We couldn’t resist. For this week’s Throw Back Thursday, we couldn’t resist revisiting one of the world’s most beloved sleuths. We also couldn’t resist posting this on the same day we uploaded a post about James Ellroy. This may be stating the bleedin’ obvious, but there couldn’t be more difference between the cosy amateur sleuth and some of Ellroy’s characters and the world they live in. Indeed, there’s a galaxy of difference between Agatha Christie and Jame Ellroy as people, so seeing them on the same page, almost side-by-side is kind of amusing. But we’ve talked about Ellroy already. Now it’s time to talk Marple, and one Marple in particular… Joan Hickson.
Let’s face it, we were always going to do a Throw Back Thursday on Miss Marple. We wouldn’t be worth our salt if we didn’t. And Joan Hickson’s portrayal of Agatha Christie’s most famous character is, I think we’re all agreed, top of the Marple pops.
In Natalie Hayne’s excellent piece in The Guardian, she perfectly chrystalises what many think about the late Hickson:
Hickson captured perfectly the fluffy ruthlessness of Jane Marple: she has wispy white hair like the mohair she’s so often knitting with her softly clicking pins; the slight thickening of the voice when she’s thinking; the real sense that she is, as Sir Henry Clithering describes her, “one of the most formidable criminologists in England. There she sits, an elderly spinster, sweet, placid, so you’d think. Yet her mind has plumbed the depths of human iniquity, and taken it all in the day’s work”.
There’s an interesting story connected to Joan Hickson. In the 1940s she appeared in a stage adaptation of one of Christie’s novels, Appointment With Death. Christie was so taken with Hickson’s performance, she sent a note to her, saying: “I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple”.
Fast-forward four decades and the BBC, in the midst of bringing back the amateur sleuth, was on the hunt for a new Marple. Mindful of the criticism that her predecessor, Margaret Rutherford, received, the Beeb wanted to get her absolutely right. They made the right choice with Hickson, and she went on to star in 12 Marple mysteries between 1984 and 1992.
For a generation, Hickson was Sunday-night drama, a staple who delivered pitch perfect performances in Christie’s famous whodunits. When they read books, people often form mental images of the characters they enjoy. With Miss Marple the stars seemed to align – Hickson fitted many people’s vision of not only what Marple should look like but also how she should act. And the Beeb, keen to produce more faithful versions that were closer to the books, had a hit on their hands.
Hickson’s performance was so understated. She made Marple guileless and innocent-looking while never downplaying her own intelligence. Her unflashiness made her more believable as a human being, while Hickson’s portrayal displayed an absolute economy of facial movement while still managing to convey so much with a raised eyebrow or a crinkled smile. Let’s not forget Hickson was in her 80s when she took on the role and seeing a (female) octogenarian in a leading role is a rarity these days, especially when she proceeded to act the chops off all around her (re-watching the episodes you do get a whiff of am-dram from some of the supporting performances).
Our favourite episode? It has to be Nemesis, where Miss Marple is herself the Nemesis of the title. Marple is sent on a mysterious errand as part of a bequest by a deceased millionaire she befriended (and impressed) in a previous story (A Caribbean Mystery), which involves her taking part in a long-winded, guided coach tour of various stately homes in southern England. She is meant to be very elderly in this story and we see her occasionally falling asleep on benches in the gardens of the stately homes, but we also see how her powers are undiminished and how she’s underestimated even more than usual by those around her. It’s a complex story where good and evil are blurred and we see how people are rarely simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It doesn’t feature any of the usual clichéd, blundering police characters and the story unravels at a very stately pace, keeping us baffled as to whether or not a crime has even been committed well into the episode.
What we also love about the Marple stories – and this goes for all the incarnations over the years – are the locations. Just as the original Star Trek showed us what the future looked like if it remained the 1960s forever more, Miss Marple sometimes looks very much like post-war Britain via a branch of mid-1980s C&A. But the locations are gorgeous in a way that makes you ache for a rural childhood you never had and the cinematography captures a soft-focus fuzzy England that’s an American tourist’s wet dream.
With the revitalisation of the Marple franchise in the 1980s, it influenced a new generation of amateur sleuth shows, from Murder, She Wrote to Castle and Midsomer Murders, not to mention subsequent incarnations of Marple. And it’s still the case today that Joan Hickson is the Marple that everyone is held up against.
Additional reporting by Hannah Asprey