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On track with Sir Kenneth Branagh
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On track with Sir Kenneth Branagh

Thursday, 24 August 2017
By Frank Rousseau
Frank Rousseau

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7 min read

Forty years after Sidney Lumet, Kenneth Branagh is the director of a remake of “Murder on the Orient Express”, based on the Agatha Christie novel. Onboard with the Shakespearian actor is a gilded cast that includes Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer.

The British thespian’s fans will be delighted to learn that he isn’t stuck on the platform behind the camera; he also plays the beloved Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. This first-class production clearly has all the right qualities to steam its way to the top of the box office! In the meantime, Sir Kenneth tells us more about the moustachioed detective and his trademark “turnip” pocket watch…

What's the first thing about Hercule Poirot that springs to mind?

Belgium! [laughs]. Poirot is the quintessential Belgian of his day. He’s a refined, educated gentleman with exquisite manners, and always impeccably turned-out. He evidently puts a great deal of thought into his attire. He wears a three-piece suit in a classic style, occasionally dressing it up with an accessory that might appear slightly ridiculous to us now, such as sock suspenders. His shirts are always pristine white and starched. He also carries a pocket watch on a chain, tucked inside his waistcoat pocket, which would have been the height of elegance then. Poirot is, ultimately, the epitome of good taste with a tad of eccentricity. He is, without any doubt, a colourful character!

We often say a watch reflects its owner's personality. Do you agree?

Absolutely! Agatha Christie wanted Poirot to be precise, meticulous, fastidious and most of all punctual. That he is constantly looking at his watch reflects his wish to be in control of time. What is, when all’s said and done, a rather derisory object becomes an essential aspect of the character’s “get-up”, as much a part of him as his legendary moustache. It’s like an extension of himself. Whenever you see Poirot take his watch from his pocket, you know something is about to happen. It’s as though time stands still. That’s when you realise Poirot is a true professional who leaves no detail, however small, unattended. Time is a vital element in any investigation. It’s how a detective builds up a picture of what happened when, and puts each element back into its context. For Hercule Poirot, the best way to unmask a criminal or solve an enigma is to sit himself down and get his grey cells working… winding his watch as he thinks!

This was an age when punctuality was highly regarded. Why do you think that is?

It’s curious how the twenty-first century is such a high-speed century and yet we don’t always manage to be on time. We can send people into space and calculate to the nearest second when they will land on a different planet, yet here on Earth, trains and planes are still delayed. Of course, in the Victorian era not everyone had the opportunity to travel. Nor was there such a dense railway network. In Poirot’s day, lack of punctuality would have been considered the ultimate in bad manners. Arriving on time for an appointment was proof of one’s dependability, a sign one could be relied on. It showed a person was dedicated to the task in hand.

Sir Kenneth Branagh
Sir Kenneth Branagh
People took time to travel back then. Is this something you'd like to see more of today?

It’s true that in those days, travel meant settling back to enjoy the trip. All we want now is to get from A to B as quickly as possible. We travel like trunks, without seeing a thing! Regardless of whether you take a plane, car, train or boat, speed leaves no room for meditation and contemplation. I’m sure audiences who see the film will want to get on the train. It’s a tribute to the golden age of travel, when you’d sit back, open a good bottle and watch the scenery go by!

Are you surprised to see pocket watches, such as the one Poirot carries, become fashionable again?

Not really, as it’s typically the kind of watch that stands out among a sea of wristwatches. Of course, it’s more practical to wear a watch on the wrist. You only need glance down to see the time. There’s no more unbuttoning your jacket or fishing around in pockets, no more gesticulating. A pocket watch also has to be wound at regular intervals, unlike today’s watches that synchronise themselves with atomic clocks. Of course it must be fascinating to own such an incredibly accurate watch, but there was such grace in the act of stopping for a moment, pulling out a chain, and holding your watch in the hollow of the hand. These were thick watches, most of which came in a brass case with chasing and engraved decorations and inscriptions. Very few were in gold or silver. Not that it really mattered. The important thing was to own a watch. There were two categories of people: those who owned a watch, and those who wished they did!

Poirot without a moustache would be like Brussels without moules frites! Tell us more about these meticulously groomed whiskers.

The moustache is almost a character in itself. Poirot can hide behind it, but it’s also a provocation; it distinguishes him from those around him. His facial hair is a symbol of his vanity. Another interesting thing is how certain people ridicule him for this giant moustache that covers half his face, but they’re actually underestimating him, and he takes advantage of this to seek out the truth without anyone realising.

Sir Kenneth Branagh
Sir Kenneth Branagh
You actually rebuilt carriages from the Orient Express for the filming. What was the hardest part of that?

Getting the details right. The patina on the leather, the precious wood… We didn’t want the setting to look cheap or out of place. Like Poirot’s moustache, the Orient Express has a part to play in the film. In fact it has the title role! [laughs]. We paid particular attention to the materials used. We wanted the train to ooze luxury. Most of all we wanted it to look authentic. For example, I personally ensured that the wine bottles were identical to the ones that would have been served on the train at that time. The contents, on the other hand, were this awful plonk! Thankfully none of the cast drank any, otherwise they would have had me up in court for attempted poisoning!

In June 2012 you received a knighthood from the Queen. Which timepiece were you wearing?

I honestly don’t remember. It was a while ago!

Tell us about the ceremony.

Six weeks before the honours list is made public, you receive a letter from the cabinet office informing you that the Prime Minister and the Queen wish to confer upon you the title of Knight of the Order of the British Empire. Tradition requires that you keep the whole thing secret until the official announcement has been made, on Her Majesty’s birthday. Once this protocol had been observed, I got in touch with Sir Michael Caine so that he could give me some hints about what to do, and what not to do. I remember that the late Roger Moore, sorry, Sir Roger, was terrified at the thought of having to kneel in front of the Queen. It wasn’t so much the idea of being in the presence of the Queen that made him so nervous – this is James Bond, after all – but rather the idea he wouldn’t be able to get back up again, because of the terrible pains in his knee! So then I started to worry. What if, on the day, I couldn’t get back up under the weight of the cape and everything they put on you. I knew the Queen had already knighted at least four thousand people during her reign, and that she had never been confronted with such a situation. I really didn’t want to be the first and look ridiculous for the rest of my days!

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