot – and it's been played by some seriously good actors, from David Suchet to Kenneth Branagh – they strike out on their own path," Malkovich says. "I think every time it has been done, the moustache has had a lead role, and I guess that's great, but it doesn't in this interpretation – and I think that's fine."

It's another example of the singular vision for this Poirot – a pained, tired man living with his demons, and yet determined to avenge them. Malkovich inhabits this character magnificently … so would he play Poirot again? "I've really enjoyed it – to do it all again just depends on the script, and who else is doing it," he says. 

Still, with news that December's Christie adaptation is likely to be Death Comes As The End – her unique murder mystery set in Ancient Egypt – another Malkovich Poirot is likely to be a while off yet. Perhaps, though, The ABC Murders should ­remain a glorious one-off – an inventive and grisly ­reimagining of a well-worn detective story. 

“You know, we filmed a scene with a character called ­Threadgold and he has these repulsive pustule boils on the back of his neck, which look like they’re going to blow at any moment,” says Grint, barely able to conceal his glee. “It’s really gross – but it’s like a metaphor for the show.” 

The ABC Murders is on BBC First (OSN) from Tuesday

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