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Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

You see this is all the fault of Anthony Hope. I suppose not many of you out there will remember this author, but he was mildly famous when I was growing up. Although, truth be told, his reputation did rather rest on just two books: The Prisoner of Zenda and its sequel Rupert of Hentzau. Notice the names of the fictitious countries. Authors then had the same problem as authors now. They had to set their stories in places that resonated with mystery, romance and excitement (although not necessarily in that order). To this end, they either invented countries like Ruritania or set their stories in countries that sounded like one of these supposedly exotic places sandwiched between the Europe we all knew and the Russian expanse of which we knew little. Today, to avoid upsetting allies, dangerous gangsters or terrorists come from North Korea or Dagestan or somewhere obscure. Anyway, when we come to a young author sitting down in the early 1920s, she would likely think her book had to involve people and intrigue over places like Herzoslovakia and feature characters with names like Prince Michael Obolovitch, Count Stylptitch, and so on. That’s where we more formally enter into the novel titled The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie, now adapted as Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010).

This young author did rather churn out potboiler thriller novels with more than a suggestion of romance about them. Some are, by any modern standards, diabolically bad. At the time, they were considered full of excitement, romance and mystery (although not necessarily in that order). If you were to take a measuring gauge with some moderately objective pretensions, you might conclude this novel is by no means the worst of this type of novel but, if you tried to put it on the screen as written, today’s audience would curl up and die. This revenant from 1925 must therefore be recast so that we may adsorb its substance without being bored to tears by its delight in the politics and social niceties of the day.

Edward Fox

Edward Fox

The first step, of course, is to abandon the redoubtable Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard and the amateur sleuth, Anthony Cade, in favour of Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) with an unusually silent sidekick called Inspector Finch (Stephen Dillane). The only redeeming feature about this latter character is that’s he’s forewarned about Miss Marple who’s been showing up his colleagues as barely competent. So he immediately sets out to avoid the same fate by first listening to her and then arresting the wrong man — a ploy guaranteed to energise the old biddy and get her into top gear to save the innocent one destined for the romantic ending. At this point we must sympathise with Paul Rutman who was paid to write a new mystery. Even at the best of times, it’s difficult to write something to appease the purists while entertaining those new to the title. This is particularly difficult and, under the circumstances, the simplification of the plot to centre on the titular country house is sensible. The opening sections are also moderately well handled but, as we advance through into the broader part of the mystery, the initial glamour is lost and what remains is stolid, confusing and unrealistic.

As an aside, if the production company ever gets around to adapting The Seven Dials Mystery, I hope they remember one of the characters in that later book is now the murderer in this screen adaptation. More judicious rewriting and renaming will be required to avoid confusion. Anyway, let’s not worry about what may never happen. What happens in this story? Well, a group of people come to Chimneys which, for the record, is filmed at Hatfield Hall and Knebworth House. This decaying pile with the leaking roof is owned by a disgraced Lord Caterham (Edward Fox) and hunted by the emergent National Trust which wants to save it for the nation. There’s a high-level political meeting with an Austrian Count who ends up dead in a secret passageway. There’s also a poisoning and other minor excitements, some historical. The identity of the murderer is obscured by changing the apparent time of the shooting. The method used is mildly ingenious and the clue in plain sight is not completely unfair. It’s just incredible. No-one would actually be able to see it. But if we ignore this fact and we have the kind of mind capable of making intuitive leaps to the truth, it’s obvious. There’s also a dire coincidence and one of these self-sacrificing people who decides to cover up the killer’s identity. And did I mention there’s a missing diamond but that’s not the only jewel hidden in Chimneys.

The upshot of all this is that Miss Marple unmasks the killer, finds the diamond, identifies the real jewel hidden in the wall, and sets true love on its rocky path to the future — and all in ninety minutes. No mean feat for our amateur sleuth. All I can say about Marple: The Secret of Chimneys is that it looked good and Jula McKenzie does her best to be Marple-like. Everything else about it is an otherwise competent cast being given increasingly silly things to say and do. As we move into 2010, this series shows no sign of lifting itself off the rock bottom it had reached in 2009.

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: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
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)

Oliver Twist (2007)

April 15, 2012 4 comments

Watching a new BBC Television adaptation of an old classic often gives the viewer the chance to reassess the original film versions. So long ago, I paid to go and see the film adaptation of Oliver Twist based on the novel by Charles Dickens, starring Alec Guinness and Robert Newton. They were formidable as Fagin and Sikes, dominating the proceedings with their menace and David Lean’s brilliant direction. Perhaps that’s why John Howard Davies, who played young Oliver, went on to have a career based on comedy. Anyway, I was musing throughout this latest television adaptation by Sarah Phelps, and I was struck by number of quite different thoughts. Let’s start with the workhouse. This was suitably bleak and seemed to be completely lacking in any attempt to educate the children. This leads me into the old nature/nurture debate. In this version of Dickensian reality, it seems Oliver Twist (William Miller) will always emerge from the horrors of deprivation and abusive punishment with almost complete innocence and a trusting nature. He immediately feels different when meeting the Artful Dodger (Adam Arnold) and subsequently going through grooming by Fagin (Timothy Spall). He almost instantly relates to Mr Brownlow (Edward Fox). This is disturbing. Mr Bumble (Gregor Fisher) has it right when he says almost every boy from the workhouse ends up a career criminal, i.e. transported or hung. Charles Dickens is playing the game of binary opposites. Oliver is not the Dodger, Fagin is not Mr Brownlow. It’s odd that having introduced Noah (Adam Gillen) in the opening sequences at the undertakers, he does not reappear with Fagin. The whole point of Noah in the novel is that we see him as a bad lot and have this confirmed when he later joins Fagin in London. This is the career expected of all those of a criminal disposition. Somehow Oliver is immune from this fate. He’s the changeling who immediately fits in with the Browlows of this world.

William Miller as quite a well-fed Oliver

The decision to cast Sophie Okonedo as Nancy is rather pleasing although I’m not convinced anyone brought up in the East End would be so quickly motherly to the likes of Oliver. Julian Rhind-Tutt as Edward Leeford (or Monks when he meets with criminals) is decidedly the most personable villain we’ve seen for a long time. He’s a delight which is not really the impression he ought to be creating. I prefer him to be rather more Gothic. The decision to make him the grandson of Mr Brownlow is bizarre. Although Charles Dickens also plays with coincidence by having Oliver burgle the house of Rose Maylie (Morven Christie), who later proves to be his his aunt, putting all the main characters in the same London household makes the whole plot too contrived. I understand that it saves money on finding and filming at different locations, but the whole point of the adaptation should be to make the best version of the original as possible, not write something second-rate. As proof of this, in the novel, Monks throws the necklace and ring into the river and does not carry incriminating evidence around with him. He may be dangerous, but he’s not completely stupid.

Fagin (Timothy Spall) and Sikes (Tom Hardy) underneath the arches

Tom Hardy as Sikes is good but somehow lacks the brooding physicality I normally associate with the role. He’s somehow mellow and capable of peaceful moments whereas Robert Newton or Oliver Reed managed to remain fearsome all the time. This rather undercuts the emotional force when he murders Nancy. Although the wandering around in the woods only to end up back in London is not untrue to the melodramatic original, the implication he would commit suicide in a sewer pursued by her ghost is out of character. The original accidental death as he’s pursued by the Bow Street Runners across the rooftops is far better. He would never willingly give up. Worse, he would never carry Oliver back to London after the failed burglary. I suppose it makes for good television to have Nancy nurse him back to health, but this is forced from the decision to have Sikes rescue him. Although it’s strange the Maylies would call in a doctor to treat the wounded Oliver, that’s what Charles Dickens preferred with the rehabilitation of the boy followed by the illness of Rose.

Sophie Okonedo as Nancy

Watching the Artful Dodger grow up is done well. Having him inherit Bullseye and stalk off into the crowds after the hanging is a nice touch.

This Fagin is not really a criminal gang-master but a rather broken-down fence, easily intimidated by Sikes and his ilk. The lair is well-appointed with beds and Fagin does a good breakfast for the boys. Unlike earlier versions, this Fagan also seems to feel some sympathy for Oliver. In short, he doesn’t seem bad enough. Which leads me to a final note of bemusement. In this adaptation, the trial of Fagin offers him the chance to avoid hanging if he converts to Christianity. This is not in the original text and I find myself unable to understand why this note of anti-Semitism should have been introduced.

So this version of Oliver Twist is good in part, but fundamentally undercut by the central performances of Timothy Spall as Fagin and Edward Fox as a completely wooden Brownlow. Insofar as they are intended to be binary opposites, the view of Fagin offering Oliver sausages for breakfast is just too much like the gesture you might expect at the hand of Mr Brownlow. Sadly, the production is let down by the script and some of the decisions taken by Coky Giedroyc as director. If only the team had taken off its rose-tinted glasses, we would have had a better view of the London Dickens was describing.

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