Easy as ABC
The ABC Murders is the latest Agatha Christie novel to be reinvented for the BBC by writer Sarah Phelps and producer Mammoth Screen. The creative team behind the project gathered at Content London 2018 to discuss the adaptation process and casting John Malkovich as Poirot.
Based on the classic 1936 novel, The ABC Murders is next instalment in the collection of Agatha Christie novels to be adapted for the BBC.
Following in the footsteps of And Then There Were None (2015), The Witness for the Prosecution (2016) and Ordeal by Innocence (2018), the three-part miniseries sees John Malkovich step into the storied shoes of iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
The cast also includes Rupert Grint as Inspector Crome, Andrew Buchan as Franklin Clarke, Eamon Farren as Cust, Tara Fitzgerald as Lady Hermione Clarke, Bronwyn James as Megan and Freya Mavor as Thora Grey.
Set in 1933, the show sees Poirot face a serial killer known only as ABC. First the killer strikes in Andover, then Bexhill. As the murder count rises, the only clue is the copy of the ABC Railway Guide at each crime scene. If Poirot is to match his nemesis then everything about him will be called into question: his authority, his integrity, his past and his identity.
Directed by Alex Gabassi and produced by Farah Abushwesha, The ABC Murders is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Limited drama for BBC1 and Amazon, with Endeavour Content distributing. The executive producers are writer Sarah Phelps, plus Damien Timmer and Helen Ziegler for Mammoth Screen, James Prichard and Basi Akpabio for Agatha Christie Limited and Elizabeth Kilgarriff for the BBC. It debuts in the UK on Boxing Day.
The ABC Murders was the subject of a case study at Content London 2018, where Phelps, Prichard, Timmer and Kilgariff discussed making the series.
James Prichard, CEO and chairman of Agatha Christie Limited and great-grandson of Agatha Christie: In terms of Agatha Christie’s full body of work, The ABC Murders is relatively early. We’re in the mid-1930s but, in terms of this story, Poirot is quite well developed. This is a story about Poirot ageing, and there are significant references to the fact his hair is changing colour. Part of the point of the story is Poirot being tested by this serial killer [and we get to see] whether he still has the faculties to solve it. It’s very different in terms of most of the Christie stories in that it plays over the canvas of the whole of the UK. Most of her stories are set in a country home or an enclosed location. The whole point of this is technically the killer could be anyone – it isn’t just a list of 10 suspects you have to work through, and that’s half the fun of it and half the power of it. It is testing Poirot to a level that he probably hasn’t been tested to anywhere else.
Sarah Phelps, writer and executive producer: A confession: I’d never read a Poirot book before I read The ABC Murders. A confession: I’ve never watched a Poirot adaptation all the way through. Obviously I know he has been played by Peter Eustinov, Albert Finney and, most famously, David Suchet. He’s unmissable. I have seen Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express. So in much the same way I was familiar with Agatha Christie before I started working on these books but I hadn’t actually read any of the books, I was aware of him. But I didn’t know him at all. So I deep-dived into it to ask all the questions that get asked of Poirot throughout: Who are you? What compels you? Why do you do the things you do? Right down to the fact that I never refer to him as Poirot in my script. He’s always character-headed as Hercule, because I want to know who the private man is behind the famous public persona.
Damien Timmer, executive producer, MD of Mammoth Screen: I grew up with Agatha Christie, read all the books more than once, collected the books, loved the covers. In my weird young Hinterland, Poirot was a huge deal. In later years, I was privileged to work on the later David Suchet adaptations for ITV, which was wonderful. But I was sad because there were certain titles that had already been done, and one of them was The ABC Murders, which I genuinely thought was the most exciting Poirot novel. It has such scale. There was a sense that at some point soon we might be allowed to do a Poirot. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about what the title was. I just think we all instinctively felt The ABC Murders was the one to do.
Elizabeth Kilgariff, senior commissioning editor for drama, BBC: We talked about lots of different options and I agree that as a Poirot and as a standalone Poirot, it is a brilliant story. So it stands on its own merit as a real event piece for us.
Phelps: The thing is, I didn’t really want to do a sleuth. I like the Christie mysteries where no one’s going to come along and save you. I really love And Then There Were None – what a brutal, savage book. I really love the short story of The Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence because no one is going to come along and help. No one’s going to come along and explain things. They’re not going to parcel it up and return this sense of security and Englishness back to you and you can carry on playing your game of tennis or whatever it is you were doing before this body so rudely arrived on the carpet. So I really didn’t want to do a sleuth, I didn’t want to do the thing where they come along and they’ve got all the answers. But I liked the story and I thought it was grubby and seedy and you could smell that 1930s world. Then if I’m going to do it, Hercule has to be the mystery, because he’s a mystery to me as I don’t know him. So I just ran with that. There were two mysteries running side by side. That felt to be the right way to go about it, rather than presuming all this knowledge because somebody has always been the way they’ve been just because we think we know them.
Phelps: The story was written in 1936 but I’ve set it in 1933, very specifically, which is the date when the British Union of Fascists started to gain real traction in Britain. The language of the British Union of Fascists is exactly the language of Brexit and Trump that we see now. Hercule Poirot is a foreigner. He’s not from Britain, he’s from Belgium and the backlash against people who had arrived as part of the exodus from Europe before the First World War had changed very specifically. Hercule finds himself rather diminished, rather friendless, in this new world. The place he was comfortable in, Scotland Yard, he’s no longer really welcome.
Phelps: There was a stage adaptation of And Then There Were None after the Second World War in America and the producers of that apparently said, “Look, everyone’s really depressed – we need to have a happy ending and cheer everyone up.” So in this stage adaptation, Philip Lombard and Vera Claytorne escape – because there’s nothing like a multiple murderer and a child killer going off into the sunset hand in hand to really put a zip in your stride. Yes, I made changes. When I was writing The Witness for the Prosecution, I carried on long after that story had left off. I made changes to And Then There Were None. But, in this, I took very seriously what is utterly canonical about this character. Because I was unfamiliar, I could deep-dive into those things and deconstruct it a little bit to find the man beneath it. In many ways I think it’s faithful, but it’s my interpretation; like everybody has an interpretation, this is mine. James and the Christie estate are incredibly generous and trusting.
Prichard: Sarah pushes us to places that make me deeply uncomfortable but the point of it is these are adaptations; they’re not direct translations, and you don’t get someone with the genius of Sarah if you don’t allow them a little bit of licence to interpret the things in the way that she sees them, and that’s the point. With The ABC Murders, the clue is in the title. I thought we’d be safe because it is A, B, C. Little did I know that she’d go a little bit further, to E.
Kilgariff: That this is Sarah’s interpretation is actually very important for us. This is a story that’s been adapted before – why do it if you’re not going to bring something new for the audience? We all know Sarah will always do something brilliant and special to any of the pieces she adapts but, in a way, that always makes them feel new and distinctive, and that’s obviously really important for us. Otherwise, why would we do it?
Timmer: We were filming in different places around Yorkshire. The story is set in London but the first murder is in Andover, the second is in Bexhill-on-Sea – we did film there. But principally we have brilliant locations in and around Yorkshire doubling up for all sorts of different bits of the UK.
Phelps: Bradford has the most beautiful council buildings, and they played the role of Scotland Yard in the 1930s. But they are still council buildings, so you’d have all these people going about their business with clipboards and lanyards, going up and down these stairs past the cameras and every now and again encountering John Malkovich and Rupert Grint in period costume. It was quite surreal.
Building the cast
Phelps: John said the scripts went to his agent and his agent gave him a call and said, ‘It’s the BBC and it’s Poirot and it’s Christmas, you don’t want to do this.’ He went, ‘Have you read the scripts?’ and his agent said, ‘Yes we read the scripts, you don’t want to do this.’ He said, ‘I’ll take a look anyway.’ He gets the scripts and calls them back and says, ‘You didn’t read these scripts did you? I didn’t think so, because I’m doing it.’ Con Air [in which Malkovich stars] is one of the greatest movies ever made and you just think, ‘What the hell?’ Every now and again I go, ‘John Malkovich is in my show!’
Kilgariff: These pieces do attract an amazing cast but this one is really special, and that’s testament to Sarah’s scripts. Of course, it’s Agatha Christie. Everyone knows what that is, which is very exciting, but I do think it’s the quality of the scripts. More and more, the scripts and the writing speak for themselves and we are getting some amazing casts.
Phelps: We only had one casting disappointment – there’s a pug, and the first pug we had kept peeing on the furniture, so we had to sack it and get a new pug.
Behind the camera
Timmer: Alex Gabassi, our completely magnificent director, is a really extraordinary talent. It was a big deal for him because it’s the first big British show he’s done [Gabassi is Brazilian], but we’ve all been impressed by the skill he has. He’s taken such ownership of every aspect of the show with such a cheerful twinkle.
Phelps: Alex likes to storyboard so he brought in a lot of storyboards and a lot of mood boards and we talked a lot about everything, which means by the time we’re ready to go, I completely and utterly trust him to do what he’s brilliant at.
Prichard: It’s not stretching a point too far to say [the BBC adaptations] were almost the beginning of a change in perception of my great-grandmother, where people began to take her seriously again. I’m not doing down any of the ITV shows, because I think they were brilliant and some of the later Poirots were among the best. But there was a feel to them and they felt of their time. And Then There Were None blew the doors off that, and since then people have realised you can do Agatha Christie in a different way, that she is a serious writer, and it has opened doors for us. We even got nominated for a Bafta, which would never have happened five years ago. There’s a credibility that’s come from the way Sarah has treated these stories that has definitely made an impact.