Shiny Shelf

Agatha Christie Marple

By Jim Smith on 04 January 2011

ITV’s ‘Marple’ is, and always has been, a strange hybrid beast and this is perhaps down to what seem to be a large number of contradictory pressures on it. The stately, reserved, immaculate Joan Hickson starring BBC TV series (1984 – 92) series casts a long shadow, as do the lively rumbustious Margaret Rutherford films (1961-64). These two very different, yet very successful, series of adaptations raise different expectations in audiences of who Miss Marple is and what a series featuring her should be like. It may very well be as a consequence of this that the series has seemed to suffer from an almost perpetual crisis of identity.

Another pressure on the programme is the long ‘Poirot’ series still showing on the same channel. This is reaching its end (with only half a dozen or so titles left to adapt) and becoming progressively darker in tone as it does so. ‘Marple’ seems designed both to take its place in the schedules and to provide a counterbalance to its darkness as the two run concurrently. The differences between Marple and Poirot’s respective book series are  thus seemingly inflated by those producting the TV series to better achieve a contrast between them

With ‘Poirot’ inexplicably stuck in a world where it is always a few months before the  Munich agreement, Marple is deliberately set in the mid 1950s. (This difference is not at the texts’ instigation, the stories featuring Miss M were written between 1930 and 1970 and usually set in the year in which they were penned, while Poirot’s adventures, implausibly enough for a middle aged Belgian who is retired from the police service before the series even begins, take place between 1916 and 1972.*)

Equally, while ‘Poirot’ is increasingly muted in its use of colour, the greys, dark blues, blacks and browns of its palette reflecting the characterisation of its lead as a tired and embattled man, staggering through the autumn and winter of his career. ‘Marple’ takes place in pleasant, open high ceilinged houses and bright green gardens during the spring. Pastels and vivacious reds are on display, along with cheerful polka dots and stripes. There are ostentatious displays of bright and exciting 1950s innovations, fashions, technology and cars. Jaunty typefaces and bright colours are used in the individually created logos used for each new mystery (‘Poirot’ makes do with a doleful white on black caption). The contrast is too marked to be merely coincidental.

Triangulated off these titans of Christie adaptation as it is, it’s a wonder that ‘Agatha Christie Marple’ (as the title card for the series insists on calling it) works at all and, if we’re honest, for a long while it didn’t. It was not helped towards establishing its own identity by the almost comically over starry casts (presumably a policy designed to give the series notable class and Christie’s often lightly written parts some weight) inevitably recalling the Finney and/or Ustinov ‘Poirot’ films of the seventies and eighties, once again putting the audience in mind of other Christie adaptations. It is also notable that, without naming names, several performers seemed to treat the series as a lark, playing their roles either as light comedy inconvenienced by murder or at a near histrionic pitch. (Notable exceptions included Ian Richardson and Catherine Tate.)

It is hard to blame the performers though; they were in productions that emphasised the light, the bright, the pretty and the witty a great deal of the time. Which led to somewhat unfortunate clashes of tone when dealing with the consistently grim and sordid nature of the crimes Miss Marple solves. On the page, the contrast between the picaresque country villages and what transpires there comes across as a canny juxtaposition. On screen here, thanks to the production style, it seemed ludicrous and crass.

The series also lacked a compelling central performance; Geraldine McEwan, while a wonderful actress rightly praised for sterling work elsewhere, never seemed entirely comfortable in the role and her departure from the programme after series is not to be regretted.

The relative creative failure of the first few series cannot really be laid at Ms McEwan’s door, however. The changes made to the plot of ‘The Body in the Library’ by this series’ adaptation were not problematical because they were changes, but because they were almost wilfully ludicrous. The insertion of flashbacks to Miss Marple’s early life in ‘Murder at the Vicarage’ could generously be described in similar terms, while the sexing up of ‘A Murder is Announced’ is demonstrated by the casting of Christie’s affectionately portrayed middle aged lesbian farmers Hinch and Murgatroyd. Played here by Frances Barber and Claire Skinner, in the BBC production they were the far more suitable Joan Sims and Paola Dionisotti, whose portrayal may have been less glamorous and less frequently expressed physically for the titillation of viewers, but contained a great deal more truth.

In the second series the production began adapting Christie novels that didn’t feature Miss Marple at all, inserting her into them as it did so. The logic behind this ostensibly barking development was sound in a number of ways.  Someone at ITV had presumably noticed that Christie only wrote twelve novels with Miss Marple in (plus around two dozen short stories of various levels of adaptability) and that this would mean the programme, a hit despite my own reservations, coming to an end after three series or so. Equally, it didn’t pass them by that Christie had written dozens of novels featuring neither Marple or Poirot, instead having a variety of leads that no one really cares about any more.

While on the face of it the equivalent of inserting Sherlock Holmes into ‘The Lost World’ because more people have heard of him than George Challenger, this has actually been the making of the series. When this ITV version is in direct competition with the BBC series it invariably fails, with such stories as ‘At Bertram’s Hotel’ and ‘Sleeping Murder’ coming across as little more than dodgy cover versions of the perfectly judged earlier adaptations.

This is not a problem the adaptations of Christie’s more obscure novels face. While Christie purists may be aghast at the presentation of (the novel’s original leads) Tommy and Tuppence in ‘By the Pricking of My Thumbs’ it’s very hard to argue that it wasn’t the series’ best episode up to that point or that the story stood a chance of being adapted separately. (The excellent early 80s ‘Partners in Crime’ series notwithstanding.) A cynic might also suggest that performing radical surgery on Christie’s non Marple novels enables the series’ scriptwriters to effectively write new stories while retaining the reassuring credit ‘Based on the novel by Agatha Christie’.

After three series Geraldine McEwan left Miss Marple behind and her successor Julia McKenzie seemed more suited to the part from the off. The fourth series was roughly split between Marple and non Marple novels and included an effective adaptation of ‘Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?’ (previously made by ITV in 1979 as a vehicle for Francesca Annis) which has been released on DVD but not yet shown on television. This is yet more evidence that ITV’s scheduling department is run by idiots.

‘The Pale Horse’ is another  novel that did not feature Miss Marple. It is, in fact, Christie’s attempt at a Dennis Wheatley pastiche and features Mrs Oliver, a supporting character from the Poirot books who is brilliantly played by Zoe Wanamaker when she appears in the David Suchet series. (‘The Pale Horse’ was also adapted as a standalone ITV Drama Premiere as recently as 1994.) While the ‘Marple’ version twists the story out of shape a little, it retains its atmosphere and is far more successful in conveying the book that the earlier adaptation was. It also features a dramatic role for Nicholas Parsons. What’s not to love?

‘The Secret of Chimneys’ (another non Marple) turned the plot inside out as well as adapting the story to feature Miss Marple as a character, turning major parts of the novel into mere red herrings and creating subplots concerning the paternity of the younger characters.  In some ways ‘Chimneys’ is a fine example of the surgery required on a (in this case unequivocally lesser) Christie novel in order to make it a part of this series. The political background of the novel reflects its composition during the year of the General Strike but the series firmly locates the narrative in a Britain just before MacMillan. However, this version of the story works in its own right. This partially because there’s no better screen version of the novel to compare it against, but also because it is simply a more successful adaptation with MacKenzie’s entirely convincing Marple at its centre. Edward Fox guest stars, as does Dervla Kerwin as Christie’s occasionally recurring heroine upper class tomboy “Bundle”. A part that, had she played it in one of the first two series, would doubtlessly have been ‘re-imagined’ as lesbian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. (It’s the repetition, wisely avoided here, that was tedious.)

‘The Blue Geranium’ is based on a Marple short story from the collection ‘The Thirteen Problems’ and is a rather clever adaptation. It keeps the framing sequence of Miss Marple discussing a case with her friend Sir Henry Clithering (Donald Sinden), but changes its context. A subplot about trying to prevent the hanging of an innocent man is added to create urgency. The whole of the story is retained, but wrapped around it is such a perfect Christie pastiche (disguises abound, as do red herrings and multiple reasons for the homicide) that it’s very hard to tell where the embellishments begin and end. Kevin McNally and Toby Stephens appear and resolutely refuse to camp it up, with Stephens bringing great depth to a character who’s a nonentity on the page, while McNally sighs and grumbles very entertainingly in the role of put upon DI outsmarted by a daffy old spinster. The final scene in which an entire court seems prepared to bend to the will of Miss Marple and her retired policeman friend is, while utterly ludicrous from a legal process point of view, genuinely thrilling stuff.

‘The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side’ is the one real Marple novel in this batch, with far fewer liberties taken with it than were suffered by the Miss Marple books adapted in earlier series. Perhaps the writers had got such things out of their systems due to the greater degree of adaptation required by the other three stories in the block?

Hugely enjoyable, it also features an almost heroically miscast Joanna Lumley, whose English country widow Dolly Bantree is no less glamorous than Lindsay Duncan’s faded holiday actress (although both actresses are delightful in their parts).  It’s nice to see Nigel Harman doing some acting after years in ‘EastEnders’, while Martin Jarvis’s faded smoothie of a red herring and Hugh Bonneville’s uptight, war-wounded policeman are hugely enjoyable screen creations. This version of ‘Mirror’ does not surpass the earlier BBC production, but it can stand alongside it without embarrassment. This is something that 2004’s version of ‘4.50 from Paddington’ simply couldn’t do with either the Hickson or Rutherford versions, despite them having more in common with it than they do with each other.

Ratings for the three episodes of the series transmitted pretty much every other day between Christmas and New Year haven’t been up to previous levels, being roughly half of that achieved by the series earliest episodes. It would be terribly unfortunate if the best series of ‘Marple’ yet turned out to be the last. Fingers crossed. If nothing else, I want to see Mackenzie take on the resurgent Nazi organisation ODESSA in the hopefully inevitable adaptation of Christie’s spy novel ‘Passenger to Frankfurt’.

* Yes, this does make Poirot roughly 110 years old at the conclusion of his final case, which might explain his constant attempts to be allowed to retire to grow vegetable marrows.

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One Response

  1. Mags says:

    I know we’ve had this argument before but I much preferred McEwan and can’t watch McKenzie. I think it’s because to me Maple is an Edwardian* living in post-war times which the McEwan run suggested and the McKenzie run doesn’t. And I liked the insertion of a love lost in WW1 – it suggests a reason why this fussy old spinster understands the depths people will go to for love. It’s not necessary, but it worked.

    *yes, I know. Written right up until the 1970s.