Never armed, always knitting, forever listening; subdued, philosophically homespun and, yes, dowdy . . .
Acorn Media/ITV Global Entertainment has released, on four DVDs, Series 4 of Miss Marple mysteries, Agatha Christie’s elderly spinster sleuth. The first three sets in the series feature Geraldine McEwan in the role. She retired after her twelfth Miss Marple, Ordeal by Innocence, in 2007. Julia McKenzie immediately assumed the role and made four TV episodes which comprise Series 4: A Pocket Full of Rye, They Do It with Mirrors, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? and Murder Is Easy.
The last two are not actual Marple mysteries, nor are they adapted from Poirot originals, as has often occurred in some supposed “Marple” entries. Dame Christie had her own thoughts on this flippant crossbreeding: “I get an unregenerate pleasure when I think they’re not being a success.” In both Evans and Easy, other individuals do the sleuthing with Miss Marple in a subservient role, often as little more than an eavesdropper, like a “stuck in” bonus character, at the worst as an afterthought.
The DVD box propaganda boasts of four “gripping” mysteries. Hum-m-m-m—— The pace is usually so slow, the suspects so numerous, the murders so plentiful at times, that a less excitable description is more apt—“entertaining,” maybe “diverting.” What is true from among the box superlatives is the “picturesque English scenery, grand estates . . . and lavish post-World War II period detail.” It’s something of a treat to see the vintage cars of the time and to know that the country homes used in the filming are much as they were in the ’30s and ’40s. And the ladies’ fashions of this time, although there are occasional ridiculous exceptions, represent to many the height of modern women’s apparel and hair styles.
Part of the “fun”—a word also used on the back of the box—is recognizing a favorite star, more often than not in a minor role. The more familiar names include Prunella Scales from Faulty Towers, Joan Collins from Dynasty and Sylvia Syms from Doctor Who. But there are also Jemma Redgrave, niece of Vanessa and granddaughter of Sir Michael; Matthew Macfadyen, from Frost/Nixon; Helen Baxendale, the sitcom Friends and the British serial Cold Feet; Rupert Graves, A Room with A View and The Madness of King George; David Haig, who is hard to forget as the sexually exhausted newlywed in Four Weddings and a Funeral; and Ian Ogilvy, from a multitude of American TV shows—Melrose Place, JAG, Murphy Brown and Murder, She Wrote.
Acorn Media has other McKenzie/Marple entries in the works. The Secret of Chimneys is in post-production, and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side is currently being filmed. Chimneys is not a Jane Marple mystery, and it will be interesting to see how the script writers integrate Miss Marple—at the expense of Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, who handles the case in the novel, or with the lady sleuth as an add-on eavesdropper of sorts.
Miss Jane Marple made her mystery novel début in Murder at the Vicarage in 1930. Since then, any number of ladies of stage and screen have played Christie’s elderly detective. From the obscure, there is Barbara Mullen, who appeared in a 1949 British theatrical version of Vicarage, and Gabrielle Hamilton, who made a TV movie of Sleeping Murder in 1987. From among the more familiar Marples, in movies and TV, there are Joan Hickson, Margaret Rutherford, Helen Hayes, Angela Lansbury, Geraldine McEwan and now Julia McKenzie.
Hickson, the dowdiest of all, complete with tweed suits and hair in a bun, once held the record for the number of Marple appearances—twelve British TV episodes between 1984 and 1992. With her unassuming appearance and nonchalant yet convincing deductions—and able to remain consistent and keep alive her portrayal through all the installments—Hickson might well have earned first place among her peers. Inoffensive yet endearing, at ease in making friends yet with that touch of British civility, she could be for any number of people a favorite grandmother or aunt.
The most animated Miss Marple was the rotund Rutherford, who never had time for knitting but was testing suspected poisons in her kitchen, climbing over walls, mounting horses or saber dueling with the villain—this last, especially, something Christie’s Marple would never do. The four British M-G-M Marple movies Rutherford made in the ’60s strayed dangerously from the Christie text, and the actress’s little resemblance to the character, in figure or demeanor, prompted Christie to observe that Rutherford “always looked like a bloodhound.” Dame Christie consistently maintained a low regard for most of the film adaptations of her mysteries.[See the separate review of Rutherford’s films at The Miss Marple Mystery Comedy Films.]
Lansbury, perhaps the most affable and deductively insightful of the lot, though too young at the time, at 55, to approximate Marple’s age, was surrounded by Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Kim Novak in her 1980 appearance in The Mirror Crack’d, leisurely directed—too leisurely!—by Guy Hamilton. Critics have justly commented that the little movie-within-a-movie was the highlight of the film. The citizenry of St. Mary Mead has gathered to watch a film, Murder at Midnight, made in 1931 with Aileen Pringle, Hal Hamilton and Alice White, when, just as the inspector is to identify the murderer, the film breaks.
For Lansbury, the middling movie led to better things. Her Miss Marple, with little change, became Jessica Fletcher—and twelve seasons of TV sleuthing in Murder, She Wrote. Judging by Jessica’s endless investigating, her home of Cabot Cove, Maine, had the highest murder rate in the country, much like Miss Marple’s fictional English village!
With those twinkling eyes, which must have helped clinch her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Airport in 1970, Hayes reprised the character in two Warner Brothers TV movies, Murder with Mirrors and A Caribbean Mystery. Again, middling movies and big disappointments for Hayes fans, as well as for Christie herself. Hayes did appear in Murder Is Easy, not as the lady in question but as Lavinia Fullerton, who ended up murdered.
As for McEwan, she was Miss Marple in twelve episodes for ITV/PBS/WGBH Boston. At least six of the Hickson entries were remade, including At Bertram’s Hotel, Nemesis and A Murder Is Announced. With a distinguished career ranging from the Royal Shakespeare Company to TV and movies—her best known role, perhaps, is Mortianna in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves—McEwan retired after Ordeal by Innocence. (No, Ordeal is not originally a Marple mystery, either!)
Who would fill the void? Almost immediately, the next year, Julia McKenzie made her Marple début in A Pocket Full of Rye, which Hickson had filmed in 1985. At 67, McKenzie is perhaps on the young side for that Marple lady, but she probably has enough years to grow into the role and to make twelve episodes of her own, if she likes. Already she has an in-character willowy countenance, the gray hair a symbolic halo of deceptive calm, the bright eyes showing keen observation. She never runs, nor makes any threatening movements—she is never hostile, not even verbally—no hint that she is a criminal’s worst enemy.
A Pocket Full of Rye
As in Ten Little Indians, Dame Christie uses a nursery rhyme to provide the clues—both crucial and red herrings—for Miss Marple to uncover. It seems Rex Fortescue has been poisoned, and grains of rye are found in one of his pockets. A maid is innocently manipulated into killing dear Rex, and then the murderer—a member, of course, of the wealthy household—has to eliminate the maid. In accordance with the rhyme, she dies “ . . . in the garden,/Hanging out the clothes.” By happenstance the maid had left Miss Marple’s service for better things; coincidences are as abundant in Christie as in Charles Dickens!
At final count, there are three deaths. Inspector Neele is on the job, but during Miss Marple’s explanation of the solution to the murders—equivalent to a Poirot dénouement—the man looks a bit perplexed. Perhaps he has as much trouble as the viewer wading through the convoluted plot and myriad characters. As Marple says, “It’s all camouflage—to make it look like the rhyme was the inspiration. And that’s very significant, don’t you think?”
And the “blackbird” connection to the nursery rhyme? No, nothing to do with birds or black or clotheslines, for that matter. “Camouflage,” indeed. Miss Marple, if you would, explain——
Murder Is Easy (aka Easy to Kill)
This is the first of the two non-Marple episodes in the box set, with Jane penciled in, so to speak, as Luke Fitzwilliam’s investigative assistant. As in so many Christie mysteries, scenes in a small medieval church are almost required, complete with benevolent clergy (or so is assumed). There’s brass rubbing—not a clue—a fascinating hobby for locals and tourists alike. Some viewers might wonder exactly what the young lady is doing, there on the floor of the church, and might appreciate more details about the process, the marvel of charcoal or a wax crayon and a piece of paper.
There are no less than six murders—two by being pushed, the others by various kinds of poison, Dame Christie’s favorite method of dispatch. As Doris Day says in Calamity Jane (1953), it’s a regular “mas-sa-cre-e-e-e-e.”
These episodes are turned out too quickly for many intricate camera shots or much detailed storyboarding, but the final shot in Murder Is Easy is arresting, if a bit conspicuously arty: Miss Marple walks away, carrying two suitcases, and in the immediate foreground, out of focus and occupying half the screen, are the finials of a wrought iron fence. An excess of this kind of photography can easily become annoying; the worst example is possibly The Mystery of the Blue Train (2005), with David Suchet as Poirot.
Miss Marple, understandably, has a smaller part than in Rye. She does manage, however, one of her homilies: “As one gets older one gets wiser.” As the crux of the plot, what, by the way, was the connection between the killer and the attractive young lady, the brass rubber, who drives off at the end, leaving Fitzwilliam with a blank post card of the Empire State Building?
They Do It with Mirrors (aka Murder with Mirrors)
Back in her own story with this episode, Miss Marple encounters the usual Christie clichés and gimmicks—an ancestral mansion, a dark and stormy night, a train ride, lights going out (remember A Murder Is Announced and Ten Little Indians?), a play within a play, a missing piece of paper and—yes, of course, poisonings. The first victim, however, is killed with a U.S. Army knife in the back.
When someone reproves Miss Marple for always believing the worst, she replies, “The worst is so often true.” And the lady sleuth has really stepped in it this time. On the estate, friend Carrie Serrocold houses criminals she good-heartedly believes can be reformed. The goings-on inside the mansion seem no safer, with Edgar Larson, for one, wandering around believing he is Winston Churchill’s son or some other important personage.
Inspector Curry of Scotland Yard and his note-taking assistant are on hand, but it’s Miss Marple to the rescue—or, rather, to the solution. And about that first murder, what did Miss Marple see on the dead man’s desk that the Inspector didn’t?
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (aka The Boomerang Clue)
Another non-Marple, this mystery begins with the opening tones of J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV565, a time-worn cliché to suggest, as here, the sinister. Young Bobby Attfield is the organist, and as the soundtrack segues to the orchestra, he finds a dying man on the ledge of a seacoast cliff. The man’s last words are—you guessed it: “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” (Why does this writer always want to substitute “Alice”?)
Attfield meets an old girlfriend, Frankie Derwent, on a train. The two follow their intuitions to Castle Savage where clues abound, as well as the usual assortment of strange characters—including Tom, who collects mice and snakes, a psychiatrist with the bedside manner of George Zucco, an often gossamer-clad Sylvia, lady of the household, and the aforementioned Evans, an eccentric horticulturist. No more “eccentric,” that is, than the murderer, who poisons Evans with the blossoms of a deadly orchid crammed into his mouth. . . . No, too late to consider Evans as a suspect!
Having been slipped into the script as a family friend arriving early on at Attfield’s house, Miss Marple is on hand at Castle Savage to help Bobby and Frankie. When Frankie veers on the wrong track, the grand old lady warns her, “You have a very sharp mind, but you must be aware of distractions.”
Despite the deceptive “light” touch of Roger Bassington’s singing and his piano-playing of “What’ll I Do?,” and though the murder count is below Christie extremes, the climax is exceptionally macabre—and much more implausible than usual. What murderers—there’re two here—after spending years devising a revenge killing, would stop in midstream to allow Miss Marple to prattle on about how they planned it (they should know!) and where they went wrong?
And who, by the way, was John Carstairs?
“Murder at the Vicarage was published in 1930,” Agatha Christie wrote in her autobiography, “but I cannot remember where, when or how I wrote it . . . or even what suggested to me that I should select a new character—Miss Marple—to act as the sleuth in the story.” Well, Agatha, whatever the reasons, we’re grateful for the lady’s creation.
Followers of the detective should welcome Julia McKenzie and maybe even ask: Is she the finest Miss Marple since Joan Hickson?