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Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)

January 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Season 6, episode 3. Endless Night (2013) starts with an unfortunate accident on the ice in 1948 where Mike Rogers (Tom Hughes) tries unsuccessfully to save the brother of Robbie Hayman (Aneurin Barnard). They were skating on thin ice as Robbie looked on from the bank reading a book. Ah, such memories can haunt a man. So nearly the hero. . . Then we wind forward to 1956 where Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) is staying with a recently widowed friend Marjorie Phillpot (Wendy Craig). In the high street, she meets Mike Rogers, now earning a living as a chauffeur. They see a poster advertising Gypsy’s Acre for sale, but it seems no-one wants to buy it — it’s reputed to be cursed. When he goes to view the rundown ruin, Mike meets Esther Lee (Janet Henfrey) who, by way of fortune-telling, quotes William Blake in Auguries of Innocence: some are born to endless night (some gypsies know too much for their own good).

So here we go with familiar twin themes of unlikely romance and the supernatural, stolen kisses, curses and portentous dreams of death. And in the background, Robbie Hayman has been announcing he’s going to die so this gives him a licence to do whatever he wants including shooting people (hopefully no-one he knows). This plot is playing with the stereotype of the lower class chancer who meets and marries the rich American heiress Ellie Goodman (Joanna Vanderham). Since we’re invited to watch this story from his point of view and he’s not necessarily the most reliable of narrators, we’re invited to suspect he might marry for money and then find a way in which his wife might meet an accident and so make him rich — assuming the estate is set up to allow him to inherit (which it proves to be).

Joanna Venderham and Tom Hughes survey Gypsy's Acre

Joanna Venderham and Tom Hughes survey Gypsy’s Acre

Coincidentally, the couple meet up with Miss Marple and Marjorie while on their honeymoon in Italy. When the family of the heiress realise she’s married in secret, they go through outraged shock to bitter acceptance. Meanwhile, the house is being built on Gypsy’s Acre. They knock down the crumbling pile and erect a square glass monstrosity — no wonder local people want to kill them. On their first visit to their new home, a rock flies through one of the windows — someone has a great throwing arm to reach from a hidden position in the woods to an elevated window. The breaking glass cuts Ellie’s face — a gypsy’s warning, perhaps? There’s a folly in the woods. What a classic touch and plenty of opportunity for spookiness.

Ellie has a Swedish friend, Greta Anderson (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen). When she asserts the right to share the modern nest with the newly weds, Mike is outraged. He wants Ellie all to himself. Greta begins looking for a home nearby. It then appears the new wife may have a heart problem and then there’s the question of what pills she might be taking. Later a dead bird and threatening note appear on their doorstep. Lee is suspected but she’s not around. Miss Marple finds a large bankroll of cash in her cottage. And finally. . . a riding accident: Ellie lying next to a horse out in the countryside. The doctor says she’s been dead three or four hours. The doctor diagnoses heart failure brought on by the shock of falling. Of course, none of these stories work if such diagnoses are correct. To understand the problems with this adaptation, we need to go back to the beginning.

The original novel is a first-person narrative told by Mike Rogers and introducing Miss Marple into such a plot creates an unfortunate tension because she’s required to keep appearing in the most unexpected places in order to see the relevant key events. We even have her investigating the folly and speculatively kicking over the traces in the quarry so she can work out what must have happened. It seems she’s become a stalker and exercises a more or less free right of entry into the couple’s modern house. The less said about the melodrama of the ending, the better. Kevin Elyot, the scriptwriter, never resolves the dilemma. Either this is to be a slightly different version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in which we see the story slowly reveal the reality of how Ellie comes to die, i.e. that’s why we have Mike’s voiceovers at strategic moments, or we have Miss Marple investigating a suspicious death.

Not that it really matters, but I’ve no idea where the Hamburg newspaper clipping came from. So this leaves us with a plot which has a suspicion of interest and an overwhelming flood of bad judgement. The faint interest lies in the decision to leave Mike’s point of view more or less in place. The Marple and Poirot formula of stumbling across a body and then working out whodunnit does grow slightly wearisome over time. This format avoids the cast of likely suspects and the strewing of herrings, red or otherwise. As a piece of television, this actually starts quite well until we get these endless coincidences to insert Miss Marple into the plot. The ending with her running around like a world-class sprinter and the dramatic fire does nothing to explain the psychology of the killer. Consequently, Endless Night proves to be a rather linear version of the plot, lacking any real twists and turns, or grand reveal at the end. The set-up is good enough, but then there’s no real mystery and absolutely no suspense. This leave us disappointed to say the least.

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: 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: 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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)

January 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Season 6, episode 2. Greenshaw’s Folly (2013) is a shotgun marriage of two short stories titled “Greenshaw’s Folly” (collected in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding) and “The Thumb Mark of St Peter” (collected in The Thirteen Problems). So the first question is whether the story is coherent. The answer is a qualified yes. We have relocated the action to a different village. Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) is a member of the local knitting circle and as embedded in this community as she was in St Mary Mead which creates a slightly uncomfortable feeling. Anyway, we have our protective heroine offering help to a battered wife, Louisa Oxley (Kimberley Nixon) and little Archie (Bobby Smalldridge). Miss Marple has spoken with Miss Katherine Greenshaw (Fiona Shaw) who occupies the nearby country pile (it seems it’s not far because Miss Marple can apparently walk home without breaking sweat). This feisty middle-aged lady needs a secretary which creates a convenient hiding place for the desperate young lady and her gullible sprog who can be convinced there are ghosts to be seen. Despite her home-grown remedy, Katherine Greenshaw’s eyesight is failing and she still has research to be done. Lots of copy typing follows. Yet, assuming this wife and son abuser has any intelligence (he is a doctor after all), he should know of the friendship between his wife and Miss Marple, and therefore have little difficulty in tracking her down. And, indeed, so it proves as the bully is soon giving evidence of his presence.

Meanwhile, back at the Folly, we have the usual cast of likely suspects. Nat Fletcher (Sam Reid) is the good-looking actor due to take a role in the local production of A Tangled Web. Then there’s Horace Bindler (Rufus Jones), the creepy guy determined to get into the laboratory run by the now-deceased Folly owner who was a doctor. He claims he’s there to complete his investigation into the architecture of the ancestral pile but, when challenged by Miss Marple, doesn’t know wildebeest don’t have grommets on their east wings. The grounds of the Folly, yet again played by Hatfield House, are kept trim by Alfred Pollock (Martin Compston) and Father Brophy (Robert Glenister) keeps the orphans in order in the local home. Completing the lineup, Mrs Cresswell (Julia Sawalha) is the housekeeper aided by Cracken (Vic Reeves) the butler. All we need now is a crime.

The cast pose before entering battle

The cast pose before entering battle

And this comes quite quickly as Cracken is pushed off a ladder and fatally cracks his head on the marble floor in the hall. With the whisky bottle suspiciously missing amber liquid, it’s an open-and-shut case of accidental death, and so life goes on with barely a ripple, no-one remembering the butler had not touched a drop in ten years — awfully convenient mass amnesia. Then the architectural snoop also disappears. What makes this really strange is the complete absence of smell. Obviously one of the virtues of a Folly is its ability to produce instant mummification without any annoying bodily fluid dripping or flies buzzing around a few days later. Then there’s the most curious failure of the village to know Father Brophy is a hopeless drunk and heavily into gambling. Quite what he bets on to lose all the money given to the orphanage is not explained, except it seems he does take odds on whether candlesticks rattle in a carrying bag. You would also expect the village to be encyclopaedic on its own history including the remarkable number of orphans who died during the polio epidemic that swept the country — the local cemeteries must be overflowing with young occupants. And I must have switched off my mind at one point because I missed the explanation of how Alfred Pollock acquired a Scottish accent.

We then come to the core murder of Katherine Greenshaw which has the “pile of fish” and other clues from the source stories. This killing has much of the hallmark Christie ingenuity about it to change the time of death so that it does not appear anyone has the opportunity to do the dirty deed. Given the importance of time, the fact of the telephone call to Miss Marple does represent a pleasing problem to be resolved. Unfortunately, the abusive husband and mechanisms for revealing the doctor’s attempts to produce a polio vaccine are padding with the now mandatory requirement for someone to “see a ghost” — it seems almost every Miss Marple adaptation of late must have some attempt at something supernatural with voodoo in the last episode and spectral spirits in this. So putting this altogether, Greenshaw’s Folly has one or two good moments, but is ultimately rather silly with a batty local women “protecting” Archie, and the usual unlikely romantic ending.

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: 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 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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)

January 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Season 6, episode 1. A Caribbean Mystery (2013) demonstrates an old truism about amateur sleuths who infest villages. At some point in their careers of solving crimes in these self-contained communities, the authors run out of people who have motives to kill people. Or, to put it another way, there’s no-one left alive. The desperate authors must therefore send their sleuths away on holiday. At this point, estate agents (or realtors for my American readers) become relevant because the substitute for a gripping plot is location, location, location. In this case, as the title suggests, Agatha Christie sends Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) off to the West Indies where, somewhat improbably, she meets up with Ian Fleming looking for inspiration for his first spy novel. If ever there was a clear signal Charlie Higson, the scriptwriter, thought he was in trouble, this is it. Trying to distract us with jokes about eccentric twitters who announce themselves to the world as Bond, James Bond is the ultimate act of desperation.

Anyway, throughout this ninety minute extravaganza, we’re treated to shots of palm trees in daylight, palm trees as the sun goes down in a dramatic sunset, and palm trees in contrived jungle conditions. And then there’s the beach, and two dramatic and big rocks overlooking a dangerous cliff top, and the shanty town replicating the West Indies of the 1950s. And all those marvellous old cars. . . As always with these productions, everything looks right. Even the clothing is almost entirely unsuitable for a hot climate and very much in fashion for middle class holiday getaways. So where are we? Tim (Robert Webb) and Molly Kendall (Charity Wakefield) run a quaint little hotel called the Golden Palms on the fictitious island of St. Honoré — and just to prove how fictitious the entire exercise, the locations for whole episode were apparently in and around Cape Town, South Africa. Not that there’s ever any obligation to use the real setting for “foreign” locations but it seems a long way to fly to get the result.

Nice looking beach

Nice looking beach

As is required for these Golden Age murder mysteries, a group of eccentric white guests huddle in their hotel oasis surrounded by all these foreigners. For the most part, they are afraid to leave and this creates the necessary ring fence more usually engineered by snow fall, bridges being washed away in sudden storms, and so on. Culture can trap people just as effectively as geography and extreme weather events. Leading the pack is a slightly over-the-top Antony Sher as Jason Rafiel who later triggers the events described in Nemesis. He’s accompanied by Warren Brown taking a rest from Luther, and avoiding Oliver Ford Davies as the delightfully boring Major Palgrave who has pictures of all his favorite murderers with which to regale the other guests. Then there’s the usual cast of “characters” from the slightly loopy clergyman to the loud American couple.

I suppose the virtue of plots like this is that, the more nonsensical they are, the more clever we’re supposed to think them. If only we were brighter, we could have picked up that “clue” earlier. Yes, well, pigs will fly one day. So for inspection by Miss Marple and Jason Rafiel, we have a group of people who, for one reason or another, all know each other. Imagine how this works. Here’s this hotel on an island and, having travelled the world, here comes Major Palgrave with his photographs. This is not his first visit, you understand. So it never occurred to him that he might have met one or more of these people “somewhere else”. He’s old. He only has one eye. And he’s old, so he has never noticed until sitting beside Miss Marple, that one of the people in his line of sight is that well-known murderer. . . Well, he’s old and so he gives a great start of surprise and alerts said murderer that the Major’s one eye and two little grey cells have finally identified the fiend. Naturally, said murderer cannot permit the Major to live another day. He might tell the same story again to someone who might actually believe him and that would never do. Now let’s switch the point of view. All the guests have had the chance to see the Major over their visits so, to avoid any embarrassment of the old guy suddenly pulling out his photographs and remembering, the killer simply needs to stay away, or leave early if it’s the first visit. Or if the fiend is one of the hotel owners or staff, it’s a simple matter to reject the Major’s request to stay — sadly the hotel is fully booked this year. The entire premise of this story makes even less sense than usual for a Christie.

Having killed off the second most interesting actor on display, we then get a story about people holidaying on an island and, every now and then, Miss Marple walks into shot. There’s an incredible amount of action and dialogue shown as filler to create atmosphere and suspicion until our sleuth can do her thing and overhear something or gossip to glean facts. I suppose the second murder is quite ingenious but, as is often the way with screen adaptations, the melodrama of the shooting at the end is laughable. And the screen romance which may be coming to fruition. . . Well let’s just say it’s one of these remarkably unlikely outcomes that Christie might have enjoyed. If there’s anything to like about this episode at all, it’s the performance of Antony Sher. It’s nicely judged and, for once, there’s real chemistry with Julia McKenzie. Put all this together and A Caribbean Mystery is nothing to mention in a postcard from a holiday destination that, at times, actually looks worth visiting — such great palm trees.

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: 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: 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)

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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

When you start with just the title, Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010), it sounds really impressive. The scriptwriter drawing the short straw for this Herculean task was Stewart Harcourt. Even at the best of times, it’s difficult to take a short story and convert it into a television episode supposed to last 90 minutes (not including ads). What makes this more than usually difficult is that the original includes Dolly Bantree and the idea of yet another episode with Joanna Lumley in it was just too much to contemplate. So everything had to be relocated. With a clear vision of novelty, we now find ourselves switched to Little Ambrose (the internal scenes were filmed at Hatfield House) which is, as you will all know, best approached by road in one of those magnificently preserved coaches from the 1950s. Of course, Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) is not alone. She has an importunate Eddie Seward (Jason Durr) to interrupt her thoughts. At first, I thought this must be a victim of shell shock (what we now call PTSD). Just after the war, there were quite a lot of men whose experiences during the war led to such anxiety-driven behaviour. Except he later turns out to be a recovering alcoholic. I found his behaviour unconvincing. Men of that era avoided embarrassing themselves with outbursts of this type. I understand that it’s essential for Miss Marple to acquire some information from him, but this seems less than credible when he could just as easily have been bohemian and chatty.

Julia McKenzie flanked by the police team with Kevin McNally on the right

Julia McKenzie flanked by the police team with Kevin McNally on the right

Anyway, we retain something of the original short story by having a frame involving Miss Marple talking with Sir Henry Clithering (Donald Sinden). Now never let it be said I use words loosely. I consider it entirely appropriate to dignify the frame and its consequences of Miss Marple being called as a witness in a murder trial completely idiotic. The script clearly says Sir Henry has retired yet, on he basis of what Miss Marple tells him, he’s able to call up the judge of the ongoing trial and have everything grind to a halt. Instead of all the suspects being called together in the library for the amateur sleuth to explain whodunnit, this episode has everyone sit in court and both volunteer evidence and shout out denials as Miss Marple does the reveal. Neither the judge nor the opposing barristers say or do anything to prevent Miss Marple from hijacking the proceedings. She’s even allowed to publicly berate Detective Somerset (Kevin R. McNally) for making a mess of everything — the poor man was already in trouble because of his drinking and, after this experience, he would probably disappear into a bottle and not emerge for weeks.

As to the broad narrative, this is not without merit. With Eddie Seward almost immediately found floating in the river next to the golf course, we can focus on the village and its usual assortment of interesting characters. At the centre of it all are the two brothers who married two sisters. Mary Pritchard (Sharon Small), ended up married to the philandering George Pritchard (Toby Stephens) while sister Philippa (Claudie Blakley) married the gambling addict Lewis Pritchard (Paul Rhys) whose only contribution as an author has been to produce three children without the means to pay for their upkeep. Mary appears to be one of these chronic hypochondriacs, forever convinced she’s dying and hooked on fortune tellers who feed her doom-laden predictions. This makes her a difficult patient and she’s had a succession of nurses, the current incumbent being Caroline Copling (Claire Rushbrook). The local Doctor Jonathan Frayn (Patrick Baladi) feeds her placebos and takes the family’s money (private medicine was alive and well during the 1950s running in parallel with the NHS). It’s a bear pit of 1950s village normality according to Agatha Christie.

Anyway, to come to the nub of the mystery, Mary the hypochondriac gets one of these dire predictions. Pointing to the wallpaper which is decorated with many different varieties of flower, the fortuneteller predicts that in sequence the Primrose will turn blue as a warning. This will be followed by the Hollyhock turning blue to show danger approaching, and the Geranium turning blue means death. And, hey, what a surprise. They do turn blue and she dies. Life works in mysterious ways in these stories. I suppose it’s not uninventive to try killing a hypochondriac by “frightening” her except, of course, no killer ever leaves anything to chance with a woman who’s as strong as a horse. So there you have it. One more local bites the dust before Miss Marple walks into the witness box to reveal all and not a moment too soon. Frankly the whole thing is a wobbly artifice from start to finish. No-one in their right mind would go through this pantomime magic to change the colour of the wallpaper. The actual murder method is simple and straightforward and, with the woman universally disliked and, more to be point, regularly announcing she was about to die, a post mortem would be unlikely and the murder would have been undetected. Waving a big flag and firing off a canon to announce the murder in advance only happens in short stories blown up into episodes like this. This is not to deny Julia McKenzie does a reasonable job at bringing Miss Marple to the screen. But it’s a waste of effort when more or less everything about the story is fatuous.

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 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: 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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010) is one of the better source novels. Sometimes the plot ideas just come together with a simple and credible motive for the first killing and a very elegant method of murder when the opportunity presents itself. Thereafter the deaths that follow show the killer(s) attempting to cover tracks and avoid detection. For these purposes there’s always at least one person who’s seen something incriminating and/or is in possession of information that would reveal the identity of the killer(s). The perennial problem for anyone who writes detective novels in the Golden Age tradition is to maintain some degree of credibility in the plots. Many resort to complexity, thinking the intricacy of the mechanisms substitutes for the need for simple elegance. Others feel the need for variation. Instead of it always being the butler that did it, everyone in the cast of characters must take their turn. So the writers defy plot logic in order the achieve the result they believe will be most surprising to their readers.

So where are we with this third version of the novel to be produced? Having the advantage of two previous adaptations to study, Kevin Elyot has wisely picked the best bits and added one scene which is rather cunning. For once, the core of the original is left intact, and the result is all the better for it. However, this is not to say the final script we see on the screen is a complete success. By modern standards, Agatha Christie’s novels are short. Publishers today think that quantity is quality. So if the original were to be brought to the screen unadorned, it almost certainly would not fill the designated running time at about 90 minutes (leaving plenty of space for ads to bulk it out to a nominal two hours). Even with added material, there’s considerable padding which fills the screen amiably but does not advance the plot with any real enthusiasm. While not blaming the producers for working to their brief, the show as we see it could benefit from losing about 15 minutes. Although it’s always sad to see one character’s part cut back, the role of Dolly Bantry (Joanna Lumley) is overdone. It’s a good double act with Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie), but it also jars since this repeats her appearance in this role from The Body in the Library when she did the same act with Geraldine McEwan.

Joanna Lumley and Julia McKenzie

Joanna Lumley and Julia McKenzie

This leads us to consider what’s added to the original. The major element comes from borrowing the film set idea from The Mirror Crack’d film adaptation which has Marina Gregg (Lindsay Duncan) convinced someone has poisoned her coffee. Also from the film, Jane Marple’s foot is injured which leaves her housebound for the early part of the film and forces us to sit through Dolly Bantree giving a guided tour to the renovated Hall. Into the midst of all this strides Inspector Hewitt (Hugh Bonneville) who’s under instructions from his superiors at the Yard to co-operate with Miss Marple whose reputation has now been established as beyond reproach. He and his sergeant are the comic relief as they wander round trying to establish what it was Marina Gregg saw that left her so transfixed when greeting those entering the VIP area. The one original albeit minor addition is Marina Gregg visiting her son at a local care facility. This rather cleverly makes her seem a more human and tragic figure. Up to this point, she’s seen largely as an actress having trouble with her nerves and attention-seeking which makes her somewhat unsympathetic. Frankly you can understand why most of the people around her would have been queuing up to dispose of her.

I remain unsure whether this adaptation is better because Miss Marple saves one of the victims in the novel. When you have a killer on the loose and there are already two bodies, why not add the third? That said the ending retains the original equivocal nature. The way this is put together makes the suicide of the killer slightly more credible. Although it does remain open for the interpretation one other person might have administered the fatal dose. When you put all this together, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side is the best of the current adaptations so far. Given the poor standard, this is not saying much, but you do have the sense this was a better effort to capture the essence of the Agatha Christie original rather than try to rewrite in a way to make it fit modern expectations and sensibilities.

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: 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 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)

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)

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