A HUNDRED YEARS OF CHRISTIE, PART SEVEN: Mistress of Media in the 80’s

When I was a student, focused on the study of literature and theatre, I learned a hard lesson: there was a schism between those works which are deemed “art” and those classified as “popular culture”. As a child, my love of comic books was derided as . . . well, childish. Studying drama at U.C. Berkeley, I was told that musicals were trash: “If we want to put music on stage,” intoned my pompous professor, “we’ll do an opera.” As an English major, the only mysteries I read in class were Dickens’ Bleak House and Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson

The narrow confines of academia were due for a change. In 1987, E.D. Hirsch (don’t get me started on him!) published his treatise Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, which included the stories, entertainment and idiosyncrasies of popular culture in the list of “must know” information in order for people to truly understand the world in which they lived. Of course, bit by bit over the last fifteen or so years, more scholarly approaches were being taken toward cultural icons who had been dismissed as “mere” entertainers.

In 1962, for instance, French filmmaker Francois Truffaut led the charge to transform American perceptions of film director Alfred Hitchcock, who, thanks to 1960’s Psycho and a successful TV series which he hosted, one of the most famous directors in the U.S.. And yet, he got no respect. The French changed all that, arguing that Hitchcock was not just a maker of scary movies but a true auteur: his use of camera and lighting, his placement of actors and mise en scene, his brilliant editing, elevated his movies into object lessons for every wannabe filmmaker. In 1962, the two filmmakers spent a week together in conversation that was eventually turned into both a book and a film. The concept of popular art as worthy of study was – if not born, then solidified. 

The “study” of Golden Age crime fiction has been more piecemeal and more playful. Those who have criticized and dismissed it, like Edmund Wilson and Raymond Chandler, have done so with tongue planted firmly in cheek. In New York in 1972, consummate mystery fan Dilys Winn opened Murder Ink, the first bookstore to specialize in crime fiction. (She would edit three collections of analysis and admiration of the genre over the next decade). That same year, author Julian Symons, who had published an illustrated history of crime fiction in 1966, wrote what has become a controversial analysis: Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. Of course, Agatha Christie figures a great deal in this book, which ultimately does no favors to fans of classic detection. You can see why in an article Symons wrote in 1978 about Christie, where he certainly admires her – he rages against Kathleen Tynan’s book Agatha and the subsequent film, calling them “contemptible production(s), ill-written, utterly vulgar in conception and execution, . . . that must cause extreme distress to Agatha Christie’s family, who have unsuccessfully opposed both book and film.” 

Unfortunately, Symon’s high opinion of Christie has a sting in its tail, as he reduces her output to “a fairy tale world, a world that a critic has wittily named Mayhem Parva.” While other modern crime writers and critics were denigrating the “outlandish improbability” of Christie’s plots, Symons adopts a kinder tone of loving reproval. It’s all nonsense, but it’s brilliant nonsense. In a way, Symons is saying to readers like me, It’s okay, Brad, that your bedside table is piled high with Christie and Ludlum and Stephen King; we all have a childish love of fairy tales and continue to read them, albeit in darker, bloodier form. 

By 1980, I had only one book about Christie in my library, a small volume called  Agatha Christie, Mistress of Mystery, written in 1967 by G.C. Ramsey, an English teacher at the Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. That changed when mystery writer Robert Barnard published A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie. Both books offer lighthearted scholarship and opinion on the author and her canon, including capsule opinions on every novel (Ramsey, of course, could only go up to the then current publication, Endless Night). 

I enjoyed Barnard’s scholarly and far more sympathetic analysis of the author when I first read it, but I probably agreed with half of his opinions on the books and took greater offense at the final chapter, titled “Council for the Defense,” where Barnard takes all the criticism heaped on Christie by pundits and dashes it to the rocks in a smarmy, half-hearted way: 

The attacks do miss the point, and they miss it very often because they bring to Christie all the preconceptions about what a novel should be which accumulate in the minds of those whose reading is mainly in the great 18th and 19th century classics of fiction. What they are saying is that as novels these works are beneath contempt: they look for solidly realized character drawing, for psychological depth, for evocative descriptions of settings; they look, even, for some ‘criticism of life’, some statement about the human condition. And when inevitably they come back empty-handed from their search they come to the conclusion that life is too short to fritter away their time on such a trivial, feeble-minded means of wasting time.”

Barnard goes on to explain at great length the difference between folks like Christie and real novelists and the unfairness of looking for novelistic qualities in genre fiction. I hope that those of you who read Christie can get behind my fervent disagreement with this sentiment. Even a novel that focuses much of its energies on a technically conceived and executed puzzle can create interesting characters who tap into the conventions and preoccupations of the society in which they were conceived. Some of this is apparent from the start, when The Mysterious Affair at Styles presented the picture of a great house in wartime and incorporated the social realities of the situation into the puzzle that was the book’s main focus. If you have followed me so far, you understand that by the 40’s Christie had begun even more to balance out the novelistic aspects of her books with those typical of her genre.

At any rate, Barnard’s book did at least put a scholarly, and critically more positive spin on Christie’s work. Janet Morgan did the same thing in her 1984 biography of the author, although if you check out many of the reviews on Amazon, you’ll find numerous complaints by readers of the same impulse to begrudge Christie any respect as a writer of novels, dismissing her characters as “stereotypes” and her plots as “implausible” and contrived, managing to offer the asinine compliment that her writing is “sincere.” 

*   *.  *.  *.  *

More and more books would be written about Agatha over the years, but readers are advised to turn to the author’s work and let it speak for itself. More and more, however, younger generations are approaching Christie through the adaptations they find on the large and small screen. The number of titles that were adapted for movies and television grew significantly during the 80’s, and if one wants to begin a look at these works with a generalization, I would say that, by and large, these films and programs were aimed at Christie purists. It makes sense, since the industry had come to the family on tenterhooks during the mid-70’s seeking a rapprochement after years of animosity on Agatha’s part toward the disrespect she felt her work had been shown.   

And it didn’t hurt that John Brabourne seemed to have found a winning formula with Murder on the Orient Express. True, its follow-up, Death on the Nile, had not done quite as well with critics and audiences, but then the film was twelve minutes longer than its already lengthy predecessor, and some objected to the more comic tone of the new Poirot, Peter Ustinov. Still, both films had made Christie more of a household name in America, and in London, the celebration in 1982 of The Mousetrap 30th year proved the brand was a draw. (Every anniversary prompted celebrations and special guests. At the 30th, Richard Attenborough, the original Sergeant Trotter, read to the audience and performed a congratulatory letter to the Queen Mother. And HRH Prince Edward attended the performance marking the play’s 35th anniversary.)

Brabourne was keen to bring Ustinov back, along with a sparkling ensemble of celebrities, for more Poirot adaptations, but first he decided that it would be only fair to tackle Miss Marple. There had been a deal brewing to have Helen Hayes play the sleuth in two films based on The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side and A Caribbean Mystery. When the rights for both films were passed on to Brabourne, he approached Angela Lansbury, one of the shining lights of the Nile film, and offered her a three-picture deal to play the elderly sleuth (Lansbury, only 54 at the time, had often been cast in motherly parts; the only excuse is that her portrayals of characters like Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate or Isabel Boyd in The World of Henry Orient were brilliant.) 

They decided to start with The Mirror Crack’d, since they already had the rights to that novel. (The second planned film was to be an adaptation of A Murder Is Announced, weirdly retitled An Appointment with Death!) Although the novel came out in 1962, the producers decided to set it in 1953 and to cast A-list stars from that era as the crowd of Americans who would descend on St. Mary Mead. Brabourne nabbed Natalie Wood, a complex woman known for a wide range of dramatic roles, to play the pivotal role of Marina Gregg, and then surrounded her with an enviable supporting cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, and Tony Curtis. 

Brabourne also decided to make a change in the directorial approach to the films. He asked Guy Hamilton, known primarily for huge budget action pictures (he made four James Bond movies, including my own favorite, Goldfinger) to direct both The Mirror Crack’d and the next Poirot film. Hamilton replied that he didn’t much like the work of Agatha Christie; Brabourne responded that this made him a perfect fit for the films. It is this sort of thinking that drives me absolutely crazy . . . . . . 

Of course, you all know that Natalie Wood did not play Marina Gregg. She disapproved of her billing and of Hamilton’s approach to the role, and she dropped out. And so the producers turned to another actress who was already on the set, who was even more neurotic and troubled than Wood, and probably more famous. And that is how Elizabeth Taylor reunited with Rock Hudson for the first time since Giant to play Marina and Jason Rudd. 

The Mirror Crack’d is one of Christie’s most serious novels, with one of the darkest motives in the canon. Maybe the first problem for me with the film, then, was the writers’ and director’s decision to move in the same direction that Nile started to take and accentuate the “Hollywood camp” aspects of these characters. The character of Lola Brewster was beefed up from the novel to make her a major rival of Marina’s who was now going to star in a film with her about Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots. Kim Novak embraced the comedy of this role, and each exchange between the two stars would have fit beautifully on the hit TV-series Dallas or its soon-to-be rival for prime-time soap favorite, Dynasty

I suppose one could argue that it also made a stronger red herring out of Lola Brewster . . . except I never took Kim Novak seriously as a suspect or, for that matter, Tony Curtis as her husband Marty (a mish-mash of other characters in the novel). Rock Hudson acquitted himself well as Jason, as did Geraldine Chaplin as Ella Zelinsky. Make what you like of Elizabeth Taylor. She could put across a role brilliantly when she felt like it (Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff), but I tend to think of her – like so many others of her day – more as a star than an actress. And I would argue that the role of Marina Gregg requires an actress. It might also be that Taylor, long absent from the screen and plagued by numerous physical and emotional challenges at the time, may not have been completely tuned in to the role. 

The hardest thing for me to admit is the poor fit Angela Lansbury makes in the role of Miss Marple. The vibrant 58-year-old is swathed in old-age make-up that washes her out, muting her performance as well. She delivers the important final scene beautifully, but for most of the film she is sidelined by a broken ankle and just sits in a chair and talks. Even Lansbury would later admit that something was off with the film. She would have to look elsewhere to prove her chops as a lady sleuth. Jessica Fletcher embodied all the most loveable qualities that the actress playing her possessed; unfortunately, the popularity of her long-running series Murder She Wrote couldn’t mask its formulaic nature and puzzle weakness from true mystery fans.

As I’ve discussed earlier, in the 40’s, when Christie imbued her mysteries with more of the qualities of a serious novel, Evil Under the Sun retained an almost “retro” aura as a pure puzzle of the 30’s variety. It contains a fun cast of characters and a charming, slightly exotic setting and tricky plot, both reminiscent of Nile. It seemed a much better fit for Guy Hamilton, who approached these films as comedies with murder. 

And so, if Diana Rigg’s approach to the pivotal role of Arlena Marshall (yes, once again a Christie film revolves around a troubled actress) sheds any real sense of vulnerability until the very end when Poirot basically has to tell us to pity her, she is hilarious. In fact, everything about the novel is lightened to create this bon-bon of a movie, complete with a charming Cole Porter soundtrack and far more attention to fashion than a group of middle-class travelers would probably pay. 

The film is a lot of fun and faithful to the novel in the same way that Death on the Nile was faithful: characters are cut or combined and reshaped to fit the actors who played them. Anything that is dark or serious about the book, like the obsessed clergyman or the attempted murder of Linda, are excised. There’s a sense of déjà vu about the whole experience, meaning that the movie is a bit derivative of Brabourne’s earlier work. Thus, Sun begins with a flashback, same as Orient Express. It imports actors from Death on the Nile: Jane Birkin plays Christine Redfern, the fourth side of the triangle, and Maggie Smith plays Rosamund Darnley. Except she doesn’t! The role is merged with Mrs. Castle, the secondary character in the novel who runs the hotel, and her history combines elements of Rosamund (former flame of Captain Marshall) with a wholly original backstory of Daphne being a stage rival of Arlena’s. At least, the catfighting here feels more appropriate than it did in The Mirror Crack’d

As in Nile, characters are assigned more direct motives for Arlena’s murder, and while this completely transforms the Gardners from innocent bystanders to suspects, it’s worth it to see James Mason and Sylvia Miles chew up the scenery. Maybe it’s a little more painful to watch Roddy McDowell do the same with Emily Brewster (here given a gender reassignment – sort of – and renamed Rex.) The comedy does work better here, but it’s clear to see the progression/regression that Brabourne has taken with the material since Orient Express. Neither The Mirror Crack’d norEvil Under the Sun did particularly well in the box office or with critics. The next two Marple films were dropped, and Brabourne slips out of our narrative. 

Three more films of note graced the screen during the 80’s, although the terms “of note” and “graced” are given begrudgingly. The best of these is a somber Ordeal by Innocence (1985), starring Donald Sutherland as Arthur Calgary and Faye Dunaway as Rachel Argyle. It sets a weird tone from the start with its jazzy Dave Brubeck score and Sutherland’s brooding performance. I will say that it was Dunaway that made me start to rethink Rachel’s motivations for adopting all those children, but now that time has passed and I’ve started to learn more about what a piece of work Dunaway was, I’m not sure where the actress left off and the character began. I came to this film a huge fan of Masterpiece Theatre, so I want to give kudos to the actor who played the killer and who also played the title role in one of my favorite MP series about Queen Victoria. It has been too long since I saw this to comment more – except that I can only imagine a young Sarah Phelps watching it and getting the whole thing wrong from that point on!

Things only got worse from here. In 1988, Peter Ustinov made his final appearance as Poirot in Appointment with Death, a mediocre echo of the lavish productions of the 70’s. While Piper Laurie excels as the loathsome Mrs. Boynton, Christie veterans Lauren Bacall and Hayley Mills are delightful as Lady Westholme and Miss Pierce (renamed Miss Quinton here), and I very much liked Jenny Seagrove as Sarah King, the rest of the cast, especially Ustinov, seem distracted or bored, and all technical aspects of the movie are cut-rate; even the film stock looks re-used. 

And then in 1989, who should slink back onto the scene but our old fiend, Harry Alan Towers, dragging his rights to And Then There Were None out from under a rock for one final go! Again renamed Ten Little Indians, we move not to an island, not to a snowy schloss, not to an Iranian hotel; this time U.N. Owen has invited everyone to join him on an African safari. The casting call is running on fumes, with C-list stars like Frank Stallone (Sylvester’s lesser-known brother) as Lombard and Warren Berlinger, veteran of every ABC sitcom of the 1960’s through 80’s, as Blore. Brenda Vaccaro plays Emily Brent, except now her name is Marion Marshall, a Hollywood star who killed her lesbian lover. 

I have a feeling Sarah Phelps watched this one, too. 

*   *.  *.  *.  *

Is it any wonder that after this travesty, Agatha Christie’s star on the big screen would tarnish and fade. The only other big screen adaptation that comes to mind won’t happen for years and year . . . and then it will go directly to cable. No, for the real story on the burgeoning presence of Christie in the media, one has to turn to television and, in Great Britain, BBC Radio. 

If you want an in-depth analysis of Christie on TV, I again direct your attention to Mark Aldridge’s Agatha Christie on Screen, which has been an invaluable resource for me and which delves in some detail on the development of each program that appeared. I haven’t seen every one of these – and some of those I have seen were viewed when they first aired; thus, I come to this not as a completist and very much as a biased viewer. I do find it interesting to point out that Agatha Christie, half-British, half-American, was the inspiration for many programs during this decade, and that both countries approached the author and her material in ways that distinctly conform to their national styles. If one were to make a competition over which side did a better service to Christie, there would sadly be no contest. Let’s save the best for last.

In the U.S., a deal was struck to make five TV-movies out of Christie novels. This might sound exciting, but the novels they chose, all missing Poirot and Marple, were the only ones they could get the rights for: Destination Unknown, The Man in the Brown SuitMurder Is EasyThe Secret of Chimneys, and They Came to Baghdad. Had it all gone according to plan, you and I might not be here celebrating Christie’s centenary. 

The first film, Murder Is Easy (1982) is based on my clear favorite out of these five options. It also has, for the most part, a sterling cast, with Helen Hayes as the doomed Miss Fullerton, Olivia de Havilland in full Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte mode as Honoria Waynflete, and Lesley-Anne Down pretty darn perfect as Bridget Conway. They are surrounded by a fine coterie of British character actors, including Timothy West, Jonathan Pryce, and Freddie Jones. The most questionable casting is in the starring role, but here we see the signs of how American television is going to approach nearly every TV-movie in the near future: cast TV stars. 

I have a personal relationship of sorts with Bill Bixby in that, somewhere between My Favorite Martian and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father – but long before The Incredible Hulk – my mom told me that she and Bixby had gone to high school together. They happened to be friends (she called him “Bill!”), and this was also my high school. I liked the guy, who proved cute and amiable in every series in which he starred (even as Bruce “You don’t want to get me angry!” Banner), but what was he doing playing retired policeman Luke Fullerton?? The answer is: he wasn’t. Here he was M.I.T. professor (also a stretch) Luke Williams. 

The novel was updated to the present day to save on costs, another omen on how the U.S. would deal with Christie. It is largely faithful to the novel, and the final confrontation between heroine and murderer is well-played by both performers. Still, with Bixby at the head of the investigation and the modernization of the setting and tone, this felt like “Agatha Lite.” 

And it didn’t get better. The good news is that three of the other four novels on spec were dropped. Next up was Sparkling Cyanide (1983), adapted by a writing team that included none other but Sue Grafton. Once again, the story was updated to the modern era, and this time the producers threw out London and set the whole thing in California. (Although why they then hired a British actor, Anthony Andrews, to star makes no sense – until you remember that two years previously, Americans had caught Brideshead Revisited fever!) The rest of the cast is made up of largely television actors with the miscast murderer played by an actor from Dynasty. Colonel Race is missing from the action, but – judging by the fact that he slipped out of Cards on the Table halfway through – I’m sure he was relieved.  It was, by and large, an undistinguished production from start to finish. 

Between these two films, Hallmark Hall of Fame slipped in a rushed production for the Christmas 1982 season: Witness for the Prosecution was essentially a remake of the Billy Wilder screenplay, complete with the original character of Miss Plimsoll, Sir Wilfred’s nurse (here played by Deborah Kerr) but with a couple of small changes that were made to line up the story with Christie’s original, such as the setting where Sir Wilfred interviews the mysterious witness. I have sadly not seen this, although one can get a good impression of how it went over from Aldridge’s book. 

Potentially good news came when Christie’s family had a change of heart about allowing the great detectives to be adapted to the small screen. This seemed especially crucial for Miss Marple, since the family had shown no appreciation for the popular but misguided take on the character by Margaret Rutherford in the 60’s, nor had they particularly appreciated Angela Lansbury’s portrayal. After doing a lovely job as Lavinia Fullerton, Helen Hayes, one of America’s most esteemed actresses, now in her 80’s but still going strong, was approached to play Jane Marple in an adaptation of A Caribbean Mystery

This should have worked! Hayes received able support from Barnard Hughes as Mr. Rafiel and Maurice Evans as Major Palgrave. Even some of the TV staples that made up the supporting cast were fine actors, notably Lynne Moody, Swoosie Kurtz and Brock Peters. And the script, again partially written by Sue Grafton, hews closely to the novel. But it barely scrapes by. The modern setting isn’t such a problem: the book itself was set in the 60’s. But the American accents, most notably that of Miss Hayes, jar exceedingly, and the whole affair, filmed in California in the barest of attempts to mimic the tropics, limps along. 

So why not do it again?!? Hayes was hired back and the choice of novel was They Do It with Mirrors, and yet while the producers employed its U.S. title Murder with Mirrors, they did decide to film the whole thing in England. This time the cast boasted a number of British stalwarts and up-and-comers, including Leo McKern, John Mills, Frances de la Tour, and Tim Roth. Miss Hayes’ American accent made her feel like a visiting hick! But this time she wasn’t the main problem: the decision was made to find an esteemed actress to play opposite Hayes as Carrie-Louise Serrocold, and they turned to Bette Davis, who was absolutely wonderful as Bette Davis Mrs. Van Schuyler in Death on the Nile

To watch this film is a grueling experience, largely because of Davis. She had suffered a stroke before accepting the role, and she is clearly not recovered from it. Evidently, her ill health and rude behavior made the film set a nightmare from start to finish, and the otherwise fine cast has clearly suffered the effects of this in another uninspired production, the last to date of the American Marples. I’d like to think that Angela Lansbury, whose series Murder She Wrote premiered along with this film in 1984, was laughing all the way to the bank. 

Despite the fact that critics had somewhat disparaged Evil Under the Sun when it premiered and suggested that audiences had quickly grown tired of the whole genus of star-studded whodunits, Peter Ustinov was hired to reprise Poirot in three productions that hit the airwaves in 1985-86. All of them were updated to the present, and all featured stunt casting that we could all sit in a room and argue about. It may or may not have been inspired to have Faye Dunaway play Jane Wilkinson and Carlotta Adams in Thirteen at Dinner; it depends on what you think of her. The most appealing trivia about that production is that for Inspector Japp, the producers hired an English actor named David Suchet, who brought much needed life to the film.

Dead Man’s Folly is even more bizarre. Clearly some thought had been put into this production as it conforms to the American sentiment of what constitutes an Agatha Christie story: a bunch of tony people in a grand house in the English countryside and while some of the cast came straight from U.S. TV shows (Nicolette Sheridan, Jeff Yagher), the brilliant pair from A Jewel from the Crown, Tim Pigott-Smith and Susan Wooldridge play pivotal roles, as does the revered British-American film and stage star Constance Cummings. 

But what to make of Jean Stapleton as Ariadne Oliver? Stapleton was a delightful stage actress, a veteran of classic musicals of the 50’s (listen to her in Damn Yankees or Bells Are Ringing) and the beloved portrayer of Edith Bunker in All in the Family. What the heck was she doing at Sir George Stubb’s country home? And why bring back Jonathan Cecil as Hastings in an adaptation of a book that neither featured or needed him? I suppose Folly is better than Thirteen at Dinner– but not by much – because it exists in a closed setting that shut out much of the modern world around it. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the final film in this trilogy, Murder in Three Acts. It’s set in Mexico, which allows for more diversity in casting (Nicholas Pryor as Freddie Dayton, Fernando Allende as a new character, Ricardo Montoya). Tony Curtis makes a weird Charles Cartwright, here an American movie star, and Hastings knocks Mr. Satterthwaite out of the action to complete Jonathan Cecil’s three-picture deal. It’s not worth your time

The final American production of the decade hearkens back to the original five titles that had been in the running. Other thrillers had been made in England with some success, and U.S. producers had given a lot of thought to making They Came to Baghdad, even to the point of having written a script. High cost projections killed that project, but the decision was eventually made to film The Man in the Brown Suit. This one was simply weird, largely due to the presence of Tony Randall (who had played Poirot in the 60’s) as . . . well, it’s really weird. I have always been on the fence about this novel, and I have to say that those who are similarly inclined would do well to avoid this film. 

*   *.  *.  *.  *

Clearly, the figure to note in the early days of watching Christie on British television in the 80’s was actress Francesca Annis. I had become quite fond of Annis when she portrayed Lillie Langtry in a series that appeared on U.S. television in 1978. And, like so many who appeared in adaptations of the author at this time and later, Annis had a “Christie credit” to her name, albeit an undistinguished one, as a forgettable red herring suspect in the third Rutherford/Marple film, Murder Most Foul (1964). 

James Warwick, who co-starred with the actress in Lillie, deserves the same consideration, as he also appeared in most of these early adaptations. Their style together feels very Coward-esque to this American viewer, and for me that is part of the problem – and I admit it’s a problem of taste. The first two adaptations seen on London Weekend Television in 1980-81, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? and The Seven Dials Mystery, were extremely faithful renderings onscreen of the novels. (Seven Dials is considered the adaptation most faithful to its source of any of Christie’s novels.) Both were made possible when Christie’s daughter Rosalind relaxed the ban her mother had placed on any more of her work appearing on the small screen, and clearly the producers were not hedging their bets! They lavished both productions with big budgets and hired big stars, including John Guilgud and Eric Porter. The success of Evans went far toward convincing Rosalind that the industry had respect for Agatha’s work, and it convinced the industry that Christie’s canon was a marketable property.

The choice of these two titles was the result of the estate’s refusal to allow Miss Marple or Poirot to appear on the small screen. And so ITV, eager to climb onto the Christie bandwagon, fashioned a series around some of the short stories that did not feature the two most popular sleuths. The Agatha Christie Hour ran for ten episodes in 1982, and while two of these featured Mr. Parker Pyne, these are not detective stories per se but tales of human interest, often with mild supernatural elements – Christie does Twilight Zone! I’ve only seen one of the Parker Pyne episodes, and the production values do not age well. As Mark Aldridge points out, however, 

This series may mark the point at which Agatha Christie as a brand emerged most fully, as Christie herself is the only linking element between these 10 adaptations that cover some of the lesser-known areas in her catalog of works.

Meanwhile, back at London Weekend Television, the happy pair of Annis and Warwick were assigned to play Tommy and Tuppence, first in a stand-alone adaptation of The Secret Adversary and then in Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime, a ten-episode adaptation of the delightful short story collection where the Beresfords are tapped by the secret service to take over a flailing detective agency and unmask a dangerous spy. The show appeared on London Weekend Televison from October 1983 to January 1984 and was shown in America soon after. It got a better reception in the U.S. than in the U.K., but what do we know? The adaptation cut out the over-archjng spy plot from the stories, which meant cutting three of the tales that focused on the mysterious villain, No. 16. 

I know that these actors have garnered much love as Tommy and Tuppence, but I can’t bear them, particularly Annis, who plays the whole thing as if she’s Amanda in Private Lives. The pair are too old, too rich, and too arch to convince me that they are the characters from the novels that I love. However, this is simply not my cup of tea, and you can all go ahead and yell at me in the comments below for all I care! It all comes down to taste.

As a lifelong moviegoer, I have a special love for character actors, one of whom I used to hope to be myself. For example, you can watch the Astaire/Rogers movies for the dance moves of Fred and Ginger or the pre-code Warner Brothers movies for Jimmy Cagney or Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. I look for those familiar faces whose names we may or may not know or remember – the Eric Blores, Frank McHughs, Aline MacMahons, and so on and so forth. 

British cinema has those as well, I’m sure, and there was one film actress who played dozens of small roles during her film career, including parts in several “Carry On” films, the role of Mrs. Kidder, the daily, in the first Miss Marple film, Murder She Said (1961), and Mrs. Rivington in the 1980 TV production of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?. In addition, in 1945 Joan Bogle Hickson had played Miss Pierce in the stage premiere of Agatha Christie’s own adaptation of her novel Appointment with Death. Her performance must have pleased the playwright very much because she sent a note to the actress: “I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple.” 

And sometimes that is how life works: Miss Marple premiered on 26 December 1984 on the BBC. The first episode was a dramatization of The Body in the Library, and then, over the course of three series of four episodes each, all twelve Miss Marple novels would receive loving adaptations that are largely faithful to their source. Ten of them appeared in the 80’s, and they set the standard for the purist approach to Christie’s work. I’m not saying this is the only approach or the right one. As with so much classic television from the 70’s and 80’s, the pace can feel downright glacial to modern audiences, and it’s not helped by the poor recording quality of the initial DVDs. But when one is in the mood for a dose of Christie as Christie herself would have wanted it, it’s nice to have this series at hand for a good wallow. And Hickson, with those ice-blue eyes staring out of that fluffy exterior, makes the perfect Jane Marple. And the value of these programs is made even clearer when one compares them to the earlier adaptations. While some adjustments are made to the plots of both They Do It with Mirrors and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, everything from the casting to the social milieu to the incorporation of Miss Marple’s history and feelings is better in the Hickson adaptations than in those featuring Helen Hayes. It’s nice to think that somehow Christie was able to pass off her wishes to the industry that had done her wrong and that their atonement created so much pleasure for her fans and served as a tribute to the talent and skills of author, actress, and detective.

If Harry Alan Towers’ final production of Ten Little Indians boded ill for the Christie legacy at the end of the decade, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, which first aired on 8 January 1989 on ITV, offered hope for a rich future. With David Suchet, former Japp portrayer, at the helm in the title role, and a determination on the part of writers and producers to evoke the period and tone of Christie’s 1930’s, as well as faithful adherence to her plots, the series offered serious fans a gift and provided a wonderful gateway for creating new fans. The first season focused on short stories and novellas, but the following decade would see a slow takeover by the novels and, for a while, a strict adherence to the precepts originally set down when the series was conceived. 

It seemed that, with the 80’s the gauntlet had been thrown down, and the project for preserving Christie’s memory and great sales through adaptations on film and TV had begun in earnest. And while we can laud Suchet for his tender devotion to Poirot, his was not the only fine performance of the character. On Christmas Eve, 1987, BBC Radio premiered The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which would be the first of twenty-five radio adaptations of the Poirot novels. As the detective, they cast John Moffatt, a noted stage actor and longtime member of the BBC Radio Drama Company. These adaptations are wonderful and faithful distillations of the novels, and Moffatt’s performance, to me, places him at the top of the heap in terms of portrayals of the character. He is warm and funny, and throughout his reign as radio’s Poirot, he performs in service to the character and not to his own whims as an actor – something that Mr. Suchet would not be able to resist as time went on. 

But I’ve gone on for long enough – that’s a story for another day. 

12 thoughts on “A HUNDRED YEARS OF CHRISTIE, PART SEVEN: Mistress of Media in the 80’s

  1. I was surprised you didn’t mention the major solecism in “The Mirror Crack’d” – that Miss Marple is seen smoking in one scene.
    Incidentally, I know this doesn’t belong in this period, but the first person to portray Miss Marple on TV was none other than … Gracie Fields!

    Like

    1. I’ve been watching the entire series of the old game show What’s My Line to keep up my sanity. I’m currently on the year 1955 and, funnily enough, the mystery guest a few episodes ago was Gracie Fields. Other than that, and the knowledge that she did play Miss Marple, I know nothing about her!

      Like

      1. Fields was a major star in the UK; in the 1930s she was the highest paid actress there, appearing in musical films such as “Sing As We Go”. Her image was that of a northern working-class girl.
        Interestingly she has more entries in IMDb after her death in 1979 than before, all for flms and TV episodes where her recorded singing voice was heard.

        Like

  2. For me Joan Hickson is the definitive Miss Marple and me and my sister have had much fun re-watching them together. However, I know you’ll disagree with me, but I think the 80s Tommy and Tuppence adaptations are the best that I have seen. Annis is the closest depiction we have had to the Tuppence of the book. Other adaptations I have seen don’t come close.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, yes . . . if you consider the recent BBC travesties where T&T hate each other’s guts, or the one appearance in Agatha Christie’s Marple where Tuppence is an alcoholic. In that context, Annis is THE ONE!!

      Like

  3. I seem to remember that Miss Marple smoking was Lansbury’s idea — or maybe she was so convinced by the director that she passed along his idea as her own.

    Count me in as another who adores Francesca Annis and James Warwick as Tuppence and Tommy. Not every episode is equal, but the two of them look and act just right to me.

    A blog specializing in odd corners of US TV (but also, it turns out, a Christie fan) has a thoughtful and knowledgeable entry on the best mysteries, as mysteries, written for Murder She Wrote. I used it as a DVR guide to track down the 10 episodes he writes, and found that he knows what he’s talking about. Most episodes of the series won’t bear much discussion as real mystery plots, but on a few occasions they aimed at, and achieved, a higher standard.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for putting in the link to that article on MSW. I went straight to my DVR to see what was coming up on the Hallmark channel and whether or not any of these episodes would be available. Unfortunately, the series has just hit Season 6, which doesn’t contain any of the top ten, and THEN it’s going on hiatus so that Hallmark can destroy our Christmas with bad movies . . . starting, by the way, in mid-OCTOBER!!!!!!!!!

      Hopefully, if we all survive the holiday season, I can use this resource when the show returns.

      Like

      1. Thanks for taking me up on the link! I’m the one who responds as JAC in the comments to that entry, and as I indicate there, I had known Tommy, the blogger, for many years before discovering his passion for Christie by reading that article.

        Like

  4. I watched the 1982 version of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION on YouTube not too long ago. It’s…OK, but not really anything special–just the Wilder screenplay with the most Wilder-ish parts (the two flashbacks showing how Vole met Mrs. French and Christine) taken out. Ralph Richardson would have been a perfect Sir Wilfrid 10 years earlier, but he’s very obviously slowing down by this point, and Diana Rigg (R.I.P.) is just doing a Marlene Dietrich impression.

    I’d totally forgotten that Constance “Harriet Vane” Cummings was in DEAD MAN’S FOLLY and Hayley “Ellie Rogers” Mills was in APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH. I’ll have to watch those again some time, even though they’re not exactly highlights of the Christie-on-film canon.

    Nice to see that you’re a WHAT’S MY LINE? fan! I actually have a (just barely started) blog about the show–you can check it out at https://whatsmylineonline.wordpress.com/ if you’re interested.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s