19 June 2004 | jandesimpson
Found - the perfect Jane Marple
I recall a British TV series some years back entitled "J'Accuse" the purpose of which was to demolish certain popular sacred cows. They were programmes designed to delight of infuriate according to the predilections of the viewer. From my point of view I was in agreement with the treatment given to "Citizen Kane" but when it came to Laurence Olivier and Agatha Christie, definitely "Non!". As a youngster I devoured practically everything Dame Agatha produced and she remains to this day for my money the absolute mistress of the surprise "Who dun it" particularly when many of the more recent exponents of the genre are running to works of near Dickensian length. Christie needed little more than 200 pages for each of her superb plots, ideal when all you are looking for is a half-day divertissement rather than a complex literary work. For many years her novels seemed to defy good cinematic adaptation. The Rene Clair version of "Ten Little Niggers" worked reasonably well as it had a good cast, bags of atmosphere and stayed fairly true to the book. But then it was remade a couple of times in more exotic locations with disastrous results, the essential ingredient of claustrophobia missing. That was the trouble, Agatha was quintessentially English and cosy with little pretensions to humour. Attempt to make her funny and you have those dire Margaret Rutherford - Miss Marple films that have dated to the extent of becoming excruciatingly embarrassing. Several actors have tackled Poirot with varying results but perhaps it is the very unreality and quirkiness of the character that make the part so difficult to play. Certainly David Suchet is more watchable than Ustinov, Finney and Molina. Miss Marple is a different matter. It just needed to find that someone who could convey the frailty of an elderly spinster with a razor sharp mind that could detect evil in the most unlikely. No wonder that the hammy humour of the well-built Rutherford was so wide of the mark. Angela Lansbury got much closer in the star-studded "The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side", so much so that it seemed that a passable Marple had been discovered. But the film was a one-off and it was only in retrospect after the casting of Joan Hickson in the TV series of the 'eighties and early 'nineties that one realised that Lansbury was not quite right for the part. Hickson however was another matter, casting so inspired that it seemed that she had been waiting all her life of mainly bit-parts as crotchety landladies and barmaids for a role she was just born to play. (See my comments on the 1999 TV adaptation of "David Copperfield" where much the same thing happened for several British stars.) It is the absolute rightness of Hickson in the Marple role that makes this series of twelve easily the best visualisations of Christie's work, that and their faithful recreations of their author's time and place. "A Pocket Full of Rye" is very typical being somewhere between what was easily the best - the brilliantly plotted "A Murder is Announced" with some wonderful supporting roles - and the weakest - "They do it with Mirrors" - where the plot is much less interesting than usual. It enjoys that favourite Christie device of a series of deaths linked with the events of a nursery rhyme, the motivation of money which features in well over half her stories and a plot in which what happens in the present has its roots deeply embedded in the past. It is this latter feature that links her work to that of the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. In both practically everything of significance has happened years before the curtain rises. The past therefore has to be explored in order to explain the present. No wonder that it needed a Miss Marple with the attributes of one who seems to be quietly ferreting away in the background to discover past secrets to make the character absolutely credible. It cannot be done through caricature as Joan Hickson so admirably realised.