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Hello, I'm Giles Coren. Tonight on Front Row,
we wind the clock back to the golden age of crime fiction
to pay homage to the genre's grande dame, Agatha Christie.
Coming up on the show, there's A-list murder
with actor-director Kenneth Branagh and an all-star cast
in a new film version of Murder On The Orient Express.
We'll be asking whether Agatha Christie's personal life
was all it seemed on the surface.
Nikki Bedi steps into the jury box
as Witness For The Prosecution - Christie's classic courtroom drama
is given a unique staging in a famous London landmark.
And indie rock provocateur Father John Misty
will be performing live in the studio.
Hello, I'm Giles Coren,
and with me in the studio to discuss magnificent moustaches,
dastardly deeds, and the passion of Agatha Christie
are screenwriter Sarah Phelps, and Sophie Hannah,
the author of her own series of Hercule Poirot novels.
Agatha Christie is the bestselling novelist of all time,
her books outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible.
But Christie wasn't one to stay locked up in a quiet room
with her typewriter. Many of her novels saw their beginnings
in her frequent travels around the world.
And perhaps her most famous was inspired
by a particularly eventful rail journey.
I went to find out about the latest big-screen
manifestation of Christie's work.
These days, many of us are all too aware
of the frustrations of a train delay.
But when Agatha Christie was stranded
on the famous Orient Express by a violent storm in 1931,
her thoughts turned, quite literally, to murder.
Her resulting novel, Murder On The Orient Express,
has been adapted for the cinema for the first time in over 40 years
by actor and director Kenneth Branagh.
A passenger has died.
He was murdered.
The murderer is on the train
with us now.
And every one of you is a suspect.
When you were growing up, were you a Christie reader?
Or did you just come to it for the sake of making the film?
My mother decided, in her early 50s, she started working
in a charity shop, she'd sort of retired from full-time work,
and she kept bringing home the books,
the second-hand books that would be sort of recycled.
One of them was Murder On The Orient Express.
Agatha Christie, she seemed to unleash these primal passions
that were very, very engaging, if you're interested in drama.
You're the world-famous detective.
Avenger of the innocent. Is that what they call you in the papers?
And you are innocent?
We wanted to embrace Agatha Christie's universe.
She's a much-travelled woman.
She sets out spectacular landscapes.
We wanted to announce our entry
into an Agatha Christie cinematic world
before we go on this...this journey that we invite you to...
..to feel, to feel the linen, sort of hear the champagne popping,
and once that's established, the performances can be a little
more contained, and a little more unsettled.
-You know, there is something about that tangle of strangers,
pressed together for days with nothing in common but the need to
go from one place to another and never see each other again.
She's done something in Murder On The Orient Express
where she keeps alive 12, or you might argue 15 characters,
keeps and audience guessing about who they might be.
Just orchestrating that number of characters is very
impressive as a novelist, and then she seems to ignite something
that goes, I think, at least beyond mere entertainment
in the sense of simply a drawing room mystery.
The berth was occupied by Signor Foscarelli.
Oh, yes, sir. The Italian person.
Christie's butler was played in 1974 by John Gielgud,
and has now been revived by the similarly-revered thespian
Kind of you to enquire, Mr McQueen, but I do not make mistakes.
It's not the same kind of performance,
cos Ken didn't want Masterman to be posh.
And, now, John is, has always been very, very posh.
So, in that sense, I didn't follow in John's footsteps.
Jacobi is joined on screen by an astounding cast
of international A-listers,
every one of them a suspect,
including our own Olivia Colman.
There was one scene where Michelle Pfeiffer...
I don't know if you've heard of her, Michelle Pfeiffer,
but she was wearing a dressing gown,
with a turban, pinched-in waist, she just looked beautiful.
And I had flannelette up to the neck with a little bow.
And she went, "You look beautiful."
-And I went, "Oh,
But the portrayal of Christie's most uniquely styled character,
Hercule Poirot, was left up to Branagh himself.
Once the moustache was arrived at, and the clothes and everything,
I found myself walking, leaning forward,
that he was a sort of bloodhound.
It was as if he was on the front of a car or a boat or something.
But at the same time, in repose, it really felt
as though he could watch very, very carefully what was going on
and we could allow for a contemplative part of him
that maybe didn't exist before.
But what about when you were directing?
You didn't take the moustache off, did you?
I... I did not, no.
403, take one.
What I used to do was, if we were doing a scene like this,
we might talk about, "Giles, this is brilliant,
"maybe you want to do this or that or da, da, da..."
Then I'd look in a mirror to just remind myself...
-"Oh, he is there as well."
And now, I'd come back and be ready to do that.
My name is Hercule Poirot,
and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.
And what about David Suchet?
What about his shadow?
Did you have to do something to sort of exorcise that?
No, just simply tip your hat to a magnificent actor,
a wonderful, wonderful Poirot. He's just...
As is Finney, as is Ustinov,
I understand Orson Welles played it, Charles Laughton played it,
the very first actor to play Poirot
was an actor called Austin Trevor from Belfast, Northern Ireland.
So I felt there was a little circular work was going on, there.
But, no, with rich material, there is, I think, room for all.
The murderer is with us.
On the train.
We all had a really, genuinely, as you said,
it felt like a big, old-fashioned theatre company.
Yes, it really did.
-And a lot of that came from Ken.
You know, he's remarkable in that.
Because he keeps a wonderful atmosphere on the set.
An atmosphere of relaxed tension.
There's a suggestion towards the end of the film that
Kenneth Branagh's Death On The Nile may not be a million miles away.
You're going to have... One of the problems is
the only contiguous character is you, isn't it?
All of these wonderful actors you've just had,
they'll have to go in the next one.
Well, Judi Dench said, no, she said, "If you ever do another one,
"we just recast us." She said,
"Have it like a theatrical repertory company, and we come back,"
she said, "I'll play a bloke in the next one, if you like.
What will you do when you run out of the ones in exotic locations,
of which there aren't many, and get to these ones which take place
in little country houses in the south-west?
There's a brilliant one amongst many,
The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, which does take place
in the English countryside,
but has this sort of titanic kind of passion underneath it
that I think makes a point that she makes -
listen, you can be in the Nile, you can be in Mesopotamia, you can
be on the Orient Express, or you can be, as it were, in Cheam...
But there's no boat to take you away from yourself, and if yourself
is some dark and tortured character who may resort to violence, then...
the truth will out.
So, you've both seen the film.
How was it for you, Sarah?
This was the first Agatha Christie adaptation, apart from my own,
that I've ever seen the whole way through.
It's huge, it's a massive, immersive experience,
and mine are small screen but...
So it was like readjusting to a totally different thing.
How about you? Were you immersed in it?
I mean, it was incredibly beautiful and luxuriant,
like Poirot's moustaches.
And it was a bit controversial in some circles,
some people thought it wasn't the right kind of moustache,
but Agatha Christie always made a point of saying
that Poirot's moustache was meant to be
over the top and really impressive
and not an ordinary moustache. So, I loved that.
And, having seen all the Poirots,
you know, Albert Finney and David Suchet, and Peter Ustinov,
and loving them all in different ways,
I thought Kenneth Branagh was a superb Poirot.
-So did I, so did I.
He really felt like a real, proper Poirot.
Murder On The Orient Express is on in cinemas nationwide,
and a new paperback version of the novel to tie in with the film
has just been reissued by HarperCollins.
Now, Agatha Christie's novels still sell incredibly well.
But where does her literary reputation stand?
Some readers complain about what they see as her xenophobia,
her snobbery, her general fuddy-duddy-ness.
For a long time, Christie produced a book every year,
advertised with the slogan, "A Christie for Christmas!"
which doesn't exactly scream, "challenging literary masterpiece".
So, do her books still hold up as great mystery fiction?
So, Christie herself said
that she was just writing "entertainments".
Are they more than that or are they just puzzles?
Well, I don't think words like "only" and "just"
should be applied to great entertainment.
There's no "only" or "just" about it.
That is what novelists should be doing and that's what readers love.
The books that readers love are the ones that are really entertaining,
where the story is really compelling and gripping.
Having said that, I don't think she "only" provided
great entertainment, I think there are so many layers to her books
and the proof of this is that if you read them
over and over again, as I do,
knowing every detail of the plot, on a line-by-line level,
they are still witty and sparkling and clear
and the prose is just brilliant.
Is it really, though? I mean... Sarah, the prose, is it...?
Here's the thing.
Until I read And Then There Were None, which was, literally,
about three, nearly four years ago,
to adapt it for the TV, I'd never read a Christie.
I'd never watched one, I never read one.
I just thought, "This is not what I like."
It's not going to be, you know,
Colonel Mustard with a thing over here and that's over there,
and there's a body on the floor, but no-one really cares,
it's just a catalyst for some really clever plotting.
It's a parlour game.
And then I read And Then There Were None - it blew me away.
Its savagery. Its savagery, how remorseless it is.
And you can read it on one level, it is a really clever plot.
It's a beautiful locked-room mystery. It's a parlour game.
But, you can also read it as a portrait of a psychopath,
as a disquisition into the nature of guilt,
and it's actually quite subversive.
And I found it really rocked me how intense it was,
how nasty it was, how brutal it was. And I loved it.
Sophie, is the plotting at the expense of character?
I went back and read Murder On The Orient Express
for the purposes of watching this film, and I just saw ciphers.
I didn't see depth in each character.
No, I would strongly disagree with that.
So, yes, the plotting is amazing,
and in terms of space on the page,
the plotting takes up a lot of space.
It is very much to the fore,
the bone structure of the story is very prominent,
but the characterisation and the depth and the layers,
and the knowledge and wisdom about human nature, it's all there.
Now, the reason you might perceive the characters as ciphers,
at least, initially, is that the three-dimensionalness
cannot be apparent straightaway,
because the detective, whether it's Poirot or Miss Marple,
is encountering these people who are presenting themselves,
and in the case of the murderer,
the murderer is presenting him or herself dishonestly,
so as not to get caught.
So, it's absolutely essential and inherent to the requirements
of the genre that they should SEEM to be surface.
And then at the end, the third dimension,
that's when we really know who people are.
I've only really read the ones where there isn't a sleuth.
I'm kind of interested in the ones where no-one comes along
and sort of parcels it up and tells you what happened.
I like it that there's no-one there to sort it out.
And I think that what she is is actually tricksy.
I think that she drops in tiny little clues
for how you can read character, what you can take from this.
So, if you want to, you can read it as, this is a plot,
it's over there, it's over there.
Oh, my God, that's a twist! Oh, my God, that's clever!
Or, if you want to, if you... You can really drop a taproot down
into some tiny little clue and see where that takes you.
I think that they're... Or maybe that's just the way I read them.
Maybe that's just the way my appalling mind works,
-but that's how I read them.
-Well, you both modernise Agatha Christie
in your own ways. You've written new Poirot novels.
You've made staggeringly new reappraisals of them for the screen.
But what's the enduring appeal of her books?
Because they clearly have it, they still sell enormously.
Is it just a nostalgia thing?
The reason Agatha Christie has sold billions
and is still the most popular bestselling, and I believe,
the best, crime writer there's ever been is because, you know,
contrary to some of what you're saying,
I honestly think she was brilliant on so many levels.
But the sort of powerful awareness of evil
and how likely we all are to,
in some way, be harmed by evil,
and all those big themes,
and just sort of insight into the human condition,
-you cannot beat Agatha Christie.
-I think that.
And I think it's about what, you know, there's always a sense of,
you could be sitting next to somebody who is,
in fact, a murderer. Or, in fact, the beast is you.
That's what I like about it.
We don't know what our own capacity is.
And sometimes when you're reading her, you know,
again this might be just me and my appalling mind,
but I think that she seems to be suggesting
that murder's actually quite a good idea sometimes?
-Which really intrigues me, and...
The whole thing about nostalgia,
we like to think about, oh, this safe little past,
and how nice it all is. It's full of blood and tumult!
But I also think one of the things that people love about it
is not the murder, or even the mystery,
they like watching people lie.
And if you want more Christie, then Sarah's latest adaptation,
this time of the thriller Ordeal By Innocence,
starring Bill Nighy and Anna Chancellor,
will be shown on BBC One later this year.
Now, if I asked you to name an Agatha Christie play,
-you would almost certainly say... CREW:
Exactly. Which has been running in London's West End for over 700 years
and sets new box-office records every day.
But it was actually her courtroom drama,
Witness For The Prosecution that first made her
a star of the theatre when it opened to rave reviews in 1953
and it remained Christie's proudest achievement as a dramatist.
64 years later, a new production of Witness For The Prosecution
has opened on London's Southbank.
But will this play, set in the 1950s,
have the same appeal to a modern audience?
We sent Nikki Bedi to get the verdict.
I put it to you, as they say in courtroom dramas,
that a lot of the appeal for Agatha Christie today
lies in nostalgia,
in our fondness for a time long gone by and if that's the case,
then this new production of Witness For The Prosecution
is off to a flying start because it's taking place here
in this magnificent building, County Hall in London,
which doubles for the Old Bailey
where much of the play's action takes place.
It's hard not to be impressed
when you come through these doors as we, the audience,
take our seats in the actual courtroom,
or, even better, a place in the jury
and you can do that if you pay a bit more for the privilege.
Without giving too much away,
this is the story of the trial of Leonard Vole,
a young man accused of murdering a wealthy older woman
who faces the death penalty if found guilty.
So will you both, first of all, tell me who you are
and which characters you play?
I'm playing Romaine Vole who is Leonard Vole's wife.
She's the only person who can supply an alibi as to where
he was the night of the murder.
I play Leonard Vole who has allegedly murdered an older lady.
-We will see.
Perhaps your memory as to other parts of your story
is equally untrustworthy.
You originally told the police that the blood on the jacket
came from a cut caused by a slip when carving ham.
-I said so, yes, but it was not true.
-More lies. Why did you lie?
I said what Leonard told me to say.
The truth... The truth is that
Leonard cut himself with the knife to make it seem the blood was his.
-I did not. I didn't.
And does it feel any different for you
as the character of Leonard when you're in the courtroom?
Do you think, as an actor, it lends something more?
It definitely helps us out because it's such a imposing space
that it's difficult not to feel intimidated
when the lights are on you, you've got the judge looking down at you.
You're very close to the audience - is that ever off-putting?
We're lucky in the sense that the audience here are so close,
so much closer than they would be in a West End theatre
and they can see a lot of things that are going on with the actors.
The question the jury must ask themselves is were you lying then...
SHOUTING: ..or are you lying now?!
I was afraid of Leonard.
Witness For The Prosecution has been adapted many times over the years,
but probably the most famous version is Billy Wilder's 1957 film
starring Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich.
And when the police questioned you about this wretched man
who believes himself married and loved, you told them?
I told them what Leonard wanted me to say.
You told them that he was at home with you at 25 minutes past nine
and now you say that that was a lie.
Yes, a lie.
-So what's this latest production based on?
-We're doing the play.
There's no adaptation. So we're trying to remain absolutely faithful
to the play that Agatha wrote in the '50s,
which is to be celebrated in some ways
because, I think, so much of her work has been adapted.
Did you have to think about updating it in any way or is it
exactly as it was meant to be?
No, we really placed it in the '50s.
I mean, she originally wrote it in the '30s, late '20s, early '30s.
-Late '20s, yeah.
-So she has herself updated it
and has clearly felt that the subject matter was still resonant,
just as we have found by doing it today -
it is still resonant, we're still fascinated by these issues of guilt,
innocence, and our own subjectivity.
And there's a twist, isn't there?
Yes, there's not just one. There's one, two, three, four.
I think there's four twists.
And now everyone's going to be trying to second-guess the play
by thinking, "Oh, this..." By trying to look for the next twist,
but I promise you, you won't get there.
So I have been given the privilege and the opportunity to be
part of the jury and, apparently, they actually swear you in.
I swear by Almighty God that I will faithfully try the defendant
and give a true verdict according to the evidence.
My Lord, members of the jury, I cannot say that this young man,
the prisoner Leonard Vole, has no case to answer. There is a case.
You feel absolutely like you are part of the jury.
The judge turns round and locks eyes with you.
I felt that I was truly responsible for that man's life.
Will the foreman of the jury please stand?
-Members of the jury, are you all agreed upon a verdict?
And do you find the prisoner, Leonard Vole, guilty or not guilty?
I don't know what to say.
Agatha Christie's biographer Janet Morgan has joined us
in the meantime and we'll be speaking to her in a second,
but first, Sophie, how was that production for you?
-Being in County Hall, how did it feel?
-Oh, it was amazing,
and the play is brilliant.
Agatha Christie adapted it slightly from her original short story
and I personally prefer the play version to the short story version.
I think she does something, without giving any spoilers,
she does something to the story that makes it even better
and it is an amazing play. It's just brilliant.
And why does she adapt so well for theatre?
I mean, there she's adapting herself, but why is it?
I don't know, because I adapted the short story
for when I did Witness For The Prosecution.
I preferred the short story, so later on
me and Sophie are going to have a fight about that.
I found it richer and more suggestive
and more provocative than I found the play when I read it,
but I've only read the play rather than seen it.
We'll take it outside later. There may be blood on the floor.
There's going to be blood. We're going to fight.
Witness For The Prosecution is on
at London's County Hall until March 2018.
Now, Agatha Christie has often been criticised for writing rather
cliched female characters, dim-witted maids
and secretaries, mysterious countesses and ditzy flappers,
but she also created witty, perceptive female detectives
who not only kept up with the boys but often outran them.
This mirrored Christie's own unconventional life and personality.
Despite holding traditional views on marriage and family,
she was fiercely independent.
We're joined by her biographer Janet Morgan. Hello, Janet.
-Now, we have this impression...
-It's wrong, is it?
What's wrong with it?
She's not just a quaint little old lady bashing away
at her typewriter in Torquay?
It's putting her into a sort of collective
group of women like that, of that era.
There's a terrific photograph of her roller-skating on the pier
in Torquay wearing a hat with feathers and long skirts
and with a whole lot of other girls wearing the same sort of clothes.
When she... But underneath that carapace
was somebody who was spirited -
the granddaughter of two really fierce, forceful grandmothers
and their witty, amusing, determined friends,
a mother who took Agatha up in the first aeroplane flight that
was available in Torquay.
Although money was a bit scarce, Agatha had a childhood
when, as she said, you did what you like. She read what she wanted.
She developed a profession at which she stuck
and when there were opportunities, like the surfing,
she always adored sea bathing, when she...
-Surfing? Tell me... When you say surfing...
-She was standing up.
-It says somewhere she was the first woman to surf standing up.
How on earth does one know that? Surely, there must have been...
She was the first woman to say, "Surfers do it standing up."
-She was in a position to...
-She's the first woman we know
who surfed standing up called Agatha Christie.
But she still thought that a woman's place was in the home, didn't she?
I don't think she did.
She said when she married her second husband, the archaeologist,
15 years younger than herself, that she'd be like a faithful dog,
because she loved dogs, but she would not be a dog on a lead.
And then there's this exhibition of letters that's on at her former home
-in South Devon.
-What do we learn from these letters?
Well, many of the letters, I have some here...
Many of the letters are the sort of letters that perhaps not you,
but authors like me often feel like writing to their publisher.
In fact, I rather overdid that in this book.
"Authors don't just seem to matter and get pushed around.
"My new book here at the stationer's window.
"I have no book sent to me, never been told the date of publication."
Arguments about the cover...
"..Writing a very angry letter to my agent.
"I do think you're treating your authors disgracefully."
Now, of course, she was extremely valuable to her publisher
and remains so, but this was a personal effusion.
She minded enormously.
But this is also fascinating at a time when, still,
she was encouraged by her family to publish anonymously to begin with,
when women novelists where a relative rarity, that she
was that vociferous with her publishers and that demanding.
Do you think that sort of attitude feeds into her female characters?
To be perfectly honest,
before I actually read one of these books, I would've said,
"Oh, it's ditsy and dumb and dim-witted," but you read it
and in And Then There Were None, Vera Claythorne is an absolutely
cold-as-ice child murderer.
You get totally drawn into her perspective and totally drawn
into her world and totally drawn into the fact that she doesn't
actually really mind about the fact that she's killed a kid.
What she minds is that she's been caught,
that she's going to have to face the music.
Sophie, what about the female detectives? How do they strike you?
Well, I mean, I think it's a bit weird that we're talking
about her female characters.
You know, I think she wrote women characters
just as if they were people, as they are, so anything I would say about
her female characters, I'd say about her male characters as well.
I think she wrote brilliant, multi-dimensional characters
who were capable of great evil,
great self-deception, also great acts of kindness.
-She just wrote human characters.
-And what about Miss Marple?
Miss Marple is a genius creation.
She appears to be this little sweet old lady,
but she's actually quite misanthropic.
She has no illusions about people and what they're capable of
and she has many conversations with her old lady friends where they
say things like, "Oh, Jane, you do tend to think the worst of people."
And she goes, "Yes, well, the worst is usually true, dear."
So she's absolutely clear...
Is she the closest thing to an Agatha Christie consciousness
inside the novels?
Yes, but I don't think she saw herself
as manifesting herself in that way through the characters.
Her plots are puzzles and here are these people who, yes,
absolutely...she believed in evil, did Agatha Christie,
as does Miss Marple.
There is evil, and good can then come in
and fortunately put everything straight again.
-Thank heavens for that.
Agatha Christie's personal letters to her longstanding publisher
Billy Collins are now on permanent display at Christie's former home
Greenway in Devon and Janet Morgan's biography of Agatha Christie
has recently been reissued by HarperCollins.
That's it for our current series of Front Row,
but we're back with a Turner Prize special on 2nd December.
Thank you to my guests
Sophie Hannah, Sarah Phelps, and Janet Morgan.
If you want information and details about anything
we've been talking about, do head to our website
and of course there's arts, news, and reviews
every weeknight on Radio 4's Front Row at 7.15.
I leave you with Father John Misty performing
When The God Of Love Returns There'll Be Hell to Pay
from his latest album Pure Comedy.
# When the god of love returns
# There'll be hell to pay
# And though the world may be out of excuses
# I know just what I would say
# Let the seven trumpets sound
# As a locust sky grows dark
# But first let's take you on a quick tour
# Of your creation's handiwork
# Barely got through the prisons and stores
# And the pale horse looks a little sick
# Says, Jesus, you didn't leave a whole lot for me
# If this isn't hell already then tell me what the hell is?
# Oh, and we say it's just human
# Human nature
# This is place is savage and unjust
# We crawled out of the darkness
# And endured your impatience
# We're more than willing to adjust
# And now you've got the gall to judge us
# We just want light in the dark
# And some warmth in the cold
# And to make something out of nothing
# Sounds like someone else I know. #