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Julia McKenzie takes a last stand as (Miss) Marple....
on 24 May 2014
Masterpiece Mystery (PBS) has just announced that it will air the three episodes of Agatha Christie's Marple - Season 6 on Sundays beginning in September 2014. (The season was available for UK television viewers in January 2014). Season 6 may be the final season of Marple on Mystery. After the season aired in the UK, BBC announced they had acquired the rights for the production of Agatha Christie adaptations, suggesting that ITV/WGBH would be unable to make a seventh installment. The three episodes starring the robust and spirited Julia McKenzie as the spinster sleuth are as follows:
First up is an adaptation of the only full-length remaining Marple novel of twelve for Mystery, A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY (1964) filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, with beach scenes shot at Boulders Beach, a sheltered area known for its African penguins. Supporting cast includes Antony Sher as Jason Rafiel, Oliver Ford Davies as Major Palgrave, and Robert Webb and Charity Wakefield as the owners of the hotel. As the Christie plot goes, Miss Marple has suffered a bout of ill health and has been afforded a vacation in a warmer climate by her favorite nephew. Bored and longing for something exciting to happen, she listens to another guest, a retired detective, tell a rather unusual story about a man who got away with murder more than once. Before a photo of the man can be fished from his wallet, he suddenly stops and changes the subject abruptly. The next day, when one of the maids finds the detective dead in his room, Miss Marple stops her knitting, suspects murder, and interviews the British owners of the hotel and the other guests, including tycoon Jason Rafiel, who has a weak heart and is confined to a wheelchair; Jackson, his nurse/valet; and Esther, his secretary.
A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY has been adapted for television two other times. In 1983 for American viewers with a screenplay written by Sue Grafton, Helen Hayes was Miss Marple and Barnard Hughes was Mr Rafiel. A BBC TV adaptation in 1989 starred Joan Hickson as part of the series Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, with Donald Pleasence co-starring as Mr Rafiel. Both Hayes and Hickson wore the traditional elderly spinster costumes of the times including headwear.
The second episode is "Greenshaw's Folly," the last short story of six in THE ADVENTURE OF THE CHRISTMAS PUDDING..., a collection first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in October of 1960. The Folly is a large English estate that was built in the 1860s or 1870s by an eccentric botanist who had an immense fortune but little idea of architectural style. Christie's essential story is maintained with some embellishments from characters from an earlier story, "The Thumb Mark of St. Peter." Miss Marple sends an old family friend and her son for refuge from an abusive husband to the labyrinthe estate for care and employment by the elderly Miss Katherine Greenshaw, the last surviving Greenshaw. Miss Marple uncovers the past and present secrets of the estate and its owners and finds a murderer.
And finally in episode three is a dramatization of Christie's ENDLESS NIGHT, a tale that was published as a novel in 1967 and was one of her favorite stories of psychological suspense. Again, the setting is an English estate, a modern dream house built for a young penniless man by his wealthy American wife. Told by the young fellow in first person narrative, ENDLESS contains a most clever plot device that occurs in only one other of Christie's tales. Miss Marple is nowhere to be found in the pages. (Dame Agatha will no doubt roll over in her grave every time this episode is shown.) You may wish to prepare for this episode by reading the original novel and considering a viewing of ENDLESS NIGHT, a 1972 full-length film starring Hywel Bennett, Hayley Mills, Britt Ekland, and George Sanders (in his last role).
You may have noticed that all three of this season's episodes were adapted from novels and a story first published in the 1960s--tales written when Christie was in her seventies. Directors and screenwriters have been playing with images of Miss Marple and distorting the plots since British stage actress Gracie Fields was the first Miss Marple in NBC's Goodyear Theater's 1956 production of A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED. There can be some comparison in this latest portrayal to an early one: Julia McKenzie has the same stature as the quirky 70 year-old Margaret Rutherford who wore her own clothing in the role. Rutherford also had her husband inserted as a reoccurring character "Mr. Springer" in all four of her comedic performances beginning with MURDER SHE SAID in 1961. Rutherford's films, of course, bore little resemblance to the Christie novels.
If Joan Hickson is your ideal Miss Marple, rest assured that you are in good company. Dame Agatha herself was very vocal in her disapproval of several of the early depictions of her beloved character. She had written her in the stories as a prim and birdlike elderly woman in tweed suit, hat and sensible shoes: a perfect description of Joan Hickson. (Christie once remarked "Someday I would like you to play my Miss Marple" to a young Joan Hickson who played a bit part in Rutherford's MURDER SHE SAID.) Hickson can be seen in all twelve of the Miss Marple novels in BBC's multi-disk release in 2012 The Miss Marple Collection.
Who is my favorite Miss Marple? The grand dame of American theater, Helen Hayes. Hayes appeared in two film adaptations in the early 1980s when she herself was in her early eighties. I still remember her performance in A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY. My goodness, that was thirty years ago!