What! A Poirot with no moustache, no accent? Quelle horreur
It'll be a Herculean task to get Agatha Christie fans to accept this latest version of the beloved Belgian detective
Think of Hercule Poirot and two characteristics spring instantly to mind: an extravagant moustache and that heavy Belgian accent.
But a BBC adaptation starring John Malkovich will dispense with both, and the actor admits that Agatha Christie purists may hate it. The new incarnation of the much-loved detective is such a break with tradition that the author’s estate had to be convinced to allow it.
The three-part adaptation of The ABC Murders will also make reference to Poirot’s sexuality, and portray him as a man left emotionally and physically scarred by the First World War.
Malkovich, who is American, said the Christmas drama would be “almost 180 degrees different from anything that had come before”.
He explained: “In our version, Poirot has lived in England for 20 years, and has made a very long and laborious effort not to seem too much like a foreigner and to speak English like an Englishman.
“There was a certain amount of convincing the Agatha Christie estate about this version, and I was involved in some of those conversations. There was never anything unpleasant or difficult, but obviously this is a very known and loved character, and there may have been some worries that we weren’t, as it were, saluting that.
“Poirot and Christie fans may just hate all this, I have no idea.”
The Belgian sleuth is a lifelong bachelor and some have speculated about his friendship with an Army captain, Arthur Hastings, who appears in many of the novels.
“In the script, one of the many policemen who don’t like Poirot makes a comment about him not being known to be fond of women,” Malkovich told Radio Times, adding the scripts “do shed a light, in a way that might surprise some people, on Poirot’s prehistory”.
The ABC Murders, one of the highlights of the BBC One Christmas schedule, was originally published in 1936 and has been adapted by Sarah Phelps. It is the fourth of her Christie screenplays for the BBC after And Then There Were None, The Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence.
Phelps had never read or watched a Poirot story before working on The ABC Murders and the Christie estate said she had “literally taken the Poirot that is in the book” rather than use the detailed descriptions Christie used elsewhere.
She referred to the character’s “upward-curled moustache” in Murder on the Orient Express, published two years before The ABC Murders.
In The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest, a short story published in 1939, Christie notes “the exact symmetry of his hair parting, the sheen of pomade on his hair, and the tortured splendour of his famous moustaches – all combined to paint the perfect picture of an inveterate dandy”.
Malkovich has an understated grey moustache, complete with a goatee, unlike the elaborate creations sported by David Suchet in the long-running ITV series or Sir Kenneth Branagh in a recent film version of Murder on the Orient Express.
The character in the BBC version also has a large scar on his head. “Poirot has a lot of scars. One of them is what happened to – and around – him in the war, but not in the way that’s been done before. There are scars – even wounds – from being a refugee, from being a very old man, who is treated as such. The world has passed him by,” Malkovich explained, adding Phelps was “going for a deeper, more hidden vein of coal”.
Speaking last year, James Prichard, Christie’s grandson and custodian of her literary estate, said of Phelps: “We have this amalgamated view [of Poirot in previous screen incarnations] whereas she has pared it back to exactly the one described in The ABC Murders, and that is very different from probably anything that has gone before.”
Actors who have played the role previously relied heavily on the character’s accent and the moustache.
Sir Kenneth recalled that, when he first sat down with the Christie family, “the first thing they asked in the creative meeting was, ‘what are you doing about the moustache?’ There was no twinkle in the eye. I knew it was critical.”
He also worked with a dialect coach to perfect Poirot’s accent, listening to recordings of 27 different Belgian accents. David Suchet listened to French and Belgian radio to find the accent, and maintained it between takes.
– © Telegraph Media Company Limited