JOAN HICKSON’S MARPLE

Greetings, dear readers. Today, we’re heading back to the windy days of the 1980s, when David Suchet was just some guy who had played Inspector Japp, and Doctor Who was a dude in a ridiculous coat. Join me as we take a look at Joan Hickson’s celebrated turn as Miss Jane Marple.

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Review: “Miss Marple” (1984 – 1992)

with Joan Hickson (Miss Jane Marple), David Horowitz (Det. Insp. Slack), John Castle (Insp. Craddock) and Ian Brimble (Det. Cons. Lake)

Throught the ’80s, Joan Hickson was the Marple to Peter Ustinov‘s Poirot. Unlike these days, Marple had the upper hand in characterisation, as Hickson – whether effortlessly, skillfully, or both – was Miss Marple. (Or – at least – was a Miss Marple, as we’ll see.) Hickson’s spinster is never giddy, batty or flighty. She’s cunning and keen-eyed, but genuinely embodies the qualities of the village elder, always aware of the goings-on around her, and able to share just enough without ever coming across as intrusive. I’ll be talking in a future post about Geraldine McEwan – whose interpretation of Marple I also quite like – but Hickson manages to convey a fully-dimensional character who also seems like she just stepped out of the pages of A Pocket Full of Rye. Underneath this exterior, more importantly, is a woman of strong empathy and morals. The Body in the Library and Nemesis, particularly, allow Hickson to add some colder, more world-weary elements to the character.

The 12 movies that make up Miss Marple are adaptation of all 12 novels featuring the character, and the ’80s style means the stories simmer over two or three hours. This languor isn’t always a strength: these movies may have been delightful for an older audience – raised on television dramas of the ’50s and ’60s – on a cold winter’s night in Britain, but trying to sit through three hours of leisurely paced investigatino, largely featuring an old woman asking questions designed to seem inane, can be a chore. Marple’s best books – and disgraceful though it may be, only 5 of her books make my Top 30 – are a delight to read because of Christie’s narrative voice. Like Jane Austen, you have to be wry in your adaptation for things to sparkle.

Luckily, in spite of the ’80s pace, the world of St. Mary Mead, and its surrounds, is lovingly rendered. The scenes were largely filmed in a town with the delightfully British name of Nether Wallop, and it just ties the entire series together.  A Murder is Announced – my favourite of both the books and adaptations, in spite of its hokier elements – just brims with that post-War village vitality. Similarly, Nemesis effortlessly conjures up a British coach tour, and when we visit Bertram’s Hotel, it just feels so right! Even They Do It With Mirrors – which Christie wasn’t quite able to convey – feels apt, with a slightly Brideshead Revisited feel to the once-great country house that now takes in wayward boys. The only setting that fails, for me, is that of A Caribbean Mystery, which feels a little too stodgy and dry. Perhaps, however, that’s just because I don’t know what British travel to the Caribbean felt like in the ’50s. (As with Agatha Christie’s Poirot, the writers have picked a specific time period – in this case the late ’40s and early ’50s – to carry through all 12 stories. Smart thinking, since otherwise Jane Marple would be one long-lived spinster!)

Hickson is backed up by a talented cast; indeed, no one is out of place (although the very talented Claire Bloom comes close to over-the-top as the movie star in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side.) David Horowitz, John Castle and Ian Brimble – as Marple’s recurring police officers – give amiable performances as exactly the kind of capable-but-too-rigorously-logical police who fill programs like this, but each comes across as a true character due to the lively performances. The relationship between Marple and Horowitz’s Inspector Slack is particularly amusing, as he comes to appreciate her keen contributions to his cases whil also trying to keep her on the outside. There are endlessly notable guest turns, but some I particularly enjoyed: Gwen Watford as Dolly Bantry, Joan Sims and Sylvia Syms in A Murder is Announced, Margaret Tyzack putting in a powerhouse turn in Nemesis and – unsurprisingly – Jean Simmons in They Do It With Mirrors.

The strongest adaptations come from the strongest books: A Murder is Announced (which manages to play the rather contrived revelations subtly, and gets rid of Marple’s bizarre voice impersonation at novel’s end); The Murder at the Vicarage, 4.50 From Paddington (which, I still argue, sees Marple acting rather rashly when she exposes the killer); and The Moving Finger (aside from a very 1980s ugly-duckling-becomes-swan montage).

Closely behind are A Pocket Full of Rye and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, which cleverly recreate their books’ mysteries, and are tense (relatively speaking!)

The Body in the Library and They Do It With Mirrors were fine adaptations, although I felt both suffered a little from not distinguishing the guest characters as well as the rest of the series.

Miss MarpleSome of the movies are unable to avoid the problems that beset their respective books, but did their best to mask this. At Bertram’s Hotel had the lovely setting to compensate for its odd tone, while Nemesis boldly outlined the main suspects, making for the strongest movie from an emotional standpoint, even if the investigation still feels cobbled together. A Caribbean Mystery, however, just felt too… British to overcome its failings. It was almost like the actual experience of going all the way to Barbados and then just sitting for two weeks on a waveless beach with a bunch of pasty British people.

The weakest of the twelve is Sleeping Murder, although it opens well and features a strong leading turn from Geraldine Alexander. Marple’s involvement in the investigation – which largely amounts to popping up in Gwenda’s life from time to time – was just plain discombobulating. The challenges of filming a story about  murder in the distant past ended up being too much, and I don’t begrudge the writers for this one error. Perhaps this is why Poirot avoided filming any of that detective’s similar stories until the more recent seasons, when they could freely adapt a movie about characters, in which the mystery often plays a secondary role.

(Incidentally, both this and the recent series have filmed Nemesis before A Caribbean Mystery. I assume it’s largely a consequence of the budget of international filming, but it’s a little odd.)

I’ve just begun watching the 2000s Marple series and, while I’ve heard much talk of loose adaptations and lesbian subplots, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I don’t want to compare actors too much – because each adaptation stands alone in its individual era – but I think it’s a cheat to just choose a Marple. Geraldine McEwan plays a more romanticised Marple: she’s witty and knowing, pretty in spite of her age, able to wear her heart on her sleeve but also manipulate when necessary. But this is completely in keeping with the entire series, which has romanticised post-War England as we tend to do. Hickson’s portrayal is closer to what we think of as Miss Marple, but in truth it’s the Miss Marple of the later books, who is a more placid and wry character, not the 1930s Marple, who (deliberately) came across as a stereotypical spinster. On McEwan’s side of the fence, her series has a pace and style far more suited to our modern sensibilities, whereas I would argue that Hickson’s series was slow – for younger viewers – even when it first aired!

However, as a collector’s piece to pass a rainy afternoon, or just for a chance to revel in Hickson’s wonderfully unmannered portrayal of our favourite spinster, look no further. David Suchet is in my eyes – the definitive Poirot, and I think Joan Hickson has safely held on to her place as the definitive Jane Marple.

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