Can it be that Miss Marple has only appeared in twelve books? So it is. Agatha Christie's famous creation has become a literary legend despite starring in only a fraction of the author's works (in addition to the twelve novels, the character also popped up in twenty short stories). Perhaps the legendary status comes from the author favoring Miss Marple over her other iconic character, Hercule Poirot. Or perhaps this is because Miss Marple has gone on to be the subject of a large number of film and television projects, a few of which weren't even based on Christie's writings, thus cementing her forever into popular culture. Or, most likely, perhaps it's just because there's so much to like about this character, a woman who hides her shrewd wits and keen mind behind the persona of a frail spinster.
From 1984 until 1992, the BBC adapted all twelve Marple novels for the small screen. The series was produced sporadically - the series, which divided the books into two- and three-part serials, ran in two runs, the first from December 1984 through march 1985, and again from December 1986 through February 1987; following those runs, the final stories were presented as full-length films, which ran as specials during Christmas week, off and on, from 1987 until 1992. In grand BBC tradition, each production was painstakingly faithful to the source material, going so far as to cast Joan Hickson, who is said to have impressed Christie so much during a stage performance of "Appointment With Death" that the author declared Hickson her favorite choice for the Marple role.
The series is typical BBC mystery fare, the kind of thing you've most likely caught on "Mystery!" or some other PBS broadcast. All are methodical in their adaptation and cautious in their pacing, the latter creating a tone that could read as either sluggish or subtle, depending on your fondness (or lack thereof) for twee British drama.
I do have a fondness for twee British drama, although I'll readily admit that the Beeb's Marple series came with a wide range of watchability. This is not to fault the series itself - despite the intermittency of the productions and the number of writers and directors involved, the entire run is consistent in its straightforward presentation and its top notch performances - but Christie, who could, from time to time, toss over a dud. Christie's tendency for omitting valuable clues can lead to some exasperating finales, and a few of her set-ups fail to grab as tightly as others. That said, even a mediocre Christie yarn still comes with a crispness and an engaging curiosity that shows us just why she's the best selling author of all time.
The real joy in watching this series is in watching Hickson. She's the perfect Marple; not only does she use her age to her advantage (she was 78 when she starred in the first Marple adaptation), coming off as delicately prim and proper, but she understands just how to play up the many angles of the character. There's the gossipy hen, who uncovers the mystery by casual chitchat. There's the mastermind who takes delight in leading others to uncovering the clues. There's the careful observer of human behavior - watch how just the tiniest of looks in Hickson's eyes indicates the turning of the wheels, as started simply by watching those around her, who often dismiss her as harmless and batty. It is Hickson's delicate, captivating performance that makes this series worth watching.
A&E Home Entertainment has collected nine of these productions for a five-DVD set entitled "Agatha Christie's Miss Marple: The Classic Mysteries Collection." (The remaining three had been released in 2002 by BBC Home Video. I am only guessing when I state that rights issues must have kept those episodes from appearing in the A&E set.) The set is a repackaging of A&E's previous two Marple box sets, now with slimline cases and a lower price, in keeping with A&E's other recent rereleases. Menu screens have not been updated, meaning that the third, fourth, and fifth discs still state they belong in "Miss Marple: Set 2." Whoops.
The stories that were originally presented as serials have re-edited them into a feature film format, to match the later productions. Purists may grumble over this, but it's all done so seamlessly that I have no real reason to complain. (I'm not certain who did the editing, A&E, the BBC - which farmed out the series to PBS years ago - or some third party.)
Oddly, A&E has opted not to put the episodes in chronological order, instead jumping in seemingly random fashion back and forth over the years. In the order they are presented in this set, the stories are:
"A Caribbean Mystery" (Disc one, 1987). Miss Marple is struggling to enjoy a relaxing holiday at a posh resort when one of the guests is found dead. Natural causes are obviously not to blame here.
An odd choice to start off the set, as it's missing the quaint British village feel of the Marple stories. It's also a bit too slow in getting going, and while it's wonderful to watch Hickson play a Marple out of her comfortable element - and while it's wonderful to watch her prim and proper spinster go head-to-head with the brash, pompous Donald Pleasance - the mystery itself never manages to fully engage the viewer.
"The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side" (Disc one, 1992). A famous but aging actress, looking for a comeback role, begins filming her next picture in St. Mary Mead. When a local woman winds up dying after drinking a beverage intended for the starlet, foul play is suspected - and Miss Marple's nephew comes to town to investigate.
This one's a big step up from "Caribbean." The gossip machine is on full overload, as is the soapish melodrama that has viewers following a tangled web of characters. The lively bunch of supporting players makes this one worth watching even without the mystery.
"Sleeping Murder" (Disc two, 1987). A young couple moves into an eerie mansion, and the wife seems to know more about the house than she should. With the help of Miss Marple, they uncover a decades-old mystery, and in doing so, they whip up some brand-new dangers.
This episode manages to keep our attention despite the frequent absence of Miss Marple herself. She stays mostly on the sidelines, appearing only to point the couple in the right direction, allowing them to solve (most of) the case themselves. The ending is a bit too clumsy (even by Agatha Christie standards), but Geraldine Alexander's turn as the haunted newlywed and Hickson's ability to play up a gentler Marple make up for the flaws.
"4:50 From Paddington" (Disc two, 1987). When Miss Marple's friend, Mrs. McGillicuddy, witnesses a murder on a passing train, both old ladies are dismissed by the authorities when no body is found. And you should never, ever dismiss Miss Marple when it comes to murder.
I remember "Paddington" as being a brilliant Marple story, and I've heard many others say the same. Perhaps it's time to revisit the book, seeing how here, it all comes off as a bit too dry, the bulk of the yarn, with all the skeletons-in-the-closet dealings and snooty drawing room goings-on, failing to connect as powerfully as the early, gimmicky set-up. At least the ending is plenty of fun.
"The Moving Finger" (Disc three, 1985). The residents of the quiet village of Lymston begin receiving anonymous "poison pen" letters, and the vicar's wife has called for her old friend Miss Marple to help investigate. With the spinster in town, someone's bound to wind up dead before too long.
An enjoyable romantic subplot and a few keen supporting performances keep the more melodramatic angles (which come on pretty thick at times) from bogging the story down. Overall, a satisfying but slightly forgettable experience, one of the lesser productions in this collection.
"At Bertram's Hotel" (Disc three, 1987). Miss Marple's holiday at the swank Bertram Hotel is cut short when the doorman goes missing. Soon, the sordid pasts of the various guests are slowly revealed, only complicating the case.
With less mystery and more character study this time around, this episode works on a different level than most Marples. The whodunit angle doesn't quite hook the viewer (and as such, may come across as a disappointment), but the quirky supporting cast gets things moving well enough. It's a step up from "Caribbean Mystery," which also found Miss Marple on holiday; this time, it's a better fit.
"Murder At the Vicarage" (Disc four, 1986). A fairly self-explanatory title. When a much-loathed colonel turns up dead at the local vicarage, there seem to be no shortage of suspects. Having multiple confessors only complicates matters.
This was the first Marple story written, and an entirely splendid production. The characters are lively, the mystery cracking, the performances tight and appealing. The parallel investigations - one by Miss Marple, the other by the grumbly chief inspector (David Horovitch, who appeared throughout the series) - makes for a nifty touch, while the light mood allows for a most enjoyable viewing experience.
"Nemesis" (Disc four, 1987). Miss Marple receives a strange request: an old friend, now deceased, wants her to solve a crime - but it's up to Miss Marple to figure out what crime. Her only lead is a ticket on a coach tour, where several other guests may offer more clues. The game, as they say, is afoot!
How is it that I have never read this, the final (and, from the looks of things here, the best) Marple novel Christie penned? This is a puzzle of grand ingenuity, keenly presented and endlessly fascinating. The addition of Marple's nervous godson (Peter Tilbury) is a nice touch, as is the appearance of a professor (John Horsley) who acts as Marple's equal. A terrific work all around, this is arguably the crown jewel in this collection.
"They Do It With Mirrors" (Disc five, 1991). Miss Marple is invited to visit the sprawling estate of a friend, with the inevitable foul play ensuing. That part of the estate doubles as a reformatory for troubled youths only adds to the mystery.
There's not much going on here for just a bit too long - the only thing of interest is the reformatory storyline, but that's overplayed a bit too much to properly click. Things pick up once murder takes hold of the plot, though; even if the plot never entirely gels, it's entertaining enough to make do. Besides, it's great to see Inspector Slack pop back in for a visit, and guest appearances from Jean Simmons and Joss Ackland are quite the pleasant treat. Not the best way to end this collection, but not too shabby, either.
A&E claims that the series has been digitally remastered, but judging from the final result, I can't possibly see how this is so. The picture looks just as grainy and soft as it always had when I would catch it on TV years ago. Granted, British television productions have never been known for their outstanding video quality, but the least one could expect with DVD technology is a slight bit of improvement. But no. The colors are too muted, the film grain too prominent. It's all muddy and flat and downright ugly to watch at times. (And at least in one film, struggling to bring out the darkness of night revealed far too much artifacting.) The only upside here is that I'm so accustomed to the soft look of these shows that I'm able to convince myself that hey, this is how they're supposed to look. Presented in the original 1.33:1 broadcast aspect ratio.
The soundtrack fares much better, with the no-frills Dolby Digital stereo mix coming in crisp and clear. The music used for the opening and closing credits sounds a bit weary at times, but the dialogue, effects, and music score all sound quite clean. No subtitles or other language tracks are offered.
Sadly, all we get in this set are text biographies for Christie and Hickson, plus a bio for Miss Marple and a list of all of the Marple stories. Considering the cost of this set (which, despite the price cut, is still a bit much when you factor in the bare-bones nature of the box), even just a little more would've been nice. And no, "interactive menus" and "scene selection" are not special features, no matter what company insists on still listing them as such.
While dry and a tad stuffy in that shan't-we-have-a-bit-of-tea? way, the BBC Marple series manages to be quite successful in intelligently and respectfully adapting Christie's novels. These productions are relaxing and enjoyable enough to deliver some delightful rainy day mystery, and Hickson's performances throughout can be downright mesmerizing. However, A&E's lackluster treatment of the series, capped off with a complete absence in video quality upgrading, leads me to regretfully say Rent It - only the most serious of Christie completists should find this disappointing presentation worthy of including in their DVD libraries.