With a sense of foreboding, I sat down to watch this second set of three Marple adaptations. We had not exactly started off auspiciously and I had visions of Agatha Christie vaguely stirring in her grave as broadcast signals slowly penetrated the soil around her grave. The first effort is A Murder Is Announced. We’re back in a village circa the 1950s, this one appropriately named Chipping Cleghorn, where someone obviously well-meaning announces the imminent death of person or persons unknown. Come the appointed time, the lights go out, shots ring out and, not surprisingly, a man is duly found dead. Giving up her quiet holiday in a nearby hotel, Miss Marple invites herself into the middle of the investigation and, before long, she’s suggesting lines of inquiry to the random office officer in charge. It’s a wonderful commentary on these pre-CSI times that we could innocently believe our British police officers were so accessible and willing to give credence to an old biddy’s ideas. You can’t see an author today describing anything other than a highly professional squad that appears and erects barriers to keep curious eyes away. Not forgetting the Crown Prosecution Service lurking in the wings to ensure a fair trial will be possible. The notion of gathering all the suspects in the library for sherry and an accusation or two would be frowned on. Yet, that’s the Golden Age paradigm. We meet the cast of suspects, watch the sleuth at work and then arrive at the dénouement in which our detective reviews the evidence, highlights the clues and points the fickle finger of fate at the baddie(s).
Let’s characterise this series as a race between Geraldine McEwan and Joan Hickson. The new team wants to distance itself from the earlier series. It wants this set of adaptations to be better. So they have no compunction in rewriting the books to make for “better” television. Yet one of the more extraordinary aspects of this adaptation is that the production team neglected to do anything about Mitzi (Catherine Tate). The 1950s was a time of great parochialism and hostility to all foreigners, particularly if they were coloured. Indeed, in the next episode, Sleeping Murder, a seaside town is thrown into a paranoid frenzy when a person of Indian origin is seen on the promenade — ironically, something that did not happen in the original novel. Anyway, Mitzy who cooks and “does for” the family is an appalling caricature and it would have been better to avoid pandering to our current anti-immigration prejudices by toning down the performance. That the script leaves out characters from the book, overeggs the relationship between Hinch and Murgatroyd, and actually has Miss Marple cry when she comes across a body, shows the production team has no compunction about changing stuff. In this case, I’m not convinced this does justice to the book but, in its own terms, it does manage to focus on the core mystery which remains ingenious. Zoë Wanamaker and Elaine Page are quite pleasing as Letitia Blacklock and Dora Bunner.
A Sleeping Murder is one of these deeply annoying adaptations of a novel in which we’re expected to accept the extraordinary as complete ordinary. Although Sophia Myles does her best as Gwenda Halliday, her arrival in this particular house in this particular village is such an amazing contrivance made worse by the ability of Aidan McArdle as Hugh Hornbeam to pick up a telephone and summon Miss Marple at the first sign of hysteria. Quite what possessed the production team to murder a reasonably good book with this farrago of rubbish is beyond me. In the original, Ms Halliday is newly married and arrives from New Zealand. There’s no connection to India, no Hugh Holliday as a love interest, and no Funnybones at the end of the pier where, quite frankly, they should all have sunk without trace since sorting out their relationships is hardly entertaining. The only good thing about this episode was the quality of the singing by Sarah Parish and Anna-Louise Plowman.
Then as if the producers decided to go for death by a thousand cuts, we move on to the even more annoying adaptation of By The Pricking of My Thumbs. I didn’t believe this lot would go for complete butchery but this is the case here. This is a perfectly respectably Tommy and Tuppence novel, a series in which Agatha Christie would let her hair down a little and write a more thrillerish, atmospheric book. There would always be a basic puzzle to unravel, but she was always aiming for a greater spirit of adventure than ever would have surrounded the semi-geriatric Jane Marple. For those of you who have yet to dip into one of these books, Tommy works for MI6 and, together with his wife Tuppence, they catch nazi spies during the war and are involved in other faintly daring-dos. For the record, they are equally bright and tend to strike sparks off each other until they arrive at the “answer”. In this mockery, we have Tuppence (Greta Scacchi) as an alcoholic wife left on the shelf by an absentee Tommy (Anthony Andrews). In a visit to a nursing home to visit Tommy’s aunt, Tuppence meets Miss Marple and, in due course, they set off the investigate the goings-on in Farrell St Edmund. When Tommy does appear, he’s played as a pompous idiot who uses the threat of instant incarceration in the Tower if anyone fails to answer one of his questions. Not even the joy of seeing Steven Berkoff and Leslie Phillips can prevent this from being the worst in this Marple series so far.
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: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
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 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)