Welcome back, as we continue with the second of this year’s Marple mysteries: Greenshaw’s Folly.
“Everyone here’s a bit weird, aren’t they?”
— Archie Oxley
6.02 Greenshaw’s Folly
written by Tim Whitnall
directed by Sarah Harding
Like last season‘s The Blue Geranium, Greenshaw’s Folly is based on a short story (in fact, two) which means that it probably will have surprises in store for a larger-than-usual number of viewers. Jane Marple is led into a web of intrigue when her young friend Louisa Oxley (Kimberley Nixon) flees her abusive husband with her son Archie (Bobby Smalldridge) and is taken to hide at Greenshaw Place, where upper-crust spinster Katherine Greenshaw (Fiona Shaw) has devoted her life to developing a codex of medicinal plants. The house is filled, unsurprisingly, with seemingly kind people all possessing double motives and the constant threat of the abusive Philip (Oscar Pearce) lurking unspoken around the edges.
Greenshaw’s Folly is a delightful film, particularly in the opening reels. Whereas A Caribbean Mystery quickly provided us with a murder and clear-cut motive, this one is a lot more subtle in its machinations. Grinchy butler Walter Cracken (Jim Moir) falls to his death early on, but it seems unlikely that someone would purposely off him, so the death is labelled accidental – and even we, the audience, remain unsure. Instead, Sarah Harding’s atmospheric direction takes its time to explore the dynamics of the house. Stern housekeeper Mrs Cresswell (Julia Sawalha) seems more frustrated by Cracken’s death than grieved. Stuffy, keen-witted historian Horace Bindler (Rufus Jones) rambles through the house as part of a project. Katherine’s handsome nephew Nat Fletcher (Sam Reid) is dashing and attractive, but he’s also incredibly pretentious (he uses phrases such as “Shakespeare sounds better in situ”) and reeks of barely-repressed cruelty. Meanwhile, there’s a kindly reverend (Robert Glenister) and a possibly unkind new gardener Alfred (Martin Compston). How do all the pieces fit together?
Refreshingly, the relative obscurity of the short story – in fact, two short stories, since elements of The Thumb Mark of St. Peter make their way into the cause of death – allows us to really focus on the plot here. The idea behind Greenshaw’s Folly itself is that Katherine’s grandfather had lots of money but little architectural knowledge, so the house is a jumble of styles. This plays well into the more inventive styles of Marple (as opposed to the usually sedate Poirot), even if sometimes the direction tends to garishness, notably as the music intensifies when young Archie first finds Alfred cutting up rabbits in the kitchen. Yet there’s a stately beauty to the exterior scenes – there’s really nothing like an English countryside – and a constantly eerie nature inside, as we gradually uncover weird items inside the house: old documents, hints of a polio vaccine experiment, and so forth.
Some Christie adaptations of the last decade have been happy to marinate in atmosphere and suspicion for half or more of the running time before finally taking us to the murder. This doesn’t always work, since sometimes this leaves us with a hurried investigation (displacing the jigsaw puzzle element all Christie fans love). Yet when it does work, there’s a lot of fun to be had. The real crime of Greenshaw’s Folly doesn’t take place until at least the halfway point, but Tim Whitnall’s script smartly uses this time to draw detailed portraits of everyone and everything involved. Because Marple is on the scene consistently, this time feels less wasted than some, as she’s observing even without realising it.
“Ghosts don’t exist. People do.”
— Jane Marple
As a critic, I don’t like it when I have few negative things to say about a piece, but Greenshaw’s Folly just works. The direction is slick and the script (given, of course, more license than most adaptations) plays the characters well, but it’s the cast who really come through. Unsurprisingly, Sawalha and Nixon are quite good, but they’re equaled by everyone involved. Reid is appropriately slimy as Nat, and Shaw perfectly creates the spirited spinster character, never forgetting how absolutely absurd the English manor lifestyle was: these people living isolated from the world and continuing to propagate this lifestyle as if it mattered. Young Bobby Smalldridge is particularly well cast, conveying an upsetting dead-eyed portrayal of an abused child (the look on his face as he claps at the death in Nat’s play is particularly adorable.) Later arrivals in the plot also carry their own, notably Joanna David and Judy Parfitt as two older locals, and John Gordon Sinclair as the calm and collected Inspector Welch. This isn’t a story that would benefit from Marple going head to head with the law, but it’s also not one of those slightly silly excursions like 4.50 From Paddington where Marple and John Hannah became lodgers; instead the tone is more charitable and realistic in the middle ground.
As ominous clouds settle over Greenshaw’s – the historian goes missing, photographs of orphaned children with their faces blanked out surface, Louisa’s husband makes his presence known – we’re thrown into a more typical Christie murder mystery, complete with the suspects ultimately barricaded into the manor overnight. It’s really quite fun. With a bundle of characters confined in the one space, all the character set-up pays off. It also allows the police interviews to be quite detailed, and capitalises on Sinclair’s personable portrayal: an officer more willing than most to let his personal biases get in the way. It also allows each character’s lies to ring out loud and clear to the audience, as we get a neat combination of cabin fever and contented-warmth-on-a-stormy-night.
Ultimately, the depth of characterisation and ambience is partly there to disguise the fact that the short story is one of Christie’s “red herring” mysteries: puzzles where one piece is deliberately out of place, and this effects the entire investigation. Some of Christie’s novels play this game but of course it’s far more common in the short stories, where time is a factor. As a result, there’s definitely some silliness in the denouement particularly when it comes to elements like poisons (Christie’s speciality from her time as a nurse in the first World War) and flowers, Shakespearean sonnets and birthdates, and even secret relationships. Ultimately though, these are smaller elements. This is not a Murder on the Orient Express style puzzle where the audience are given all the clues in advance, it’s a tale being told that happens to contain a murder. On top of this, the basic idea is that Jane Marple – largely on the outside of the situation – observes much of this over time. In this way, it’s far more believable that mistakes are made by the killers, since they weren’t to assume they were being observed before the murder! (Okay, if I want to nitpick, I find it slightly silly that no-one knew about the casting demands of a particular theatre script, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Ultimately, Greenshaw’s Folly is a success for the series, and – as with The Blue Geranium – solidly suggests the series should do more short story adaptations in the future. Not only do they hold a greater surprise element for many viewers, but they’re also otherwise untouched by film and television, and could really create some neat material for the series to go to now that it has exhausted the Marple novels (and is quickly getting through the other novels which more easily welcome the intrusion of the spinster). The script certainly creates its own story out of the two original concepts, but at least we can accept this a lot more under the circumstances. And by removing elements like the will from the original short story, it makes the killers stand out considerably less, which is always a plus. There’s solid character work, some truly hideous undercurrents in the gradual revelations of the font of the Greenshaw fortunes, and overall a well-played atmosphere.
Next up: the final installment of the sixth season of Marple: Endless Night, to be broadcast at some point in the next few months. Stay tuned!