TV review: The ABC Murders, and Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas

04 January 2019

BBC/Mammoth Screen/Agatha Christie Ltd

John Malkovich played Hercule Poirot in The ABC Murders (BBC1, 26, 27, 28 December)

John Malkovich played Hercule Poirot in The ABC Murders (BBC1, 26, 27, 28 December)

SO, HE was a priest all along! Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders (BBC1, 26, 27, 28 December) was billed as a completely different realisation of the novels. Here was no cosy, avuncular exotic; no reliance on upper-class art deco providing us with a seasonal retreat from the horrors of the real world. Instead, the great detective was in freefall, deserted by the public and shunned by the police in retaliation for making them look like fools.

The story played out against the ugly rise of nationalism and chauvinism in the 1930s: all foreigners are aliens who should return home — and that includes Belgians. Hercule Poirot was played by John Malkovich, and the overall focus was less on who committed the series of ghastly murders than on a quasi-existential exploration of Who Exactly Is He? What has led to his lifetime of detection?

This reading sought to thrust us firmly back into the harsh realities of life today: does rising nationalism and hatred for foreigners ring any bells? It was mostly gritty and grimy, and the violence was explicit and distressing — even more so were the tale’s pervasive sexual elements.

Whether this was a travesty or a magnificent realisation of Christie’s intention I leave to those more familiar with her oeuvre than I am to decide. The real revelation was not the unmasking of the murderer, but the unveiling of Poirot’s motivation: his prayer, piety, and determination to uncover crime and assign guilt were all, we learned, expiation for his failure to save his flock from a First World War German atrocity: all were burned alive in his church.

I found all this so much tosh. The “realism” was no more convincing than any amount of country-house artifice. Surely Christie’s works are ritual dramas that describe a satisfying pattern of confusion, manipulation, and denouement: they are no more “real” than P. G. Wodehouse. But Malkovich’s presence and command was so magnificent as to raise this farrago to the heights of truly memorable TV.

I had not appreciated that the song “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer” was actually a parable about the plight — and longed-for apotheosis — of Jewish immigrants in the United States. Despised and rejected because of his unfortunate nose, eventually Rudolph is the chosen one, his apparent disfigurement saving the day. He is celebrated not because he has become like everyone else, but precisely because of his distinctiveness.

This may seem rather a heavy interpretative weight to lay on a popular jingle, but I was completely convinced. Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas (BBC4, 22 December) explored the paradox that all the great secular Christmas songs were written by Jews. It was wonderfully chock-full of incarnational theology. How good that it should take Jesus’s co-religionists to teach us the meaning of his nativity.

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