The country is divided. I’m not referring to Brexit, or even to whether brussel sprouts have a place on the Christmas lunch plate. This current division within the nation relates to how us keen crime fans received Sarah Phelps’ new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, part of the Hercule Poirot series, which aired at 9pm last night on BBC1 (the second part follows this evening at the same time).
Phelps has taken on Agatha Christie’s classics before, and the results have also divided audiences. But I’ll admit I’ve enjoyed her previous adaptations, even when the original story has been changed, such as it was in 2017’s Ordeal by Innocence, as the essential feel of the novel has always been retained. But by taking on the complex and much loved Hercule Poirot, has Phelps pushed her interpretation one step too far?
Upon last night’s viewing, I’m going to say yes.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the episode and will certainly be watching part two, but for me, something essential was missing. The production (created by the marvellous, Mammoth Screen) was cinematic; the Art Deco backdrop was contrasted with the squalor and political division that pervaded 1930s Britain, including the flourishing of neo-nazi groups, mirroring the rise of fascism in Germany during the period.
John Malkovich was unsurprisingly understated and powerful in his performance. His Poirot was melancholy and tortured, exhibiting none of the ridiculous quirks that David Suchet and Kenneth Branagh instilled in their character. And in this stark absence of the ridiculous lay the flaw in this particular production for me.
Sarah Phelps had plumbed new depths of darkness for her take on Poirot. His discovery of the body of Mrs Ascher in the Victorian parlour of her tobacconist shop in Andover, throat slit and gore on show, had the feel of a recreation of one of Jack the Ripper’s grisly crimes. Add to that, the landlady pimping out her young daughter to her unsavoury male tenants and you have a very squalid story indeed.
Yet to me, the beauty of Christie’s crime novels lie in the fact that they hint at the very depths of human depravity whilst never playing it out for us in a tableau of gore. This is the reason why I was able to read the books at the age of eleven and I’m happy for my daughter to read them now. They are still murder mysteries and terrible deeds are done, but it is the motives of the human protagonists which Christie explores, rather than the grisly aftermath of crime.
There is a reason why Agatha Christie remains the best-selling author of all time. Her books are clever page-turners and classic mysteries, but they are also imbued with humour and an awareness of the eccentricities and absurdities of human nature. No character displays this Christie trademark more than Hercule Poirot. Like Miss Marple, people tend to overlook him because of his peculiar appearance. Christie explores the preconceptions we have of people given to us by their outward characteristics. The greatest genius of Christie was that she showed us how appearances could belie a sharp intellect. She warned us to beware dismissing a person simply because of our preconceptions of them. This is why her murderers are so often the ones we least expect!
Sadly, this subtle message was missing from Phelps’ adaptation. What remains is an excellent period crime drama, dark in the vein of a Luther or a Silent Witness; taking itself incredibly seriously and making us in awe of its stellar cast. But what is lost for me are the flashes of humour. I liked the fact that David Suchet was prepared to play out the ludicrous aspects of Poirot’s character to the full and cared little for how he was perceived. Hercule’s fastidiousness and pursuit of correctness mattered more to him than the opinions of others. That is his strength.
There are good reasons why Christie’s novels are classics. The subtlety of her characterisation is one of them. This subtlety is lost in this current production, which is dark and strangely masculine, when Poirot was anything but! The series will still be enjoyable to watch, but it lacks that element of Christie magic – the universality of her stories. She did not set out to divide readers but to unite them by highlighting that our deepest flaws and weaknesses are part of a shared human nature. There was far more in Christie’s world that united than divided us.