Writer And Exec Producer Sarah Phelps Talks BBC’s The ABC Murders

Writer And Exec Producer Sarah Phelps Talks BBC’s The ABC Murders

A New Take On Poirot

The BBC’s new Poirot starring John Malkovich, The ABC Murders, is currently running on the channel and it is coming to US TV soon so here’s its writer and executive producer Sarah Phelps talking about the show from the BBC themselves…

This is your fourth Christie adaptation. What was it about The ABC Murders that was so appealing to you?

What was appealing about The ABC Murders for me is that it had a serial killer at its heart. A killer who is an anonymous, faceless, deranged murderer roaming the length and breadth of Britain, communicating with Poirot via letters. He sends taunting missives saying things like ‘you’re making a mess of this, you’re screwing this up’. I just thought that’s very tempting to make, I don’t know why, it just appealed to some dark thread within me. Also because I’ve never really wanted to write a sleuth before and never really wanted to do a Miss Marple or a Poirot; I like it when there is no one there to answer the questions. I like it when nobody comes and explains things to you and nobody looks at the madness and the lunacy and the depravity and says ‘don’t worry you’re safe now’, but this obviously was a big Poirot case. I thought if I’m going to do this then the biggest mystery in the book is not only unmasking and finding the killer but it’s with Hercule Poirot.

This feels unlike any Poirot we have seen before and what is heart-breaking is to see this aging man being treated so badly and not having a single other soul to care about him. The only person paying any attention to him is one person he is chasing – how does that make him feel?

That one person is picking away at him all the time and one of the first lines I wrote was: “I stood so close behind you Hercule”. I wanted him to be so unfamiliar, throughout the script that I never call him Poirot. People might address him as Poirot but who is he? Who is this man who is hidden behind the cartoon? Take that cartoon quality, that has come from decades and decades of being entirely habituated, and almost comforted by this familiar, rotund, irritating figure who is going to come in and be waspish and wax his moustache and have all the answers to the questions. I want to know who is hiding behind that mask and why he hides there.

What was it like to get John Malkovich to play Hercule?

John Malkovich for goodness sake! I mean Con Air is one of the finest movies that has ever been made and I’ve only just managed to stop myself from asking him to autograph my DVD. I thought that might be pushing my luck a bit. It’s not just that he is an iconic movie actor, it’s not just that he is a brilliant actor and a highly intelligent and hugely cultured man with interests in opera and theatre: it’s John bloody Malkovich! Every now and again I go ‘oh my word ‘it’s John Malkovich’ and then I have to slightly pull myself together. There have been so many famous people playing Hercule Poirot; you’ve had Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney and then famously David Suchet who is the most glorious actor, and most recently Kenneth Branagh. I just think John is astonishing because, although he is this huge, famous cinematic icon, there is something so enigmatic about him.

What was it about Alex Gabassi that you felt made him right to direct The ABC Murders and what have you seen through the process that made you feel that decision was the right one?

Alex Gabassi is a brilliant director and what was fascinating for me about Alex and what I was always trying to do with these Christies was, rather than them being seen from the inside, I have always wanted to do something that made you feel you were looking at the world from an outsider’s point of view. Hercule is étranger (a stranger), he is a stranger in a strange land, an outsider, he is not born here and English is not his first language. Alex comes from São Paulo in Brazil and his first language isn’t English, his first language is Portuguese and so he hears with a very specific ear and he speaks English with the precision that people speak English when it’s not their first language. We’re so habituated to this language, but Alex speaks with a great deal of precision and he thinks about things very hard and he looks at things in a way that we have forgotten to look at them because we see them every day, which is how Hercule looks at everything.

His vision of my script and his response to the material was so supercharged with the energy for seeing this world through an outsider’s perspective, seeing it from someone who lives in the margins and that no matter how well they speak the language, how well they have learnt to navigate all these social hierarchies, they will always be navigating them and never part of it. There will always be someone swimming quite hard rather than coasting and I felt that this gave an extra-added dimension to the world of the outsiders, which is what The ABC Murders is.

Alex Gabassi said that reading the script was almost like reading a novel. What is your process when writing a screen adaptation?

I do write really lengthy stage directions but I write like that, not to tell the director what I want them to get, but to say to them that absolutely everything you see is part of the story. Dialogue doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in a very particular environment. Is the ceiling low or high? Who owns the house in which the corpse is lying? Where does the light come from? Are the windows small or are they big? Is the fire that’s burning in the grate burning cheap coal so that there is that acrid taste in the back of your mouth or is it beautiful wood that someone else has stacked and gathered and brought in for you? That is texture but it’s also context, character and story. There is nothing in the stage directions that shouldn’t be there.

A lot of the time I am writing for my own pleasure so I can get a sense of the character. For example the first time we see Cust I describe him as a drawing that has been rubbed out so that he’s sort of colourless and flavourless, and that’s really to give a sense of a person moving through the world who doesn’t own himself. I want to know how the air smells in the room does it smell stale? Does it smell of old cabbage or are their drains nearby and are they blocked? Because all of that contributes to how a person experiences their environment, how they speak, how they breathe, how they dress. Is it cold? Do their clothes never quite dry out? All of that is important.

Describe what Eamon Farren brings to the role of Cust.

A number of years ago I was on a research trip to Sydney. I was looking into the 1930s gangsters of the Sydney underworld at the Police Museum where they have these incredible mug shots of pimps, murderers, assassins, drug dealers and prostitutes. What is extraordinary is that because it was so rare to have your photo taken all these criminals would put on their best clothes and would be posing like they’re about to be in a Hollywood film. When I first saw Eamon with his hair slicked back it felt like he had stepped out of that gallery and here is a man intent on wreaking the maximum damage and malevolence that he possibly can. Then you hear that he is a surfer dude from the Gold Coast and the most delightful, charming, open-minded young guy. However, when the camera is on him a shadow falls across his face and he becomes somebody completely different. He’s an extraordinary young actor and really bold with what I was asking him to do.

There were some difficult scenes to film and some extremely difficult scenes to watch but that’s how I like it! Like all of Christie’s work you’re always spinning plates of ambivalence, equivocation and mistrust and not really knowing where to look or if you’re looking at the right thing or if your gaze is being directed at the wrong thing for a purpose. You would see Eamon on camera doing something really terrible and you’d hear him giggling at the end of the take! He is a brilliant young actor.

Can you talk a bit about the female characters, what you have brought out and the actors who have taken on those roles?

My pet hate is when I’m told a female character has to be feisty. Why? What does that mean? It means that you’re not allowed to be human and you’re not allowed to be the kind of woman that we all are which is sometimes you do good stuff, sometimes you’re pretty mediocre and sometimes you really mess up all while living your life.

I like to look at those characters and not try to force them into a narrative that doesn’t suit them and doesn’t tell the story of who they are living in this moment, in this time. For example, we have Lady Hermione, played by the absolutely glorious Tara Fitzgerald, who was a great beauty, is bitter, angry, furious and dying, plus she knows it. She is almost a witness to the murder but can’t really be trusted because she’s on morphine. And that brings such an air of melancholy, tragedy and a sort of ravaged beauty to it all. Then we have Thora, who is the orphaned girl and secretary at the big house. She is looking for every possible opportunity to advance herself and why wouldn’t she? If all you’ve got is the skin that you stand up in then you’re going to make that work for you. If you are a beautiful young sexy woman with something men like then you are going to milk that because beauty is fleeting. You only have to look at Lady Hermione upstairs: she will be dead soon. Thora sees a vacancy and there is absolutely no way she is going to go backwards. She will use whatever she has and will swallow down hard on every morality to never be poor again and I don’t blame her.

Describe Rose Marbury and her daughter Lily?

Rose Marbury, played by Shirley Henderson, runs a horrible nightmare boarding house in London and she’s a racist and a drunk. You feel that the world has really bitten chunks out of her and not left much behind. The state of the country has to be someone’s fault and she is looking for someone to blame; someone else who isn’t her, foreigners, outsiders, people coming in. Rose’s daughter Lily is the angel; the angel in the basement whose mother pimps her out; the one that brings atonement and the one that brings hope. This battered little girl in her dirty dresses is the hope.

How do you begin to bring these characters out in your adaptations?

I don’t care about ‘whodunnit’ and I don’t think that’s the point – it’s the ‘why’ for me. What would push you to do that thing? I would really like to think about the whole idea that these murders are terrible, terrible events. Lives have been annihilated by violence. That’s the thing that I have always found fascinating. A lot of people grow up familiar with Christie but because I never had exposure to Christie I never got used to that. When I read And Then There Were None I thought it was really brutal and remorseless. Nobody is going to get out of this alive; a terrible reckoning is coming. That struck me as being so merciless and I really felt that it had the rhythms of a Greek tragedy.

Tell me a bit about Crome and Hercule’s relationship? And what did Rupert Grint bring to the role?

In the book Crome is a bit younger and is seen as the new bright thing at Scotland Yard. He’s facetious and not particularly interested in anything that people tell him. In the book Crome has Hastings and Inspector Japp telling him what to think so I don’t blame him for being a bit fed up with it all. So, I took away all of those other characters. I wanted Crome to have a real problem with Hercule so they had something to get over. The relationship started with hostility that would then move to a grudging respect. I want people to look at Crome and think ‘you ain’t a brilliant young man but you reckon yourself.’ He’s likely been fast-tracked and we see that because everyone around him is older. I’ve even got one of the policemen saying ‘you don’t want him to get his big boy pants in a twist’. He knows that all of these older men are slightly jeering at him and he knows that he is probably not quite up to it, especially not a serial killer stalking an incendiary England riven with difference.

I kept thinking of Brexit and Trump all the time I was writing this particular England because they are exactly the same; the language never goes away and these people never go away. I didn’t envy him his job at all, I wanted to see someone struggle and I thought Rupert was astonishing; he really inhabited that really difficult thing of being scared that he’s not enough or up to the job. It’s a very tricky thing to pull off. He has power but is terrified and vulnerable and would be good at his job if only he let himself be. I think one of the hardest characters to play is the decent human being but Rupert does it. He is a subtle, nuanced actor with enormous likability.

Why did you decide to set this adaptation in 1933?

I chose 1933 really specifically because we are in a period in Britain where the British Union of Fascists (BUF) had started to gain a lot of traction, especially within other mainstream political parties who sensed this groundswell and began to adopt some of the language for themselves. 1930s Britain was also a period of savage recession and a lot of people were looking for someone to blame. The other aspect of the BUF that interested me was the railway: there were lots of people using the railway to travel to these rallies. Characters like Hercule’s neighbour; this lovely posh woman dressed in her furs with a little BUF pin tucked into her mink and Rose Marbury both attend the rallies. There is a sense that the BUF crosses class divides and unites its followers with hate and the hate of the stranger. I became very interested in the railway posters of the time because they are seen as being beautifully innocent but use this deep nativist language that bears a striking similarity to the language of the BUF. I find the period fascinating and it’s the perfect backdrop for Hercule in this story.

The railway network has huge significance in The ABC Murders but with that comes many, many locations. To what extent do you have to take the practicality of the production into account when you’re writing?

You’re very aware of what is going to be problematic. There are two huge set pieces that we all bought into but we knew were going to be very difficult and very expensive to film because they were dangerous and involved underground tunnels. We were really invested in keeping those. It’s always a balancing act and we have to weigh up whether we want to keep one scene then perhaps I write another scene differently. It is always a kind of bargain and you know that is the way it has got to be. The rest of the time everybody is bending over backwards to make this work and to make sure the budget works and to make sure the schedule works. It’s no use you being difficult and demanding things are done in particular ways as part of your job is to work as a team and to be able to offer solutions. That’s your job as a writer. You set it up but then you also know the world well enough to be able to move scenes or dialogue and know it will still work. That’s your job.

This is the first time you have written an Agatha Christie sleuth. Do you have to approach it differently? Did it feel different to adapt?

No, I treated Hercule Poirot in the same way that I treated the characters in Ordeal By Innocence or in The Witness for the Prosecution or in And Then There Were None, which is simply to ask who are they? What do they want? What wakes them up at night? What is the pure flame of their life? What would they do to keep that burning? What would they do if their secrets were known? It’s exactly the same questions that you would ask of any character and I asked them of him.

Now you can look back at the four adaptations you have done, how does The ABC Murders fit in with the set?

When I started doing this I wanted to write a quintet about the first half of the twentieth century via the medium of murder mystery. With these Christies, you have somebody who was writing very soon after the end of the First World War in the early 1920’s and right the way through to the 1960’s. That takes up a good 50 years of the tumultuous, blood-soaked twentieth century.

What I wanted to do was to look at these books that we think we know, and these stories that we think we know and say there is a way we can write about who we are by looking at the stories of our grandparents. How you survive a war, how you survive upheaval, poverty, the world crashing in around you, changes in technology but all the time you are focused on the minutiae of your domestic life. In the case of The Witness for the Prosecution, this young man has been accused of murdering and to atone for my own sins I am going to find him innocent, I have to in order to be innocent myself. It was a way of writing really emotional stories about being alive at the time. What often bothers me about period drama is people seem to view it from the wrong end of a telescope as if these characters are just emptily gesticulating in nice costumes as though they will do the things they do simply because they’ve always done it; there’s no outward force, no other motivation other than they have always done these familiar things and will always do them and that annoys me. They are us, right here, right now and we are here because they were there. Those were the stories that they told and this is how they lived.

I look around and think the world is terrible and everyone is dreadful and I want to know how we got here. It feels like making an exploration of 50 years of the twentieth century via murder mystery seems like quite a good way of asking those questions. How do we come to be who we are? By looking at who we were then. We’re not that different.

Have you changed the ending?

A lot of the audience responded well to the ending change in Ordeal By Innocence! It was a way of digging down deep and honoring the story and the characters. Some people didn’t like it, there are always people who want to offer up their opinions and that’s alright with me, people are allowed to have opinions. I’d rather that people had opinions rather than to think they didn’t engage with it and it didn’t touch them.

Can you tell us about your decision to lose the character of Hastings for this version?

The point of Hastings in the book is to explain Poirot to us but I don’t want someone else there, I want Poirot alone. I want him vulnerable and ageing because then you see the measure of the man. If Hercule wants us to know anything then he’ll tell us.

Alex was talking about the two machines: the train and the typewriter. Please can you tell us your thoughts on those?

The whole point of the typewriter is that the letters are not written by hand. You can feel the human behind a written hand and there is an identity to it; you can see character in the way someone writes his or her name. Whereas a typewriter is like being hate tweeted because it’s just text and there could be anybody behind it. The only thing is that this typewriter does have a tiny ghost in a setting which gives it its own character but even that is sinister. So as the railway has its own pulsating life, I wanted to feel that the typewriter has its own pulsating life. There’s almost this symbioses between technology and our killer. I like that sense of anonymity but a sense of profound identity as well; the typewriter is just an object but then suddenly it’s infused with malice. Like the train is innocent, you get on it to go to the seaside or to get to work and you know every inch of it and then suddenly it’s a terrifying thing.

Is there a word that you could use which would summarise this story for you?

Insidious. And that’s the voice in Hercule’s ear. Or actually, the word is outsider. They’re all outsiders, all of them. Sex, money, love, disease, grief; they’re all exiles from peace.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: