Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
I’ve read every novel and short story by Agatha Christie, reading all the paperbacks to catch up in the 1950s, and then buying the hardbacks as they were published until the final case. This means, with one of two exceptions, I’ve got most of the plots in my memory. So, in watching these adaptations of the Miss Marple novels, I’ve been able to remember whodunnit — well with one exception which I’ll come to later.
I find myself faintly amused because, growing up in the immediate period following World War II, I knew people like the characters shown in this “modern” reproduction. Although I was merely middle class and never attended a country-house weekend, my parents were on the fringes of higher society and mixed with people who did. We lived in a private estate — in modern terms, it was a gated community. What actually happened was that on a preset number of days in a year, the groundsman closed the gates to prevent a permanent right of way being established along our road. Looking back on it, most of the children and teens I grew up with were from monied backgrounds. I met their parents at the social events. Before television became established, neighbours used to take it in turns to throw open their homes for an evening party. It was a fascinating time and it’s captured with considerable skill in this series of adaptations.
Born in 1932, Geraldine McEwan has been one of England’s premier actresses for decades. I’ve seen her live on stage in the West End and the Nat — she had immense presence. Even on the small screen, there’s an irresistible life about her and she hits a note of impish charm in this version of Miss Marple. However, I’m not sure we should be smiling at or with Miss Marple. I remind myself of the performances given by Joan Hickson in the television adaptations shown in the 1980s. There was a certain air of menace about that Jane Marple. You had the sense that, behind the apparent confusion you would expect of a lady of that age, there was a real predator waiting to pounce.
So, in the order I’ve seen the series, we started with The Murder at the Vicarage. Frankly, this is a less than impressive mystery. It’s too contrived, depending on being able to ensure Miss Marple will not be too seriously injured as the motorcycle sweeps by. First published in 1930, the characters are cyphers who move around to be in the right places at the right time. Nevertheless, some of the stereotypical characters from village life are nicely skewered in this adaptation and we have the joy of seeing old stalwarts like Herbert Lom and Mirian Margolyes. Except when the team was meeting to plan the series in 2003/4, I wonder what justification they devised for relocating the series to the 1950s. Yes, it makes the milieu instantly recognisable to me as an older viewer, but what other benefits flow from bringing this classic novel twenty years forward in time? Does it make it cheaper and easier to dress the sets, find old cars still running, or save time in recreating the clothes? Frankly, it just annoys me. If you are going to be “true” to a book when adapting it for the screen, you should not reinvent it unless there’s a good reason. This is not the same as, say, staging one of Shakespeare’s plays in modern dress. Often relocating the plot into a more recognisable modern context gives a new set of interpretations to the words. This enhances our understanding and translates the original intention into a form more accessible to the modern audience. I see absolutely no benefit from relocating Miss Marple into the 1950s. As a further trivial objection, using Hambleden, Bucks. as St. Mary Meade is disconcerting when it so regularly pops up in television and films, e.g. in the Midsomer Murders, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, etc.
Then we come to What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw (or as I prefer to think of it, 4.50 From Paddington). This is slightly more in the Tommy and Tuppence mould, with Lucy Eyelesbarrow (Amanda Holden) doing some unofficial sleuthing in the country home of the Crackenthorpe family. This allows for some routine melodrama as our young heroine finds the original body from the train and is a key witness to the death of a family member. This has more life about it for the contemporary audience, but it remains fairly trite.
Finally, The Body in the Library appeared and, for the first time, I found myself involved. Although we start off in St. Mary Mead, this is mostly set in Eastbourne which is shot in a nicely period way, showing life in a hotel with its thé dansants and evening dances and bridge sessions. This directly matches my own experiences of seaside holidays in the 1950s with the snobbishness beautifully caught on screen. Better still, we have the joy of Joanna Lumley as Dolly Bantree, Ian Richardson as the tragically-wounded Conway Jefferson and, of all people, Simon Callow as Colonel Melchett, but. . .
At this point, I need to step back. What’s the purpose of a television adaptation of a classic novel? In one sense, it’s a rescue mission. Sometimes, the prose style doesn’t travel well in time, so showing us the story makes it more accessible to a modern audience. However, I disapprove of an adaptation that rewrites the ending, particularly in a whodunnit. After reflection, I understand why I was hooked. The sly banter between Geraldine McEwan and Joanna Lumley is very contemporary in tone. Thematically, there’s also a lot more sexuality on display than ever Agatha Christie would have written about. This is very much a story for a modern audience. On balance, I’m not convinced. If adapters want to write their own detective stories, that’s fine by me. But they should not rewrite classic novels, changing the identity of the killer or killers. How would the audience feel if Pride and Prejudice was rewritten so that Elizabeth marries either Mr. Collins or Mr. Wickham? I suspect there would be rioting in the streets as everyone equipped themselves with new trainers, kitchen knives and other essentials with which to pursue the writers. So, I give this a good mark as contemporary television, but zero as an adaptation of a classic novel.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)