Spoiler warning: details about the murderer lie below!
Mustache-twirling Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is a beloved character in literature, in cinema and on TV. Recently he’s been re-imagined as a Hollywood action hero by Kenneth Branagh in a slightly strange but ultimately well-received version of Murder on the Orient Express. So now to the BBC’s Christmas drama schedules, a big part of which has been Agatha Christie adaptations by Sarah Phelps. Over the past few years she’s brought us Ordeal by Innocence, And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution. Ginger and restrained adaptations are not Phelp’s style. How do you rip up the rule book but stay true to the source material?
It turns out all you need to do is wait. The passage of time makes characters different people, more fragile and sympathetic, more human. John Malkovich portrays the great detective as a weary yesterday’s man – the ying to David Suchet’s dapper and self-important yang. He’s dismissed as just another nosy parker by the young and very serious Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint). The world has moved on since Poirot’s celebrity heyday. This is all done in an extremely heavy-handed fashion as Poirot’s retired police pal Japp literally drops dead in front of him. Alright, alright, we get it – everyone is mortal. Poor old Poirot is lonely; in desperate need of a Scooby gang – despite first appearances he’s no good at coping with life alone and forgotten.
Enter the murderer who remembers Poirot at the height of his powers and wants to play a game. By letter he tells him he’s off to kill a series of people throughout the UK whose names start with each letter of the alphabet in turn and it’s up to Poirot to figure out the connection between the seemingly random victims stop him. What an effort from the murderous mastermind to troll Poirot pre-Twitter. Think of the expense in stamps alone!
It’s New Years Day and I’m feeling charitable so this blog is brought to you in a whisper, with a cold flannel (for your forehead) and a bacon sandwich (for your mouth… if you need instructions on how to eat a sandwich, maybe don’t get out of bed yet). Read my round-up of the best Christmas telly and figure out what you want to watch on catch-up to keep the festive feelings flowing, and I’ll pop to the shops for paracetamol. Alright?
A classic tale of mismatched neighbours Andrew (Stephen Merchant, playing exactly the sort of person he always does) and Dev (Asim Chaudhry) from Bedford on a 9 hour mission to save Christmas and buy the must-have toy (Sparklehoof the Unicorn Princess) for Andrew’s daughter. Dev is the lonely chubby one, separated from his family at Christmas, and Andrew is the awkward angry intellectual, successful but bad tempered with a family who loves him for some unseen qualities. Dev teaches Andrew to be a happier man and a better father, and despite themselves they’ll be best buddies for life. Basically it’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles or Jingle All The Way for the small screen. It looks lovely with cosy camera angles suited to our suburban action heros. There’s great pacing throughout with real tension and subversive moments of mischief. Neither lead performance is all that over-the-top and their situation, while silly, seems entirely probable. An unexpected gem.
Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries are an international literary language; translated, loved and understood the world over. You know there’s going to be a big stately home, a cast of shifty upper-class characters, a few red herrings and a satisfyingly complicated conclusion. It’ll all hinge on the silver sugar tongs, a classified advert in the Times or the colour of the front door which you knew from the start but discounted as an inconsequential detail. It’s clever, gratifying and reassuring all in one shot. For a real-life example, please see me and Mr H on holiday in Turkey in 2014. We were, I’m ashamed to admit, battered out of our skulls on local raki and dealing with a day-long hangover in a hotel room easily as hot as the surface of the sun. What could be more soothing to the addled brain than finding Poirot dubbed into Turkish with English subtitles? In no small part thanks to Hercule we consoled the little grey cells that hadn’t been murdered by alcohol.
Ordeal by Innocence, the Easter Sunday BBC1 drama, is not your Turkish holiday Agatha Christie adaptation. There’s nothing soothing about this production. From the off it’s clear we’re in a nightmarish gothic horror. Producer and writer Sarah Phelps brings us a sharper, nastier, distilled version of And Then There Were None, her tremendous Christie adaptation from 2016. “Nine elaborate murders based on an extremely dodgy nursery rhyme that drive a young woman to suicide in a mansion on a deserted island is not really terrifying enough. Let’s kick it up a notch guys!”
After last year’s Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None, hopes were set high for short story turned into two-part drama special Witness for the Prosecution, but this was quite a different beast. No mansions, no dinner guests being offed one-by-one, no detective twirling his enviable moustaches and not a normal Christie ending. Much interfering had been done, and there wasn’t much in the way of original Christie to be seen.
We’re transported to the roaring twenties and Kim Cattrall is Ms French, a wealthy widow living it up and having a fine time with her fancy man Leonard Vole much to the disgust of her loudly disapproving maid Janet. These days Emily French would be mocked as a cougar, a woman of a certain age who is attracted to younger men and has the nerve to go after them. These prejudices are certainly represented and Emily knows her actions make her unpopular and looked-down on in high society, but she doesn’t really care. Money is a pretty good insulator against what people think of you. Cattrall, famous for a strikingly similar character in Sex and the City, is essentially playing Samantha 70 years earlier.
I’m an Agatha Christie fan and I knew despite the veneer of respectability that she liked it dark. And bloody. And sinister. Even little old Miss Marple has a dark side. But in all that time I never realised Agatha Christie was a frustrated horror writer. This all became clear watching And Then There Were None (BBC1), a period murder mystery based on Christie’s novel of the same name. Even George R R Martin (aka the butcher of all your favourite characters) would have said “Come on now Agatha, don’t you think nine elaborate murders based on a racist nursery rhyme that drive a young woman to suicide in a mansion on a deserted island is a bit much? Death by dipping a guy in molten gold is one thing, but this is just nasty!”