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Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010) is another of these adaptations that parachutes Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) into a novel featuring another investigator. In this instance, she’s displacing Ariadne Oliver. There’s nothing inherently wrong in doing so if the story is strong enough. A puzzle is a puzzle and anyone can be drafted in to solve it. The primary feature of both the novel and this adaptation is the supernatural element. Originally published in 1961, Britain was fascinated by the occult and black magic with Dennis Wheatley remarkably popular. I say remarkably because his prose writing style was terrible, but he made a good living out of the quality of the ideas he managed to get down on paper. Agatha Christie herself flirted with the supernatural from time to time and this is her most explicit use of “dark forces” as a murder weapon.

The best, if not the only way, to get anything sensible out of this story is to see it as a product of the time it was written. Let’s assume that everyone from the lowest class peasant to the upperist class nob was familiar with the uses of black magic for murder. Indeed, it must seem to the more wealthy members of society that, if they want a foolproof way of collecting on their inheritances early, the best way of cashing in is to get Satan or one of his minions to do the dirty deed for them while they are out of the country or obviously in a cast-iron alibi situation. So they approach a booking agent who sends them out into the countryside where three witches perform a ceremony. Pausing at this point, you have to accept that hard-bitten and intelligent people will not only part with their money, but also sit through this ceremony without bursting out laughing. Why? Because a few weeks later, the target of their murderous intentions will die from “natural causes”. Whoo hoo! Satan rules, OK!

So if you know someone, who knows someone, the word will come back to you that Satan is ready, willing and able to remove obstacles to your inheritance for just a few thousand pounds. Here’s an address. Knock three times and ask for Mr Bradley. Curiously, no-one ever goes to the coven at The Pale Horse directly. Their occult powers can only be bought when the telephone rings and Mr Bradley says it’s a done deal. So in cocktail parties up and down the Home Counties, the gossipers are hard at work. “Did you hear those darling witches did it again? Bazzer’s Uncle Valerian has just joined the Happy-Ever-After Brigade. I’ve booked in my Aunt Esmeralda and Great Uncle Arbuthnot next Tuesday week. They’re having a two-for-one special, doncha know.” Just thinking about this as a plot device gives me a headache, but this is “vintage” Agatha Christie. Although she was past her best by this time, let’s run with the notion that, if the greed is strong enough, both the cynical and gullible will play along with all the mummery to get the job done.

Juia McKenzie and Neil Pearson bring black magic into the light

Juia McKenzie and Neil Pearson bring black magic into the light

As a television episode in a period setting, this is written and performed in a quasi-documentary style. Under normal circumstances, the inclusion of black magic should provoke the production team into the usual melodramatic excesses to ratchet up the tension and aim to produce a few boo moments as evil stalks the streets. Yet this proceeds at the walking pace of a funeral cortège with no hint of excitement. This is surprising because we start off in a pea-souper with Father Gorman (Nicholas Parsons), the parish priest, called around to hear a death-bed confession. Stepping back out into the fog, he’s then battered to death. This could have been played up but the word coming to mind after seeing it is “dull”. Lurking in the background is the police sidekick Inspector Lejeune (Neil Pearson). He trots around in Miss Marple’s wake nodding sagely whenever she vouchsafes a nugget of wisdom. As the primary setting, we have a creepy village and its local witch burning ritual which is observed by our historian Mark Easterbook (Jonathan Cake) as if he’s going to write it up for his next textbook. And then the satanic ceremony itself which is laughably tame.

So I see a slightly better performance from Julia McKenzie. Even though she’s being given less than sensible things to do, I actually felt she was more in the Miss Marple groove. There are the usual great production values on displace with Hughenden Manor, Buckinghamshire looking the part. I also thought one or two of the plot innovations were constructive, but the whole enterprise founders because of the horrendous coincidence required so that Miss Marple meets the murderer. In the original novel, the murderer is actually being quite helpful to the police as their inquiries are proceeding. This character’s involvement is therefore more natural. Here Miss Marple must suspect him from the outset without anything more than a marginal suspicion about the accuracy of a physical description of someone half-glimpsed in the fog. While taking nothing away from the quality of the traditional gathering of the suspects together at the end with the big reveal, The Pale Horse is a rather silly story that’s played out at a leaden pace with no spark of life about it at all.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

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