MISS MARPLE: THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE

“[They] knew I was a noticing sort of person.”

There she sits: a white-haired lady dressed in tweeds, a pair of knitting needles in her lap, more interested in village gossip than in the goings-on of the world at large – but she certainly doesn’t mince words (“Oh yes. Colonel Protheroe has always struck me as being rather a stupid man,” she deadpans about the man who will soon turn up shot in the study of St. Mary Mead’s Vicar Leonard Clement), and whenever a murder is committed you can be sure she won’t be far away; and while the police are still toddling around searching for clues she’ll find the solution. “Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner – Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is the more dangerous,” observes Vicar Clement, the narrator of this story’s literary original, about two members of his wife Griselda’s (Cheryl Campbell’s) Tuesday afternoon tea and gossip circle.

And of course this also holds true with regard to the murder of disagreeable Colonel Protheroe (Robert Lang), whom the dismayed vicar (Paul Eddington) finds shot after returning home from a wild goose chase visit to an allegedly terminally ill member of his congregation. From the Colonel’s wife Ann (Polly Adams), his daughter Lettice (Tara MacGowran) and Ann’s lover, the painter Lawrence Redding (James Hazeldine), to the mysterious Mrs. Lestrange (Norma West), small-time poacher Bill Archer (Jack Galloway) – the beau of the vicar’s maid Mary (Rachel Weaver) – and even the vicar’s own curate, Hawes (Christopher Good), there is no shortage of suspects; indeed, half the village seems to have had reasons to want the Colonel out of the way. But to solve the mystery, Miss Marple doesn’t only have to work her way through a thick layer of deception, false confessions and other red herrings – she also has to come to terms with the role accorded to her herself in the devious plan surrounding the Colonel’s murder.

Originally airing on TV between 1984 and 1992, the BBC’s adaptations of Agatha Christie‘s twelve Miss Marple novels featured Joan Hickson in the title role; quickly establishing her as the quintessential Miss Marple even in the view of the creator of the grandmother (or rather, grand-aunt) of all village sleuths and “noticing kinds of persons,” Dame Agatha herself. (In fact, after seeing Hickson in a stage production of her Appointment With Death, as early as 1946 Christie had already sent her a note expressing the hope she would one day “play my dear Miss Marple.”) Prior versions, partly involving rather high-octane casts, had seen as Miss Marple, inter alia, Angela Lansbury and Margaret Rutherford, but had been decidedly less faithful to Christie‘s books. While Lansbury holds her own fairly well when compared to the character’s literary original in 1980’s “Hollywood does Christie” version of The Mirror Crack’d (and that movie’s ageing actresses’ camp showdown featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak is a delight to watch) the four movies starring Rutherford are only loosely based on Christie‘s books: Dame Margaret’s Miss Marple, although itself likewise a splendid performance, has about as much to do with Agatha Christie‘s demure and seemingly scatterbrained village sleuth as Big Ben does with the English countryside, and of the scripts, only Murder, She Said is at least loosely based on an actual Miss Marple mystery (4:50 From Paddington), whereas two of the others – Murder at the Gallop and Murder Most Foul – are, instead, inspired by Hercule Poirot stories (After the Funeral and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, respectively), and Murder Ahoy is based on a completely independent screenplay.

Although The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) was Christie‘s first Miss Marple mystery, the BBC series opened with a multiple-episode adaptation of the second novel-length story featuring St. Mary Mead’s elderly spinster, The Body in the Library (written 1942, BBC 1984); followed by the three 1985 productions of A Murder Is Announced (written 1950), A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) and The Moving Finger (1942). Only in 1986, the BBC took up the story that had first introduced Miss Marple to Agatha Christie readers all over the world.

Crucially, like all of the episodes produced for TV, this adaptation not only maintains the tone and atmosphere set by Christie‘s original but also – although in the sequence of the adaptations Miss Marple and Inspector Slack of Milchester C.I.D. had already crossed paths in The Body in the Library – the fact that this story very much serves to establish their acrimonious relationship. And while Miss Marple, who compares Slack to a railway diesel engine, or in this story’s literary original to a shoe vendor intent on selling you patent leather boots while completely ignoring your request for brown calf leather (“most unappealing – but I’m told efficient. Well, I suppose we shall have to learn to live with such things. And such people …”) usually has the upper hand vis-à-vis Slack (who in turn calls her a “nice little grey-haired cobra [who] sticks to [murder] like chewing gum to the cat”) occasionally Slack gets in the last word, like in the exchange following his announcement to Miss Marple that he will pay her a visit to get her full account of her observations on the day of the murder:

Miss Marple: “Oh, I’m sure you’re far too busy to listen to my little ideas, Inspector.”
Slack: “Noone can accuse me of not being thorough.”
Miss Marple: “Indeed …”
Slack: “I suppose it’s having an ear for gossip and, uh, a talent for a bit of blind guess work, really.”
Miss Marple: “What is, Inspector?”
Slack: “What stops your little ideas being a waste of time.”
Miss Marple: “Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been complimented quite like that in my life before, Inspector.”
Slack: “Don’t mention it …”

Of course Slack will pay dearly for this slight from that very moment on, and in the end has to suffer the ultimate defeat of (not for the last time) catching his murderer only after having agreed to a “little strategy” proposed by Miss Marple.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: BBC (1986)
  • Director: Julian Amyes
  • Producers: Guy Slater & George Gallaccio
  • Screenplay: T.R. Bowen
  • Based on a novel by: Agatha Christie
Recurring Cast
  • Joan Hickson: Miss Jane Marple
  • David Horovitch: Detective Inspector Slack
  • Ian Brimble: Detective Sergeant Lake
  • Paul Eddington: Reverend Leonard Clement
  • Cheryl Campbell: Griselda Clement
  • Robert Lang: Colonel Protheroe
  • Polly Adams: Ann Protheroe
  • Tara MacGowran: Lettice Protheroe
  • Norma West: Mrs. Lestrange
  • James Hazeldine: Lawrence Redding
  • Christopher Good: Christopher Hawes
  • Michael Browning: Dr. Haydock
  • Rachel Weaver: Mary Wright
  • Jack Galloway: Bill Archer
  • Rosalie Crutchley: Mrs. Price-Ridley
  • Barbara Hicks: Miss Hartnell
  • Deddie Davies: Mrs. Salisbury
  • Kathleen Bidmead: Miss Wetherby (uncredited)

 

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