|Agatha Christie's Miss Marple|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 25 September 2001|
Joan Hickson had a long career as a character actress; as early as 1937's "Love from a Stranger," she was in a movie based on an Agatha Christie story. When she appeared in Christie play in the late 1940s, Christie herself told the surprised actress that when she was old enough, she should play Christie's redoubtable spinster-detective, Jane Marple. Hickson actually was in "Murder She Said" (1961), the first of the Miss Marple movie series starring Margaret Rutherford as a hardly true-to-Christie but still very entertaining Miss Marple.
Finally, the busy actress got old and frail-enough looking to play Jane Marple in a series of feature-length (and some hour-long) TV shows for the BBC. The rights to the Miss Marple shows are somewhat scattered on this side of the Atlantic, and two different companies have been bringing them out on DVD.
Hickson is a very good Miss Marple, the elderly spinster from St. Mary Mead, a small (fictional) town in southwestern England. She has a deeply incisive mind and a coolly cynical outlook on life, but in every other way is a typical little old lady from a small English town. She loves her gardening, she is welcome in almost everyone's home, and has lived there what seems to be her entire life. (Late in her own life, Christie said she regretted making Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot both so old when she introduced them.) She's a very astute observer of village life, and applies those observations to the murders that she's continually encountering, in St. Mary Mead, nearby towns and even when on vacation in the Caribbean.
Hickson looks like both a sweet little old lady, and the shrewd detective she is. Several good actresses have played Miss Marple, from Rutherford to Helen Hayes (excellent, even if American) and Angela Lansbury, who not only played Miss Marple in a movie of "The Mirror Crack'd" (1980) but went on to play the Marplish J.B. Fletcher in her long-running TV series "Murder, She Wrote." But Hickson really does present the definitive interpretation of the character; as with Poirot, Miss Marple disapproves of murder, but doesn't spend her time clucking her tongue over the horror of it all. Instead she takes in the information and sorts it, rarely discussing the cases at length with anyone until she identifies the killer (even when it pains her to do so).
This initial BBC package of Miss Marple shows is very handsomely done. Each episode includes biographies of most of the leading actors, and the last episode an episode of a British TV series, "Western Approach," with its own title of "Crime Does Pay." It covers an Agatha Christie centenary celebration in her home town of Torquay (best known to Americans as the location of "Fawlty Towers"). It's a very thorough show, discussing not just the celebrations and museums that the city finally (and wisely) decided to sponsor, but Christie's popularity. She's the largest-selling writer from England, and her popularity continues today. Some commentators point out quite correctly that what Christie wrote was not so much art as very shrewdly-conceived entertainments. Few mystery writers were as adept at her at slipping clues into the stories, and yet coming up with so many surprising revelations. Her characters are simple, often stereotyped, but that was highly appropriate to the stories and settings she chose to deal with.
"Crime Does Pay" has a relatively brief but quite pleasing sequence in which Joan Hickson, in costume as Miss Marple (and at the Torquay railway depot) meets David Suchet, in costume -- and character -- as Hercule Poirot, who arrives on a train. In front of a clearly delighted cloud, Poirot presents Jane with a bouquet, tips his hat, and offers his arm as they stroll off together. It's too bad Christie never did write a story that featured both these characters, but this little encounter, almost surreal though it is, will delight fans of both actors.
"The Body in the Library" is the first offering on the DVD. A beautiful young woman's body is found most unexpectedly in the library of harrumphing Colonel Bantry (Moray Watson -- Rumpole's "Frobisher") and his wife Dolly (Gwen Watford, who returned as Dolly in a later "Miss Marple"). Who does the body belong to, and why was she left in the Bantry's library? And why do her fingernails attract Miss Marple's attention?
Presented in three parts, each just under an hour long, "The Body in the Library" presents its story carefully and slowly, but that's what you want from a genteel, tea-at-four mystery like all of the Miss Marples. The British countryside is presented handsomely (the stories are set in the 1950s), the cast is adept, and this episode in particular establishes Detective Inspector Slack (David Horovitch). Most police officials who know Miss Marple are delighted with her, but Slack is frustrated and exasperated by turns; he came back in four more Miss Marple episodes, and was always an excellent foil for Joan Hickson.
"A Murder Is Announced" also has an unusual opening. The local newspaper announces that a murder will be committed that very night in Little Paddocks, the St. Mary Mead house of Miss Blacklock (Ursula Howells) who, like everyone else, is very surprised at the announcement. That night, at the appointed time, most of her neighbors find a suitable reason to show up at Little Paddocks -- and then a stranger bursts in, brandishing a gun. But he's there only seconds before HE is killed -- but by whom?
As with "The Body in the Library," a local seaside resort is an important location in "A Murder Is Announced." the detective this time is Detective Inspector Craddock (John Castle, an excellent actor), who turned up later in "The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side," the second version of that novel. Also in the cast is Samantha Bond as Julia Simmons; she's the new Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond movies.
"A Murder Is Announced" isn't as well-conceived as "The Body in the Library" and, in fact, has one of the more guess Christie conclusions. Still, the characters are very interesting, particularly Miss Murgatroyd (Joan Sims, who was in two dozen "Carry On" movies, and quite famous in England) and Miss Hinchcliffe (Paola Dionisotti), a pair of aging ladies who live together. They're both very colorful, especially Hinchcliffe.
"A Pocketful of Rye" is a third shorter than each of the other two episodes, more tightly paced but less ingratiating. As with several other Christie novels, it's based on a nursery rhyme, with the murder victims apparently chosen to match characters in the rhyme. ("The king was in his counting house...") But is that what's really going on? It takes Miss Marple to find the answer.
The supporting cast this time includes two actors who are well-known for other work. Peter Davison plays Lance Fortescue, but is best known to Americans for his role in the series of films based on "All Creatures Great and Small," for playing "Campion" and for being one of the several Dr. Whos. The police detective in this outing is Detective Inspector Neele, played by Tom Wilkinson, whose fame as a character actor ascended after his role in "The Full Monty." He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the troubled husband in "In the Bedroom." Both are fine here, too.
If you like the Miss Marple shows, or if you're fond of the British style of "cozy" mysteries, this is an ideal purchase. The shows were made for television, so the sound is relatively elementary, and there's no letterboxing. The three discs are housed in a somewhat flimsy case, but that's not a serious drawback.
Joan Hickson continued to return as Miss Marple for over ten years, until she died. It's hard to imagine who they could get to replace her.