The ABC of Brilliance


Every now and again you come across an acting performance so good it takes your breath away. This has just happened to me, and not in the least where I expected it. Hollywood blockbuster? Indie movie? Nope, it was a quiet, dark TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders which aired on the BBC over the Christmas/New Year holiday.

I didn’t get a chance to watch it then but recorded the three episodes, not because I was particularly looking forward to it but because it was Christie, and crime, and well… why not? My main concern was that they’d cast John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot, which seemed like a decision so odd as to border on insanity. And indeed I saw several reviews of the series which said he was terrible, wooden, emotionless, and pretty much every other negative adjective you could think of. So I wasn’t expecting much. Until I started watching the first episode.

I last read the book over 30 years ago and couldn’t remember much about it, beyond the basic plot points and characters. The deaths, the typed letters sent to Poirot, the trail that seemed to follow the letters of the alphabet. So when those same reviews mentioned that the new series had strayed massively off-piste from Christie’s novel, I wasn’t too bothered. And apart from one or two suggestions of er, unusual sexual preferences and one kinky sex scene that I could quite easily have done without, I honestly couldn’t see where the joins were. If the writer, Sarah Phelps, did make wholesale changes, I didn’t spot them and the main storyline seemed to follow events in the book pretty closely. It was dark, it was gritty, it was gripping, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

But the revelation, and the element that will stay with me long after I’ve forgotten the rest of it, was Malkovich’s performance. It was absolutely brilliant. He didn’t need to be overly emotional, to shout and scream and rave or chew holes in the scenery to get his message across. It was all in his eyes, his demeanour, his utterly believable quiet dignity, and it packed a punch that walloped me right between the eyes. In the process, he turned Poirot from a borderline caricature, ‘funny little man with a moustache’, into a hurting, driven human being. And he’s the first actor I’ve ever seen who’s managed that.

I won’t give away the plot because of spoilers, and because I’m recommending watching the series if you haven’t seen it yet. There were one or two niggles towards the end, and I was left wondering how Poirot had worked out some of the details that it didn’t seem he could have known about. (I will just mention the backgammon.) But overall this was top-class drama and a fascinating adaptation of a much-loved classic. And if Malkovich doesn’t get a Bafta for his performance I’ll be very cross!

Christie treat


Did anyone else watch the BBC serialisation of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ over Christmas?  If not, you missed a treat, and I’m not just talking about Aidan Turner in That Towel.

Anyone who thinks Christie is all fluff and no substance could do a lot worse than watch this.  It’s pure noir, really, with a claustrophobic atmosphere you can cut with a knife, a string of unpleasant characters, and an ending that’s about as far away from Miss Marple as it’s possible to get.  Apparently Christie herself said this was the hardest of her books to write, and you can see why.

Hats off to the Beeb for such an excellent production.  Yes, they introduced a few eyebrow-raising details such as Bad Language (gasp) and even a hint of lesbian attraction, but none of that felt the least bit out of place.  And the pace, filming, locations and acting were all quite brilliant.  The latter perhaps most of all.  It can’t be easy to make such an unlikeable group of characters the least bit sympathetic, but Maeve Dermody as Vera and Aidan Turner as Philip Lombard managed it surprisingly well.  (And no, not just because of That Towel.)

It’s a very long time since I last read the book – I think I was a teenager, and half in love with Lombard’s character (I always did like the baddies!), and not too impressed with the ending.  But this was a happy reminder of just how good Christie could be, and I may even be tempted into buying myself a copy and having another go.

Murder mystery queens

I caught the third and final part of the tv series ‘A Very British Murder’ last night and thought it was every bit as good as, if not better than, the previous two. This one concentrated on the early 20th century, with real life scandals such as the Crippen case, and fiction from the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of murder mysteries: the circle of detective story writers which included Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers.

Since those have long been favourites of mine (along with Georgette Heyer, whose crime novels sadly didn’t get a mention) I found the whole programme fascinating. The narrator, Lucy Worsley, is apparently a big fan of Sayers in particular, and waxed lyrical about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

There was also a piece about a murder mystery in 1930’s Liverpool, which oddly I’d never heard of even though I’m from Liverpool (though not, I rush to add, from the 1930s). This involved a man named Wallace who was suspected of murdering his wife, and of setting up an elaborate alibi for himself to hide the nefarious deed. If he really did, then the details were straight out of a Christie/Marsh/Sayers novel and quite brilliant.

This has been such a fascinating series that I hope there’s another one to come. Surely the post-war period, the sudden explosion in popularity of ‘true crime’ in the 1980s, and the modern lust for ‘torture porn’ need to be explored?