Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple

Well, folks, it’s been quite an enjoyable couple of months as I came to know first Geraldine McEwan‘s sprightly three years in the role of Miss Marple, and then the two seasons to date of Julia McKenzie. Join me as I look back at McKenzie’s second season, in which the actress comes into her own as Marple with four very strong adaptations.

Review: “Agatha Christie’s Marple”: Series Five (2010-11)

with Julia McKenzie (Miss Jane Marple)

written by Russell Lewis, Paul Rutman, Stewart Harcourt & Kevin Elyot

Series five begins with The Pale Horse (well, okay, in America they ended with this, but go with me…): the first of two non-Marple stories to be adapted this season, as is the standard. A series of mysterious, seemingly disconnected deaths, leads a string of amateur investigators to the small, under-performing village hotel called The Pale Horse. Among their number: DI Lejeune (Neil Pearson), Mark Easterbrook (Jonathan Cake) and Ginger Corrigan (Amy Manson) – two strangers who have each lost someone suddenly – and, of course, Miss Marple herself, intrigued by the death of a priest she once knew (Nicholas Parsons).

It’s a gorgeously conceived adaptation, which takes a non-Marple novel and manages to make her presence feel necessary and completely integrated. The spinster is just part of the tapestry here (there’s a wonderful scene a third of the way through where all our disparate detectives meet at a mock ‘witch burning’ which is beautiful), and by putting Marple at the centre of things, the plot actually becomes a bit less ludicrous, compared to the novel where Mark seems to foolishly stumble into things. Instead, Julia McKenzie gets to play to her strengths as Marple tries to play up the ‘old biddy’ angle while aware that anyone in this village may be involved in a murder plot whose aims remain shadowy. Similarly, the detection side of things is very well handled. Marple’s relationship with Inspector Lejeune goes in stages: he doesn’t initially trust Marple (a nice change after series four’s roster of seemingly hypnotised policemen) but he comes to respect and even feel protective of her. Beyond this, the script and direction make sure that we’re aware of the genuine stakes: even the lives of our detectives are imperiled, and – for that matter – we’re never 100% sure if Ginger or Mark may secretly be working for… well, whoever it may be.

Neil Pearson as DI Lejeune and Julia McKenzie as Marple in "The Pale Horse"

The Pale Horse itself is exquisitely rendered, coming across as both rustic and haunted. Leading the charge is a powerful performance by none other than Pauline Collins as Thyrza Grey, the proprietrix, and her gallery of grotesques – the guests and staff – all prove suspicious. Special mention must go to the radiant Sarah Alexander who gives an understated turn as one of the guests, to the wonderful Bill Paterson as an unscrupulous businessman who is key to the whole plot, and to JJ Feild as a slightly unhinged young man, Paul Osbourne, who aids Marple in the opening and closing of the film. Together, the cast manage to create the idea of the village of Much Deeping being far more terrifying than we ever see, which is an impressive feat. Sadly, the book’s one series character – Ariadne Oliver, who makes a fleeting appearance – is not seen here, a pity made all the more painful by the fact that she’s usually portrayed over on Poirot by Zoe Wanamaker. I wonder if the producers approached her about the role? Wanamaker is very in-demand, and indeed entire episodes of Doctor Who have been known to schedule themselves around her, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the producers tried but were unsuccessful. Ah well. One day I shall track down the 1996 film version, for better or worse.

Most enjoyably, the plot comes together in the end piece by piece, with us realising that the crimes are not only more abhorrent than we realise, but that most of the people involved only knew snippets (unwittingly or otherwise), making for some genuinely multi-dimensional characters with realistic motives. A good part of the denouement also plays nicely with the tropes we expect in such a story and – although, yes, Marple’s deception relies on someone being very attuned to the power of suggestion –  it all comes together in the end. McKenzie proves her worth in the opening and closing scenes of the film, with her first listening to Macbeth on the wireless with a somewhat melancholy visage, and then – at the end, in a scene reminiscent of David Suchet’s Murder on the Orient Express – walking away from the morbid mess with a look of relief, resignation and sorrow on her face. While I enjoyed series four, it was this episode that fully threw me onto the McKenzie Cheer Squad. Much as Suchet’s portrayal shares some elements with Peter Ustinov but eschews others, so does McKenzie’s performance retain enough essence of Marple while also allowing us to see this woman as someone who has “lived” more than Joan Hickson’s character, but who nonetheless has ended up in the same place in life. (In fact, her worldliness also allows us to accept one of the niggling elements of Christie’s portrayal – in sync with Hickson – wherein Marple seems to have so many old friends from all class levels, even though she can come across as being quite cutting and happy at home in St. Mary Mead.)

Of course, I should say something about that bugbear amongst Christie fans: “this is not a Marple book!”. Well no, honey, it isn’t. But, you know what? It really works. Before embarking on this project, I too was sceptical of the need to play around with adaptations. Yet, if you’ve ever seen any of those early ’80s BBC telefilms – really just filmed stage plays – of Christie’s books, you’ll know that we can swing the other way too: literally transferring a book to screen can result in a rigid, unevenly paced production. Books are books; films are films. I advocate enjoying both in their individual ways. Lest I sound like a complete heathen, I acknowledge that I’m a Christie fanboy: nothing would make me happier than to have every novel and short story lovingly crafted and adapted in something resembling its original format, but that simply isn’t realistic. At the moment, the Marple name draws enough viewers that it’s a practical way of prolonging the series while giving life to novels that have never been adapted, or never notably. And while this adaptation changes a fair few things around – removing also a group of cameos from Cards on the Table suspects – it also presents a clever and atmospheric tale anchored by powerful performances. If this is what it takes to get the remaining Christie novels adapted, I’m up for it! (Although Death Comes as the End may give them pause…)

Julia McKenzie as Marple with Dervla Kirwan as 'Bundle' Brent in "The Secret of Chimneys"

The Secret of Chimneys is the second non-Marple novel adapted this season and this time the series takes one of Christie’s early, irreverent thrillers and brings it to life. Edward Fox plays Lord Caterham, owner of the fading country house Chimneys, which plays host to the international espionage that anchors the novel, and which is somewhat removed here, with the film focussing primarily on the murder that occurs (understandably). The Secret of Chimneys comes across as rather a typical Christie, actually, with the various country house residents and guests, played by a largely strong cast. Highlights include Charlotte Salt as Virginia Revel, the lovely Dervla Kirwan as ‘Bundle’ Brent (quite changed from her appearance in the novel, into the slightly-older and more responsible member of the household), Michelle Collins, who does a good job at making herself more homely as the knowledgeable housekeeper, and Stephen Dillane as CI Finch. At this point in its run, Marple has largely given up on any kind of animosity between the detective and her poor police counterparts, and McKenzie and Dillane are simply adorable here, with a very strong chemistry. Perhaps the best thing about this film – which begins a very loose three-film arc in regards to Marple’s police connections – is how Finch comes to Marple with a knowledge of who she is. Dillane gets the best line of the series, when he tells her “you may have disgraced half the man in my profession but you shan’t disgrace me!”. It becomes clear that there is an entire file on her, and England’s police force are wary. Great stuff.

The book centres around the previous uprising in Herzoslovakia, where a Mata-Hari-like queen betrays her captors to marry the King and rise up. Anthony Cade is asked to transfer the memoirs of the Count, who was having a secret powerbrokers’ meeting at Chimneys, and ends up being intimately involved in dramas on a local and international scale. Things are probably stronger here without master jewel thieves and princes in disguise. (Well, these elements make appearances, but hardly as sensationalist.) The delight of Christie’s early thrillers is the contrast between the weight of the issues and the utter irreverence shown by her young flappers (just watch Partners in Crime for a consummate example). As this series isn’t willing – fair enough – to be quite that footloose and fancy-free, this seems like a good compromise.

Michelle Collins in "The Secret of Chimneys"

Like Bundle, Anthony Cade is quite different to his novelisation counterpart: a James Bond-like lothario with a penchant for international adventure. However, as played by Jonas Armstrong, he’s a lovely, somewhat nervous chap who only signs up for the rigours of being an action hero when he finds his own name being listed as the prime suspect. Armstrong and the script do very well at making us believe Cade’s innocence in the murder, although still retain just enough doubt to make the latter half of the film remain tense.

All in all, The Secret of Chimneys is a success, as long as you accept Marple’s increasing ability to find wealthy old friends and somehow be at their homes for murder. The murderer’s motivations are again well realised and tainted by personal tragedy, and the cast dynamics are very strong. If only they could get rid of that melodramatic, neon, Hammer Horror title font! Finally, we get a specific year mentioned – 1955 – which is always nice for nerds like me to know.

Stewart Harcourt is a nerd. That is clearly the explanation for the delightful little nods in The Blue Geranium to the series’ source material. Preparing for the sentencing and execution of a convicted murderer, DI Somerset (Kevin McNally) rejects a phone call from Miss Marple rather viscerally. Hilariously, he has not only heard of the spinster, but knows that she’ll meddle in just about any case she hears of! Thankfully, Marple has Sir Henry Clithering (Donald Sinden), a character featured in several Marple short stories, to speak to. (We also get the Reverend Dermot, just to further Christie geekout time.)

The Blue Geranium was a genuine surprise for me, because it is based on a short story, not a novel, and I didn’t recall it at all. Miss Marple visits friends, during which time, a series of interconnected relationships become increasingly strained until there are two dead bodies. At the time, very little came of it, but now Marple discovers the answer. The film, therefore, is technically one long flashback as she relates her story to Clithering, and yet it works very well. I actually suspect many of the Marple short stories would work well when fleshed out. Having reread the short story, The Blue Geranium is quite methodical. It’s also told as a flashback at a dinner party, and what we see here is really just the fleshed out, characterised version of the events. As Poirot proved, you can take even the looser short stories and make tales from them, and I think ITV should go all out and do a one-hour series like back in the early Suchet days! I recognise that there are probably endless casting and budgetary issues with this, but it would be worth it. As with the Poirot short stories, I daresay it will be a cold day in Shanghai before anyone else has the merit to adapt the Marple shorts, and wouldn’t it be lovely to have further original entries in the Christie film canon?

Toby Stephens, Julia McKenzie, Caroline Catz and Claire Rushbrook in "The Blue Geranium"

The Blue Geranium has a strong cast (which I guess can be taken as read) although the central love pentagon is a bit overdone: because Marple has to be present to figure out the relationships, characters seem to argue rather openly about very private, long-term issues, or so it seems to me. The extreme number of hidden relationships at least ties into the “seven deadly sins” theme which pervades the script, but it still feels overdone. Sadly, so does the theme itself. In the closing reels, Marple identifies each of the characters by their appropriate sin, which is a bit twee, but McKenzie sells it well. Top marks too go to the central trio: Sharon Small, Claudie Blakely and Toby Stephens who present a powerful portrait of three people whose lives have been strongly damaged by secrets that they’re all aware of, but are never allowed to speak of. The denouement is the most logical answer to the scenario and yet comes as a complete surprise.

If there’s a downside to The Blue Geranium, it’s the unnecessary ‘flash-forward’ opening sequence. It’s catchy to start with the murder, but ends up narrowing our view too far, since we already know who is going to die from the start. Given that the whole thing is a flashback, and we know of the death anyway from Marple’s opening scenes, I deem the flashback needlessly distracting.

But at the end of the day, this film features some great scenes – a particularly frank church session amongst them – and some startling imagery. McKenzie’s world-weary Marple is also used to great effect, with a strong early conversation between her and the depressed stranger Eddie Siward (Jason Durr) on a bus ride. For a naysaying policeman, Somerset is also very good, characterised with his own long-term issues. The late scenes where Marple and Somerset stand by a wintery river contemplating the notion of suicide is particularly bleak and beautiful. Although it’s possibly the least of the four films – solely because of the melodrama utilised in the adaptation – The Blue Geranium is still an enjoyable and beautifully designed film.

Lindsay Duncan as Marina Gregg in "The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side"

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side opens with Lindsay Duncan in a tawdry French Revolution film, playing a Marie Antoinette she is far too old for. Even better, both Marple and Dolly Bantry (Joanna Lumley, reprising her role from the first season) are blubbering messes. It’s just too good, really!

The suspicious death of villager Heather Badcock (Caroline Quentin) at the house party of recently relocated film star Marina Gregg (Duncan) leads Marple on an investigation, alongside Dolly and Inspector Hewitt (Hugh Bonneville). It’s a powerhouse cast for one of the most-well written Marple films to date.

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side is an unusual but successful Christie novel, which has been previously adapted with both Joan Hickson and Angela Lansbury (and both of which I’ve viewed in the last 12 months) so I wasn’t eager to watch another version, but this one is pulled off in style. The trappings of Marina’s career are well conveyed, with Lindsay Duncan doing a far more convincing accent than Penelope Wilton in last series’ They Do it With Mirrors. The scenes on set of her new film, Nefertiti, are sublime, featuring a cameo from popstar Will Young as a young, gay actor playing her younger love interest (of course!). Both the cast and director have great fun with these ersatz Hollywood blockbusters, and the design of the rest of the film looks suitably opulent. Particularly notable are the other Hollywood characters: wonderfully camp reviewer Vincent Hogg (Martin Jarvis) and his buxom, Veronica Lake-esque love interest Lola Brewster (Hannah Waddingham) who wears a kimono like nobody’s business.

Martin Jarvis as Vincent Hogg and Hannah Waddingham as Lola Brewster

The mystery as a whole is structured well too. The crucial scene – moments before Mrs. Badcock drops dead – is only shown through crucial moments, as Dolly is busy sneaking around Gossington Hall, as it used to belong to her and Arthur. (James Fox‘s character is has died since his last appearance, meaning she has moved out of the Hall – a nice little character touch.) As a result, the mystery is more cleverly covered up than in previous versions, I think. In fact, everything about the creation of Marina Gregg works very well: Lindsay Duncan is brilliant at portraying this character with so many levels of public and private selves. Almost every person Marple speaks with describes her as a monster, yet we quite like Marina from her first appearance. It’s this complexity – the forced shattered selves of a movie star – that is portrayed strongly in the party sequences, where Marina, her gorgeous assistant Ella (Victoria Smurfit), and her husband Jason (Nigel Harman) manipulate the crowds so that Marina only has to engage in brief trivialities with each of the guests, who have only come to gawk at a movie star. The feeling that she lives in the area is also better conveyed than in the previous films, where the actresses always felt so removed. (I wonder if this is a peculiarly British thing for a big star to just sequester themselves near a village? I know that Jennifer Saunders based her Jam and Jerusalem series on people in her own village, but I can’t imagine Brad Pitt just chilling at the local bar.) Surprisingly, though, little is made of Marina’s interrogation scene which, in the Lansbury film, was a gripping showcase for Elizabeth Taylor.

Joanna Lumley as Dolly Bantry

The investigation itself is also very solid, with Marple and Dolly using their combined powers of ‘wacky old lady’-ness to investigate. Lumley brings a scatter-brained vibrancy to the role of Dolly, and her friendship with McKenzie is palpable. There’s something effervescent in the little touches, such as when the two of them sit, happily scouring tabloid magazines for any hints. Scenes like this make the proceedings come alive in a more ‘human’ way, at least for me. And Lumley and McKenzie have a tour-de-force scene where they pose for photographs for the mysterious Margot Bence (Charlotte Riley) where they feign innocence while running through a laundry list of questions, only to realise that Margot has been on to them all along!

The official side of the investigation is also neatly handled, with Bonneville’s character the climax of five series of deeply textured Inspectors. There’s a beautiful scene near film’s end where he reminisces about his own painful past, contrasted with a tearful scene for another character. It’s completely unnecessary from a plot point-of-view, but not only does it tie into the themes of the film, it also again sets out to challenge our notions of what the series can do, with Inspector Hewitt becoming one of the most nuanced characters. (Bonneville’s astounding, isn’t he?) Plus, for those nerdcore peeps like myself, there’s a lovely continuity note where Hewitt mentions Sir Henry Clithering (seen in The Blue Geranium), who has recommended he consult with Marple on the case.

Incidentally, for those who cry foul over the alleged homosexual incursions made by the Marple writers, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side offers a riposte to that. While Marina’s PA, Mr. Preston (Brennan Brown) is clearly gay, his advances to the cute, wry Sergeant Tiddler (Samuel Barnett) are treated with disgust by both the police officers. It’s a scene that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, since we like Tiddler and Hewitt quite a lot, but of course it’s fitting for the time and a nice reminder that many things have changed in the last 50 years.

Ultimately, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side is a smashing success. The tragic denouement is built up to nicely – something that can be a bit hard since the answer relies on a news item from the past that we aren’t privy to – and the cast are all up to the challenging roles.

Series Five was a bonanza series for Marple, with Julia McKenzie coming into her own as the spinster detective, intelligently adapted films, and an unimpeachable cast. It’ll be a few years until I watch any of these again, simply because I’d like to forget a few of the relevant facts if possible, but – as with David Suchet’s Poirot – I’m truly grateful to have such lavishly styled, well-cast adaptations of these Christie novels.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about thoughts for the future of this series – a future which hasn’t yet been confirmed by ITV – and possibilities for adaptations now that the Marple novels are all but exhausted.