Looking Back At MISS MARPLE (1984-1992) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At MISS MARPLE (1984-1992)

Tony’s having tea with the Cardiganed Avenger.
“I hope one day, you will play my dear Miss Marple.”
When the bestselling novelist of all time sends you a note like that, decades before you’re old enough to play the role of one of her two bestselling characters – well, it probably takes you back a little.

Joan Hickson got a note from Agatha Christie, saying precisely this, when she was just 40, after the author saw her in a stage production of Appointment With Death.

That was in 1946.

38 years later, at the age of 78, Joan Hickson fulfilled Agatha Christie’s wishes, stepping into the lead role of what would ultimately become a series that covered all 12 Miss Marple novels.

Miss Marple is a character who divides viewers, not in herself so much as in her portrayal. There are classicists out there who will fervently tell you that there’s no Marple other than Margaret Rutherford. There are fans of later ITV series who will rave over Julia McKenzie or Geraldine McEwan. Even Angela Lansbury and Helen Hayes have their hardcore fans – and all of them are right in their own way. Jane Marple is a role you don’t cast lightly, so when an actor steps into her cardigan and hat, the chances are, they know their business from top to bottom.

But for some of us – for those of us who really first encountered Miss Marple during a particular slice of time – there is only Joan Hickson. She had had a long and interesting career of course – one does not get to be 78 and still working as an actor by accident. But from the moment she first appeared on screen, Miss Jane Marple looked like the role Joan Hickson had been born to play.
There are lots of different Hercule Poirots, too, but likewise, for those who first encountered him on TV, there is likely to be no Poirot like David Suchet. In the cases of both major Christie detectives, the difference is twofold. First, the central actor looks like they live and breathe the lives of their parts. And secondly, in both cases, the production values, the tone, and the very atmosphere of the series feels absolutely right, from scenery to sets to music. In both cases, the series producers determined to give the most definitive versions of their detectives’ worlds as was possible – and in both cases, they succeeded. For a recurrence of this phenomenon, see also Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes.

In each case, and particularly with the Joan Hickson Miss Marple stories, there are notes even from the opening credits that make you smile with their fundamental ‘rightness.’ The credits for Miss Marple are initially bucolic and sweet, but occasionally blast in with some strident horns to indicate a harshness beneath the ‘ordinariness’ of English rural village life. Likewise, the titles show warming, cosy scenes of rural life, until you look a little closer and see signs of evil intent lurking in faces. It’s a joyful presentiment of what’s to come.

Where Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple scores over Brett’s Holmes, and sometimes even over Suchet’s Poirot, is that her series was made for the BBC, where both the others were for ITV. That meant they got longer episodes, uninterrupted by commercial breaks, and if necessary, they took more than one episode to tell the story. That made for properly detective novel pacing, rather than having to truncate or uncomplicate the stories, as both Poirot and Holmes occasionally had to do. It’s also worth saying of course that both Poirot and Holmes also covered the short stories in their canon, where Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple included only the 12 full-length novels in which she appeared, leaving viewers to hunt out the short stories in their own time. That added a consistent level of quality to the show, in terms of presenting only the best and longest examples of Miss Marple’s methods.

Hickson was cast by BBC producer Guy Slater, who brought the first three stories to life and then handed off to George Galacchio. And it’s worth admitting that the stories were released in often nothing like publication order – leading to occasional confusion with recurring characters. One of Miss Marple’s frequent encounters with a police inspector in particular leads to a little whiplash – John Castle as Inspector Craddock (one has to wonder, a little deliciously, if Christie borrowed the name from TV cook, Fanny) was unknown to her when they first crossed swords in A Murder Is Announced, but by the time the pair met again in The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side, Craddock had become Miss Marple’s nephew. It is of course not beyond credibility that Miss Marple, having received a good impression of Craddock in the earlier story, arranged for him to meet a sensible and eligible niece…

Beginning in 1984 with The Body In The Library, (a classic conceit where a total stranger turns up dead in a room where she had no business to be), the Miss Marple series gave the BBC a chance to do the thing it did (and does) really well – period costume drama. But also gave it hooks for the whodunnit shilling shocker fans and opened up every actor’s calendar. It became – as most successful and long-running shows will do – a must-do show in an actor’s resume, which meant the cast was often full of extremely familiar names and faces, each understanding that they were there to serve the work, rather than to be a celebrity cameo. Did we mention John Castle played a detective? Just in his first story, A Murder Is Announced, Castle is joined by Joan Sims, Sylvia Syms, Paola Dionisotti, Samantha Bond, Simon Shepherd, David Collings, Joyce Carey and Kevin Whately. In ONE story!

In another, A Pocketful of Rye, Peter Davison rubs shoulders with Timothy West, Stacy Dorning, Annette Badland, Fabia Drake, Clive Merrison, Rachel Bell, Selina Cadell and Tom Wilkinson.

In a third, Sleeping Murder, Jean Anderson, Terence Hardiman, Frederick Treves, John Bennett, Jack Watson, John Ringham and Kenneth Cope are all packed into the story.
You get the point – watch the Miss Marple stories of Joan Hickson, and your Eighties Actor Bingo card is going to be full to bursting point. But the extra point is that they never especially grandstand. Joan Sims, for instance, was a darling of the nation after a career that included, but was by no means limited to, the Carry On movies. In A Murder Is Announced, she takes the role of a slightly simple-minded probable-lesbian (it’s never expressly stated in the book, and there was a tradition of ‘female companions’ back in the day, but it’s largely been assumed by later generations that Paola Diosinotti’s Miss Hinchcliffe and Sims’ Miss Murgatroyd were a lesbian couple in the full sense of both words), and her star status is utterly subsumed under the character. The same is largely true of all those who popped up in the drama – as though the note when parts were offered was ‘definitive version of the drama, rather than celebrity casting.’

Whatever the note was, the tone was consistent throughout – great actors, some of significantly greater stature in the acting firmament than Joan Hickson herself – relishing the opportunity to delve into the drama and play real roles.

But Hickson is where your eyes go, any time she’s on screen. Understanding with the wisdom of long professionalism that this would be the case in a leading role, she never – no, really, you can go through, scene by scene – she never stops BEING Jane Marple. She’s fundamentally present in every scene, her hair often neat, her mannerisms seemingly unconscious, and her pale blue eyes giving way to incisive intellect underneath.

The thing is, there are many ways to play Miss Marple, because in the books, she changes significantly over time. When she arrives in The Murder At The Vicarage, she’s written as quite bumptious and gossipy, more or less exactly as Margaret Rutherford joyously nailed her to the screen. But over time, she evolves into something much closer to the Joan Hickson version – a natty little bird-woman, always keen to learn the news from both above and below stairs, and always full of anecdotes that apply in resonant ways to the events at hand. In real life, Miss Marple would probably be a little exhausting – but only rarely as steamrollerish as the Rutherford version. And the one thing Hickson highlights clearly is that yes, it might be irritating to listen to why her friend’s niece’s downstairs parlour maid relates to the corpse gently cooling in the library, but you’d better believe it will be WORTH IT when she gets to the end.

In A Pocketful Of Rye, this is used to joyous effect, Hickson seeming to drift off into a long, convoluted tale which, she says, proves who the murderer was. When eventually she finishes, she’s still somewhere else for a second or two, leading the detective to prompt her with a “Well, how does THAT help us find the killer?” Hickson refocuses on the here and now and says “Oh, I’m sorry, didn’t I say? I thought it was obvious. The killer is – Name Redacted”, so you can have the pleasure of finding out.
Hickson’s Miss Marple is never by any means a pushover – when she needs a thing doing, she will stiffen her spine, point her body forward and look down her nose through those unblinking, unnerving blue eyes, and tell you what’s what. But she’s also the otherwise unremarkable old biddy who lives in the village, knowing everything, having connections to everyone (especially through her famous novelist nephew, Raymond – who frequently foots the bill for her being in places she otherwise wouldn’t dream of going). That’s the Hickson difference – she’s absolutely always BEING Jane Marple, but she’s being her in a way that, like the evildoers in her credits sequence, fades into the background until you really look at her. Then, when she’s needed or when you really look at her, she’s there, acting as Nemesis in a fetching hat (an idea so powerful that it’s the basis of one of the books and stories), ready to uncover the dastardly truth, no matter where it hides or how it smiles.

Hickson’s Marple is less the bumptious gossip, more the birdlike gatherer of titbits, which then, unless necessary, she keeps to herself, building a picture of the world around her which is only revealed if it stops evildoers – as it frequently does. And like both Holmes and Poirot, it’s her remarkable mind and her uncommon usefulness that makes her win round the professionals whose job she does, often better than they do.

Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple is a sight to be seen and a set to be binged. It is a thing of Faberge perfection, and if it’s slower than most 21st century dramas, you need to get into the village mindset, the village timeframe, and simply revel in a piece of casting, and a production, that gets every single thing right.

Watch Miss Marple today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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