Well, with the final three lined up, I can maintain my morale and keep going. After the first disasters, it’s been a terrible struggle to switch on the television. With a derisive laugh, I can always hope the broadcasters saved the best for the last set of three. Towards Zero is another of these adaptations which inserts Miss Marple (Geraldine McEwan) into the mystery. This is not necessarily an improvement on the Inspector Battle original, but it’s equally not necessarily a fatal flaw. A mystery is a mystery to be solved and this particular puzzle is quite elegant, no matter who does the sleuthing. The one good feature about this particular adaptation is the police officers who turn up to investigate the death that’s so obviously a murder are reasonably competent. They know to look for fingerprints and do search diligently for evidence. At times, they even ask intelligent questions when interviewing the select group of suspects. Their failure is to understand social dynamics of the people (who are not particularly likeable) and to see the significance of the summons from Lady Camilla’s room on the night she died. Incidentally, Eileen Atkins is rather pleasing as the reclusive old lady. It’s a shame she has to be bludgeoned to death. It makes a sad contrast with Tom Baker whose portrayal of Federick Treves tended to the grotesque. I suppose the whole thing worked quite well as entertainment although the drama of tipping poor Ted Latimer (Paul Nicholls) in the river was a bit over the top and the tennis match featuring Greg Rusedski and Neville Strange (Greg Wise) was tame. So, not that it’s in any sense a redemption for this series, this particular episode was one of the better ones. Perhaps we really will finish on a high note or two.
Ordeal By Innocence should have been better given the quality of the cast but, yet again, we have major tinkering with the original and poor direction. The result is that it’s rather difficult to distinguish between the adopted children. They all seem underdeveloped as characters. In the novel, there’s a better effort made to explore their individual personalities and, while this is not one of the best Christies, it does have a sound plot. Yet again Miss Marple has been inserted into the story and, worse, we have a change in the identity of the second victim and an unexpected suicide. Frankly, I fail to understand why the murderer should have chosen to kill Gwenda (Juliet Stevenson) and why add a twin only to have him disappear into the lake? Making any changes to the original should actually improve on the original, perhaps clarifying a weak point or making a dated element more meaningful to a modern audience. In this case, the result just feels muddled and, although the change to the ending does make quite a shrewd use of the book’s title, it’s the only ray of sunshine in this otherwise dismal swamp.
Looking back at a life wasted watching television, At Bertram’s Hotel has quite the most bizarrely confusing opening I can remember seeing in any sleuthing adaptation. The camera wanders around with Jane Marple bumping into people as the lobby of the hotel revolves around her and, supposedly, introduces all the main characters to us. In the original, the hotel has faded gentility. This has a Satchmo lookalike belting out a jazz number as the crowd from Piccadilly Circus, in town tonight, mills around without anyone to shout, “Stop”.* To say this is a re-imagining of the original novel is an understatement. Although the murder of Micky Gorman is reproduced with moderate reliability, the most fascinating aspect of the original has been thrown away, i.e. the actual purpose for the hotel remaining unchanged with the old folk lurking around the public rooms sipping tea.
The actual story we see on the screen with the twins, loopy renegades from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, and black-market dealings in artwork is a travesty. What makes it all the more dire is the decision to share the work of detection with a maid, Jane Cooper (Martine McCutcheon) who shows up the bumbling Inspector Larry Bird (Stephen Mangan) and is rewarded with the chance to live with him at the end — presumably so she can solve more of his cases for him. This gives us another example of a very satisfying novel distorted out of recognition to no good effect.
Looking back at this series, I really cannot imagine why Granada Television felt the need to so completely rewrite most of the source novels. Agatha Christie was remarkably inventive and, while not always completely on target, she was rather better than the team of people lined up to write these adaptations. In this final case, the adaptation itself is made worse by the poor direction, not establishing a clear understanding of who everyone is supposed to be in the first half of the show. But the consistent problem has been Geraldine McEwan. It’s unfair to keep on harping about Joan Hickson whose portrayal of Miss Marple was magnificent. I suspect Joan Hickson was simply lucky to land in a team that respected the original intention of Agatha Christie and were prepared to go the extra mile to support the harder, more predatory interpretation. It would have been just as easy to find Joan Hickson left high and dry in dismal adaptations or surrounded by melodramatically-inclined actors. When you actually examine Geraldine McEwan’s view of Miss Marple, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of her hiding behind the mask of senile incompetence. But she should let it slip every now and again so we can all be in on the joke. As it is, the directors did little or nothing to bend the fourth wall to let us see the “real” Miss Marple at work. The result is a view of this character as rather dotty, often lurking in the background and not infrequently relying on others to do the work for her. Indeed, on many occasions, there’s very poor continuity where sidekicks talk with someone or see something significant but are never seen reporting what was heard or seen to our sleuth. Obviously, some kind of telepathy is involved. So apart from one or two episodes, there’s very little to recommend. If you have the choice, buy the DVD set of the earlier Joan Hickson versions.
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 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)