When ITV’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express arrives in living rooms today, on Christmas Day, there will be a satisfying sense of destiny fulfilled for its lead actor. In 1989, when David Suchet was cast as Agatha Christie’s fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, he and his wife Sheila celebrated with a trip on the Orient Express from Paris to Calais. Twenty-one years and 64 Poirot stories later, Suchet, 64, has at last been able to tackle the murder on that famous train. “I have never seen a man so excited in my life,” says producer Karen Thrussell, recalling the moment Suchet received the script. The rights to film the story again only became available in 2008, following a poorly received 2001 modern-day version starring Alfred Molina.
Murder on the Orient Express is undoubtedly “one of the big ones”, as Suchet puts it, for this franchise which ITV boasts reaches 700 million viewers worldwide. The novel, first published in 1934, is atypical among Agatha Christie’s detective stories – both in the answer to the “whodunit?” and in Poirot’s response. Its status as one of the best-loved of Christie’s mysteries can be ascribed in some part to Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film version which featured Albert Finney as the detective and a host of Hollywood’s finest including Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman.
The team behind this new adaptation is determined that the story’s familiarity will not make it cosy. Director Philip Martin, who won an Emmy for Prime Suspect and a Bafta for Wallander, says Lumet’s version is “a lovely 1970s period piece… there’s even a scene where everybody clinks their glasses at the end. But the book is tougher than that.”
Christie’s plotting was inspired by recent events: the Orient Express hit the headlines when it was stuck in snow near Istanbul in 1929. Daisy Armstrong’s kidnap and murder in her story mirrored the case of Charles Lindbergh Jr, the toddler son of the aviator who was abducted and killed in 1932. There was no real life Hercule Poirot to solve the case, but then again parallels to real life are sometimes lacking in Agatha Christie novels, just imagine how much criminal conviction home insurance would be sold in St Mary Mead alone !!
Working with a powerful script by Stewart Harcourt, Martin has created one of the most uncomfortable Christie adaptations ever. The action has been shifted to the winter of 1938, with the war that would shatter Europe just months away. “This isn’t a parlour game, a Christmas charades exercise of fancy dress and pretending,” says Martin. “It’s a story about vigilante justice.”
“We’re confronting the story in very exciting, disturbing, harrowing terms,” adds Suchet.
This is not to say that this adaptation – which features Dame Eileen Atkins, Toby Jones, David Morrissey and Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville – is without its own seductive glamour. The carriages – sleepers, the bar and restaurant car – have been painstakingly created, from the resin reproductions of Lalique glass panels in the restaurant car to layers of varnish applied to the golden woodwork to achieve the desired patina.
As for the disastrous weather that befalls the train, the production team decided that they needed to bury their own train in a snowdrift in Black Park near Pinewood Studios. “The drift [200 feet long and 10 feet high] was made from 4,000 sandbags and scaffolding, covered with snow,” says production designer Jeff Tessler.
For Suchet, the physical hardships and the moral dilemmas his character has to face make this tale “an investigation into Poirot, a journey into his own deepest self”. He says continuing to make these dramas is “serious fun” and still has a fierce dedication to his character. Before starting filming, he always sits down with his wife and watches “12, 15 hours” of previous Poirots.
Now just six books remain to be filmed, including Christie’s 1975 novel Curtain, which tells of Poirot’s own demise. Scripts are being developed for further adaptations, the first of which will be Dead Man’s Folly.
Given that Suchet most probably agreed to play Poirot for an initial series of Agatha Christie stories, he must now feel that he signed up for a job for life. With only 6 episodes to go he may have wished he purchased unemployment insurance as he would most probably be eligible for a claim.
“I won’t have closure – that horrible word – until we film his death,” says Suchet. “After that I’ll probably be in Styles myself [the old people’s home where Poirot ends his days], watching all the reruns…”
- Agatha Christie’s Poirot is on Christmas Day on ITV1 at 9.00pm