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May 28, 2014

Miss Marple Through the Ages

The truth is, I’m just too much of a reader. Too much, that is, ever to be really, really satisfied by film or TV adaptations of books I love. Inevitably, no matter how faithful the translation, how careful the casting, there’s something that strikes me as “off.” The only perfect Miss Jane Marple, for example, lives in my mind’s eye.

I was thinking about this while looking at a line-up of all the actresses who have played Miss Marple for the cameras (and one outlier: the earliest known illustration of the lady in question). Which, if any, is the face of your Miss Marple?


This illustration, by Gilbert Wilkinson, appeared in a 1927 issue of The Royal Magazine. It’s the earliest known representation of Miss Jane, and I find her rather startlingly too old for the part (though I do like the sharp eyes and knowing half-smile). Can’t decide how I feel about the obvious nod to the look and style of Queen Victoria.


This is (Dame) Gracie Fields clearly not dressed for her role as the first filmed Miss Marple (in NBC’s 1956 telecast of “A Murder is Announced”) but, rather, at her villa in Capri (darling, we should all retire there!). Of all the Marple “faces,” I quite like hers – it has the right mix, for me, of intelligence, curiosity, humor, and straight-lacedness. Plus I’m a big fan of Miss Fields’: She was a great music-hall star in Britain in the 1930s, did buckets of war-work in the 40s, and in later life was a noted philanthropist. Also, she was really funny.


Ok, ok, here’s Miss Gracie as Miss Marple. Nope. Too young and – sorry, luv – too working-class.


Margaret Rutherford was only in her early 70s in the early 1960s, when she made four “Miss Marple” movies. Nevertheless, she strikes me as a bit too elderly – and, in this picture, a bit too doughy. But Miss Christie liked the portrayal (if not the films): She dedicated The Mirror Crack’d “to Margaret Rutherford, in admiration.”


1980 saw a feature film of The Mirror Crack’d, starring Angela Lansbury and a laundry-list of other luminaries, including Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, and Rock Hudson. My problem with La Lansbury is in fact all that glam: To my mind she’s too urban, too chic. And Miss Jane does not smoke!


Three years later a Russian film company released an adaptation of A Pocket Full of Rye, starring Estonian actress Ita Ever. Surprisingly, I find her face the closest to my mind’s Miss M – the right age, the right class, and brimming with smarts and bright-eyed questions. Her image is flawed, for me, by those painted-on eyebrows, but think how sad I’d be if I had nothing to complain about.


The same year, 1983, saw the release of the first of two CBS made-for-TV Marple movies starring Helen Hayes, the First Lady of the American Stage. The Wikipedia entry describes Hayes’ Marple as “benign and chirpy,” which is terrific shorthand for everything I don’t want in Miss Jane. That, plus a feather in her hat. Altogether too cute and trendy for my taste.


Beginning in 1984, the BBC started broadcasting its own homemade “Miss Marple” series, starring Joan Hickson (fun factoid: forty years earlier Hickson had appeared in a theatrical adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death; her performance led Miss Christie to write her a fan letter saying “I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple”). Hickson’s face doesn’t sing to me of Marple – in the photograph here it seems to lack both the kindness and the spark of mischief that I want. Also, I do think of Miss Jane as more the twinset type, not so much with the tailored jackets. Clearly, the Beeb disagreed with me: Miss Hickson played Miss Marple, to great success, for eight years.


Britain’s ITV, not to be outdone, began broadcasting its own adaptations as a series titled “Agatha Christie’s Marple.” The first 12 episodes (beginning, in 2004, with The Body in the Library) starred Geraldine McEwan. She has an awfully good face for the role but I’d want fluffier hair and a bit less angst in the expression. I know, I’m picking nits. But Ms. McEwan just looks a tiny titch too fragile for my taste.


After three seasons, Ms. McEwan retired from Marpling, and Julia McKenzie took over the role. Oh, no no no. We’re back in “benign and perky” Helen Hayes territory. And I’m begging you, enough with the tailored jackets. This role needs a petal-pink cardigan like a vamp needs Cherries In the Snow.

Cast your votes here! Do any of these images conform to the Marple of your mind’s eye?



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