It is a heartwarming tradition, isn’t it? Stuffed full of turkey, chronically drunk, British families gather round the box in the days after Christmas to watch a few grisly killings unfold and be solved. For those who prefer their crime gritty and contemporary, there’s a new series of Luther. If you prefer your detectives in three-piece suits, however, stick to this, The ABC Murders (BBC1), the latest in the new annual tradition of adapting Agatha Christie novels, shown over three consecutive nights from Boxing Day.
These days, of course, it isn’t enough to do a faithful period piece. Dramas must come laden and leaden with wokeness, even when they’re improbable and set in the past. This takes place in 1933 against a background of rising fascism in Europe, so obviously the whole thing must be littered with heavy winks to Brexit. That most highly skilled of European migrants, Hercule Poirot (John Malkovich), must contend with references to his foreign-ness. A train ticket inspector, hearing his ack-sent, drops his ticket on the floor. He walks past hostile posters from a National Front-type political party. Very Resonant. Does anyone enjoy this stuff? It’s tedious and distracting and the story doesn’t need it.
Luckily it isn’t enough to stop The ABC Murders from being enjoyable in other ways. Malkovich is as much fun as you would expect and there are only a few moments where he catches the scenery between his jaws. His Poirot is old and vain, and in the opening scene tries to dye his beard black, a failed attempt to recreate past glories. It is a nice touch.
In retirement he is trying to resist growing bitter in the face of humiliation from his superiors, specifically his new boss Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint). The world has moved on. His superiors don’t think much of the menacing letters he has been receiving, until the murders begin. Malkovich has no interest in playing David Suchet. This year’s essential Christmas parlour game ought to be who can imitate his Belgian accent, which fails to stop him sounding purely like John Malkovich. He picks his way metho-dic-ally th-rough the syl-lab-les.
Eamon Farren is suitably creepy as Alexandre Bonaparte Cusp, the travelling salesman. If any landlords are reading, one piece of advice would be never to trust a man who turns up with a suitcase full of women’s tights and a typewriter. The series is carefully made, with some especially nice shots of old railway stations. Also noticeably good is the music, which I discover is by Isobel Waller-Bridge, sister of Fleabag star Phoebe. Talented family. Sarah Phelps’s script recognises that, while cosmetic changes are fine, you shouldn’t tinker too much with the engine of an Agatha Christie, whose stories work better on TV than Arthur Conan Doyle’s. His are too weighted towards the moments of revelation, as the increasingly torturous Sherlock adaptations prove. By contrast, The ABC Murders shows that there are few signs of decline in the English Christmas murder.
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