The Guardian, 9 July 2012

Detectives Blog

If you wanted to take me back in time with only one sensory stimulus, you could leave the madeleines in the cake tin. All you would need to do is play the opening trills of the theme tune to the BBC’s Miss Marple, and I would be slammed back to the Christmas of 1984, when the first episode, The Body in the Library, was screened on Boxing Day. That was two days after they showed the final episode of The Box of Delights, incidentally, which explains why every Christmas since then has been less good, at least in telly terms (though it was also the Christmas my hamster escaped, so the festivities weren’t unblemished).

Joan Hickson is, as far as I am concerned, the only Miss Marple who matters. I can be flexible about some detectives, but not Jane Marple, based on Christie’s grandmother and her friends. Christie herself saw that Hickson would be the uber-Marple way back in 1946, when she sent her a note after seeing her on stage, saying she hoped one day Hickson would take on the role.

And in her late 70s, Hickson did just that, and defined Jane Marple so completely that she made the Margaret Rutherford version look like panto. And don’t get me started on Geraldine McEwan, because I will only say something I regret. Suffice it to say that Marple is a long way from Lucia, and that is a line which shouldn’t have been crossed. And, by the way, when adapting a Christie novel, it would be sensible to remember that she was better at plotting than most of us will ever be, so maybe the addition of psycho lesbians doesn’t improve the story (though obviously, it usually would).

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.’

Hickson’s Marple is neither Rutherford’s buffoon nor McEwan’s camp schoolmarm: she is a frail elderly woman who is simply unshockable and fearless. Jason Rafiel (Donald Pleasence) has her number: ‘She also has a mind like a bacon slicer’. He is the one who nicknames her Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, in The Caribbean Mystery. And it is the measure of a good policeman that he can recognise her brilliance in spite of her old-lady mannerisms: Chief Inspector Fred Davy (the much-missed George Baker in At Bertram’s Hotel) gets her immediately, whereas poor Chief Inspector Slack (David Horovitch in The Body in the Library) is a less good judge of character.

Miss Marple’s great gift is to have seen every facet of human behaviour in her village, St Mary Mead. Every new person, situation and crime is filtered through this knowledge: she is never surprised by anything. ‘Apparently, he’s a… communist,’ whispers the vicar’s wife of Edmund Swettenham in A Murder is Announced. ‘Well, yes,’ replies Miss Marple, thoughtfully. ‘Then he must be very lonely in Chipping Cleghorn.’

If I had to pick a single episode to watch, it would be A Murder is Announced, which shows Marple at her avenging best. The death of Murgatroyd (Joan Sims) at the hands of the killer reveals Marple’s iron core. It isn’t the first murder of the episode, but it is certainly the cruellest: poor trusting Murgatroyd, strangled in the garden, left out in the rain, to be found by her devastated partner, Hinchcliffe (the glorious Paola Dionisotti). But, to be honest, I’d be happy to watch any episode, any night of the year, knitting along in tribute to Miss Marple.

Iconic? You are joking, of course. Hickson was the perfect Marple, and the adaptations are close to the books, as they should be. Christie knew what she was doing with a murder, after all.

Duffers? Wash your brain out with soap and water for even entertaining such a treasonous thought.