Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Perhaps I’m just getting old and so more often find myself out of sympathy with television representations of the times from my youth. Although I failed to arrange being born into a rich family with a large country estate, we were on the periphery of the county set and I observed many people of the type we see on display in these period adaptations. The book on which Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008) is based was written and set in the 1950s and, as the title suggests, was another of these plots recycling nursery rhymes. At this point I need to distinguish between the source material and the most recent adaptation. I read this when it first came out in paperback around 1958 and, like many books by Agatha Christie, the actual characters are fairly irrelevant. They are the standard stereotypes who do what’s necessary to advance the plot. The basis of enjoyment lies in the rather nice construction of the puzzle. As is always the case when the reader is given a clue in the title, the question is whether the author is playing fair or the clue is actually a bluff. If it’s a bluff, whose bluff is it. The author could be setting out to mislead us from the moment we open the book or the murderer could be using the rhyme for a particular purpose. When I sat down to watch this, I confess I could not remember it. Many of the Agatha Christies have blurred together into a kind of generic lump of Golden Age Detective Fiction. Of all the authors who came to prominence in the 1920s and 30s, she proved to be the best at the mystery three-card-trick. You take a limited number of people, shuffle them around and then devise a set of circumstances in which a different person is the murderer for each book. It can even be everyone or the detective or, in one case, the first-person narrator. Everyone gets to play the part on the whim of the Queen of Crime. The result is there’s little memorable about the individual stories. What we tend to remember are the broad brushstrokes of the detectives and their immediate entourage, and occasional solutions which were outstandingly spectacular.
So here we are with another actress drafted in to play Miss Marple (I suppose Geraldine McEwan was just a little too long in the tooth as she approached her 80th birthday). This time, we’re off with Julia McKenzie. For the record, Joan Hickson featured in an adaptation of this novel that was shown in 1985. So those of you with memories like an elephant or a comprehensive set of DVDs can compare interpretations. This strikes me a somewhat bland but, in part, that’s because she shares the detecting spotlight with Inspector Neele (Matthew Macfadyen) and his faintly comic sidekick Sergeant Pickford (Ralf Little). Perhaps if she was allowed the starring role, we might see her performance in a better light.
As to the plot, we start off with the murder of Rex Fortescue (Kenneth Cranham). Have you noticed how often Agatha Christie gets the ball rolling by killing a bullying patriarch? It’s probably terribly Freudian that these guys always deserve to die. They are usually slightly on the upper side of middle class, reasonably wealthy but ultimately convinced the rest of the world contains an inferior species. In this case, he’s somewhat loopy which is not a desirable mental state for a man running an investment bank. He’s been moving out of all the good, safe bonds into new derivatives and other casino style financial products. This has been driving his son Percival (Ben Miles) nuts. The family were watching their wealth go down the toilet but would the old boy listen? So they were rescued when someone poisoned the idiot and left the rye in his pocket. Naturally Miss Marple is not a little upset when her ex-maid is also slaughtered while hanging out the clothes in the garden. That just leaves the queen to die in the parlour and the rhyme is complete.
The problem with this adaptation is that the characters are either the servants (the drunk butler and prickly cook) who are easy to spot, or generic wealthy middle class types, often with rather less middle class accents to show their feet of clay. Yes, wealthy people did marry beneath themselves in those days. A fact made embarrassingly obvious in this production by their low class accents and potentially boorish behaviour. And that’s what really depresses me about this adaptation. The class-based drama focuses on the pursuit of money and status. This unhappy shower may have acquired the money but they certainly have not acquired any manners to go with them. This is the noveau riche trying to live the life of the old money, upper class. Percival is the miser son, counting every penny. Lance Fortescue (Rupert Graves) flies in from Paris after his father’s death so he stands out a little as having a little more style. But then the black sheep of the family do tend to be charismatic.
Even though it relies on one person being extraordinarily stupid, I suppose the plot is one of the better ones with the way in which the evidence emerges staying true to the book. I’m going to reserve judgement on Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple. We just don’t see enough of her in this episode. So A Pocket Full of Rye is reasonably entertaining for a show of this type if you can stand being cooped up with this group of rather unpleasant figures for two hours.
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: The Pale Horse (2010)
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)