JOHN MALKOVICH strokes his chin. Fresh from set in a smoky billiard club down a Bradford side street he’s considering — intently — Hercule Poirot’s famous facial hair. There is, however, no upward-curled moustache anywhere to be seen. Instead, just a neat goatee. His normal look. ‘Honestly, I didn’t really have an opinion about The Moustache,’ he murmurs. ‘But then I’m also not 5ft 4in or Belgian.’ He pauses. For a long, long time.
‘You know,’ Malkovich deliberates, ‘every time somebody does Hercule Poirot — and it’s been played by some seriously good actors, from David Suchet to Kenneth Branagh — they strike out on their own path. I think every time it has been done The Moustache has had a lead role and I guess that’s great, but it doesn’t in this interpretation — and I think that’s fine.’
Indeed a comedy moustache might be an unwelcome distraction amid the serious intent of Sarah Phelps’ latest Christmas-time Christie adaptation, a three-part version of The ABC Murders. It’s effectively a serial killer story with a murderer who stalks a 1930s Britain riven by suspicion, hatred and inequality. Poirot has aged — Malkovich says he now has ‘a lot of past’ — and is taunted by his deranged nemesis. It’s brutal, often ugly stuff.
‘Christie was a very gifted storyteller,’ says Malkovich. ‘Very observant about people’s peculiarities and oddities. Witty. But this is Sarah’s work, that’s what sold me. It’s modern in take and sensibility while respecting the period — and it’s so clever about culture, class and personality.
‘Hercule Poirot is perhaps not very happy and in a phase of his life that we don’t see very often. He’s forgotten, the world has passed him by. That’s the part that interested me the most.’
And into that world comes the young upstart Inspector Crome. Given that he exclaims ‘bloody hell’ more than once, it’s rather apt that this character, amplified somewhat from Christie’s book, is played by Rupert Grint. ‘I know,’ Grint says, rolling his eyes at the reprise of his Harry Potter catchphrase. ‘But it was the 1930s. Everyone said it. It’s fine…’
When Crome and Poirot first meet, there’s animosity between them, a bitterness that eases as they get to know each other. Still, it meant that Grint had to be quite disapproving of Malkovich on set.
‘That was a real hurdle to get over because I’m such a huge fan,’ he says. ‘When your eyes first meet it’s quite a thing — he’s a real presence. You can feel him on set even when he’s not saying anything. He’s like a mythical creature. There’s a magic to his Poirot, it feels like he’s been playing him for years.’
And even though Grint admits to not being in the orbit of the Agatha Christie canon before The ABC Murders, he did at least dedicate himself to growing a moustache for the role, even if Malkovich didn’t have to. Which also had the effect of allowing him to move around Bradford without everyone stopping to ask Ron where Harry Potter was.
‘Yeah, people still yell out spells at me all the time,’ Grint groans. ‘It’s become so mundane, it’s like people asking for directions. But the moustache for this has somehow become really important; it’s like another layer to explore in the character. I might miss it.’
Which brings us back to Hercule Poirot. Even though Grint and Malkovich bounce off each other impressively, Inspector Crome only appears in this one Agatha Christie book. The chances of a lasting double act appear slim — Grint jokes that he needs his own spin-off show — but what about another Malkovich Poirot?
‘Yeah, sure,’ says Malkovich. ‘I’ve really enjoyed it. I had a tendency to agree with the perception that we had to strike out in search of a different path, so to do it all again just depends on the script and who else is doing it.’
But with Poirot now an old man, The ABC Murders might just as easily be his last-chance saloon. ‘One never knows that in this life,’ says Malkovich, enigmatic to the last. ‘But it certainly could be.’
Who did it? The suspects in the frame
Rose Marbury (Shirley Henderson)
Rose doesn’t suffer fools gladly — or her daughter Lily. She owns Marbury Boarding House.
Franklin Clarke (Andrew Buchan)
Handsome and caring but Franklin is a gambler — with money and the hearts of women.
Donald Fraser (Jack Farthing)
Stuck in the middle of a love triangle between Megan and Betty Barnard, this charmer is also doted on by their mother.
Thora Grey (Freya Mavor)
Gets a bit too close to certain members of the influential Clarke family.
Cust (Eamon Farren)
A shy and poorly businessman, desperately searching for ways to ease his suffering.
Lily Marbury (Anya Chalotra)
Kind-hearted but naive, she lives with her fierce mother Rose at Marbury Boarding House.
Megan Barnard (Bronwyn James)
Dislikes her family and is somewhat put-upon by both sister Betty and ex-boyfriend Donald Fraser.
The ABC Murders starts on BBC1 on Boxing Day at 9pm. For our Christmas TV round-up, see Friday’s Metro