Miss Marple on TV: Can you choose one favorite? (I can't)
Lately we've had so many heavy issues to deal with, both here on the forum and in real life, that I got to thinking of something escapist, where the bad guys are totally imaginary. Probably my favorite of Agatha Christie's detectives is Miss Marple. I just finished rereading all of her short stories (helpfully collected in one paperback volume) and went on to re-watch a lot of the filmed versions of the mysteries shown here in the U.S. on PBS. (A lot of them are on YT.) There have been three Marples on TV, and each of them is an interesting actress with a different take on the role. I think in all of the three Marple series, the stories seem to be set in the 1950s, which is true to some but not all of Agatha Christie's books. (The book Marple has a long career!)
Joan Hickson: She was the original TV Miss Marple, personally approved by Agatha Christie and even Queen Elizabeth II (when she gave her an OBE). Born almost in the Victorian era, in 1906, Hickson was already in her late seventies when she started playing the role and played it into her eighties. She was probably closest physically to Miss Marple, with a very Victorian look and a vague manner, and the purest, most upper-class accent of the three ladies. (The other two speak proper theater-standard English, but Hickson's vowels sound like the radio speeches given by the Queen herself.) Hickson's mysteries were the most faithful to the original books. It turns out that her series was the only one done by the BBC; the other two Marples were cast by ITV, a British commercial network, and they took more liberties. More about that later. Someone writing about the three Marples said that Hickson was the one you could imagine giving orders to a servant.
Geraldine McEwan: McEwan is a generation younger than Hickson (born 1932). She's also an accomplished actress with broad experience, even some years in the Royal Shakespeare Company. She has a rather fey look about her and seems less imperially reserved than Hickson. This gives her an engaging warmth. The producers gave her a backstory of a brief love right before World War I (of course, he died in the War) and a stint as an ambulance driver during that war. The effect is to make her seem more engaged with life than Joan Hickson's Marple (and maybe more than the Miss Marple of the books as well). With McEwan's series, the producers (now ITV, remember) began tinkering with the plotlines and even inserting Marple into stories that were not written as Marple stories. Purists object to this, of course, but the productions are still very good.
Julia McKenzie: McKenzie is almost a decade younger than McEwan. She has a sturdier figure and a brisk demeanor, and she's what the Brits call "tweedy." This means that she usually wears tweed suits and comes off as a very efficient person with a gift for administration, like a school headmistress or the chairwoman of some important local organization. McKenzie has stage, film, and TV experience like the other two, but she has an extra talent: she's an incredible singer, known for her performances in Sondheim musicals. How is it that this woman is not the toast of two continents?
Anyway, is anyone else a Marple fan, and can you choose a favorite interpretation, or do you like aspects of them all?
Wicked Yankee Girl
I've always loved Miss Marple, but have never really gotten into watching TV interpretations of the role- so my favorite interpretation is from the books, of course.
I definitely have to start looking these up though!
My previous cable company didn't have On Demand, and I never seemed to know when a Marple mystery was going to be on, but now I have On Demand.
Miss Marple came on the radio in the 1990s with June Whitfield. Everything is more scary and sinister on the radio.
Joan Hickson is my favorite, watched all Miss Marple shows she starred in & just can't get into the others. I've read all of Agatha Christie's books including Poirot, & Tuppence & Tommy's.
Some of Christie's ideas are amazing. There are two recent books reproducing material from her notebooks to show how she prepared for her writing, but nothing can explain a fertile mind like that. A lot of people consider her more of a clockmaker-type author, devising clever mechanical plots, but she was also very good at understanding character. The difference between Christie and other more "literary" detective writers was that she wasn't very novelistic in style. Her writing was more spare than, say that of Dorothy Sayers or Margery Allingham (both of whom I love), but her people were no less well thought out. Some of her books, such as The Hollow or The Moving Finger, could be quite haunting.
Here I thought you were going to pit Joan Hickson against Margaret Rutherford! Then I realized you said tv. I thought MR did well in the role but I never thought she looked liked Miss Marple. I loved Joan Hickson! Can'y say that I even remember the others. Loved the books and made a point of reading them all (or almost all) in high school.
Ooh, I didn't even think about the movies. Thanks for bringing them up. In addition to Rutherford (whom I didn't really think was believable in the part, either physically or in terms of the tone of the films), Helen Hayes played her once in two (according to IMDB) American movies, and Angela Lansbury played her in The Mirror Crack'd, one of the spate of all-star films inspired by the success of perhaps the best Christie theatrical film of all, Murder on the Orient Express.
Helen Hayes was actually very suitable; she looked appropriately fluffy and gentle, with wisdom and cleverness underneath, and though she was American, she had that now-vanished theatrical accent that is just this side of British. Angela Lansbury is actually British, so her voice worked, though she's quite tall and a bit brisk for the traditional conception of Miss Marple. She did convey Marple's perceptiveness and her understanding of human nature. I wonder whether her portrayal was what led people to come up with Jessica Fletcher, her TV detective character in Murder She Wrote.
By wonderful coincidence, Joan Hickson played a minor role in Murder She Said, the first Margaret Rutherford Marple movie. This fact has given delight to generations of Christie trivia buffs, myself included.
I have to take a moment to praise The Mirror Crack'd. It had much less of a cosmopolitan, international feel than the other all-star Christie films of that era, and much less of a British feel than almost every other filmed or televised Christie mystery. But with all that, it had moments of real pathos and power. This is a Christie that's less of a puzzler and more of a wrenching human drama than many, and it manages to evoke sympathy for just about everyone involved because of the nature of the original event that sparked the murder. Taylor isn't normally a favorite actress of mine, especially later in her career, where she tended to overact and under-feel, if you know what I mean. But here she was ideally cast, and she was completely convincing about what her character went through. The ultra-American feel to this film arises because the producers got the idea of reuniting a lot of the prominent glossy stars of the 1950s--Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Taylor, and even the reclusive Kim Novak. This casting gave the story a subtext of longtime frenemies rehashing old victories and spats. Taylor and Hudson really were longtime friends and old co-stars, and Taylor and Novak really were legendary beauties--and Tony Curtis was the ideal fast-talking hustler. Moreover, the kernel of this story was a real-life incident that happened in the life of another Hollywood star, Gene Tierney. In other words, the casting wasn't gimmicky but perfect for the tone of this story. On these grounds, I think it compares favorably to the British TV version that you can find on YouTube. Has anyone else besides me seen this film? It's worth a look.
For me Joan Hickson IS Miss Marple - or perhaps the other way around? It's not that I can't picture her as anything else (she was a really good Miss Havisham, for example), but rather that I can't really picture anybody else as Miss Marple. She was just so right. And it isn't even as if I love those particular adaptations to death or anything - they're fine enough, but they aren't the sort of thing that I long to rewatch especially. But she was perfect.
Geraldine McEwan was an utterly marvellous Mrs Proudie, though (in Barchester Chronicles) - her scenes with Alan Rickman as Mr Slope were especially great.
I never saw that series. I'll look for it online.
What's great about all three Marple ladies is how accomplished they were in the rest of their careers. Hickson, McEwan, and McKenzie have done a lot of stage work and quite a bit of TV.
As for other Marples, Angela Lansbury and Helen Hayes also had brilliant stage and screen careers. Lansbury has something like four Tony Awards, and Helen Hayes is one of the few people who have won awards in all four major performing arts categories. She has several Tony Awards for theater, two Oscars for film, several Emmy Awards for TV, and at least one Grammy, for recordings. Yipes! It's as if being cast as Miss Marple is in itself some kind of lifetime achievement award.
ETA: I found Mrs. Proudie! I agree that McEwan is wonderful. There are episodes on YouTube. She shares one scene with Alan Rickman. Two fabulous voices working their magic. Thanks for steering me to this splendid production.
Oh, yay! I hope you enjoy it, Olympia - I did think it would be your cup of tea. It's based on two of my favourite books - "The Warden" and "Barchester Towers" by Anthony Trollope. Alas that they did not adapt the rest of the series...
I love Agatha Christie books and the TV adaptations, especially Miss Marple. My sentimental favorite would be Helen Hayes.