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Wednesday, June 8, 2011


I'll have to defer to fans of Agatha Christie's "Miss Marple" novels as to how faithful this series is to the original tales.  Taken on their own, however, the twelve feature-length episodes found in MARPLE: THE GERALDINE McEWAN COLLECTION-- comprising the first three seasons of the British TV series--are mesmerizingly good.

As the title character, the petite Geraldine McEwan is exactly how I would envision Dame Agatha's sweet little old lady who puts a little life into her retirement years by solving murders that baffle the local constabulary.  Not quite a geriatric Sherlock Holmes with a supercomputer brain, her style is to be quietly and unobtrusively observant while patiently putting two and two together in her own deliberate way.  McEwan plays her in an endearing but natural and unaffected manner, saving the eccentricities for the supporting characters. 

While Miss Marple has a suitably serious attitude toward murder and those who would commit it, there's no missing the twinkle of satisfaction she gets when her keen deductions lower the net around the guilty party.  We get to see flashes of her past now and then--in particular, we learn of the one great love of her life, whom she lost in the first World War, and how the experience often colors her perceptions of the present.

Rarely will you find a more colorful, atmospheric evocation of post-WWII England than in these immaculately designed and photographed adaptations.  The rural locations are ideal, especially when we visit Miss Marple's storybook village of St. Mary Mead.  You'd almost expect to see Munchkins skipping merrily out the front door of her quaint, flower-bedecked cottage. 

Seaside vistas, spacious vacation resorts, and rustic, shadowy old mansions also figure prominently in many of the stories.  Miss Marple does manage to get around, so, unlike Jessica Fletcher of "Murder She Wrote" (an obvious Marple clone), we don't get the impression that her sleepy little hometown is the murder capitol of the world.  Still, murder does seem to follow her wherever she goes.

The episodes are cleverly directed and edited, and are consistently eye-pleasing.  The mysteries are scintillating and so is the dialogue.  Each story is stocked with interesting characters and conflicts with which we become familiar before the inevitable murder takes place, prompting Miss Marple to bring her considerable amateur detective skills to bear while humbly remaining on the periphery of the action.

Her skills are often dismissed by both suspects and police, making it even more satisfying when she ultimately solves a perplexing case.  Often some smarmy detective will treat her condescendingly early on and then end up actively seeking her sage advice when his own investigation goes nowhere.  This usually leads to the classic gathering of suspects into one location, where Miss Marple will take everyone through the series of clues and deductions that have led her to the murderer's identity.  Rather than being merely talky, these scenes are done in a visually interesting flashback style.

The only drawback to this series is that in a few of the episodes, Miss Marple is hardly more than a supporting character.  Some of the stories, in fact, are adaptations of Agatha Christie novels which don't include Miss Marple at all, and at times she seems a bit shoehorned in.  While these stories are interesting on their own, they don't really come to life unless Miss Marple's character is fully and naturally incorporated into them.  The final episode in the set, "Ordeal by Innocence", is one of the more successful examples of this.

While the series is consistently good, it really hits its stride later on.  "Nemesis", "At Bertram's Hotel", and "Ordeal by Innocence" are especially fine not only as intriguing mysteries but as top-notch dramas as well, often with tragic elements.  The aptly-named "Ordeal", in particular, ends McEwan's tenure in the role with Miss Marple's most emotionally wrenching adventure of all.

The guest stars are a "who's who" of outstanding British film and television actors.  Mark Gatiss, currently a producer, writer, and co-star (as Mycroft Holmes) of the successful "Sherlock" series, appears as the village vicar in the first outing, "The Murder at the Vicarage", along with Derek Jacobi, Jane Asher, Jason Flemyng, Herbert Lom, Robert Powell, Janet McTeer, and Julie Cox.  "The Body in the Library" features Joanna Lumley, James Fox, Ian Richardson, and Simon Callow.

Appearing in "4:50 From Paddington" are Amanda Holden, David Warner, John Hannah (THE MUMMY), and Jenny Agutter.  "A Murder is Announced" stars Zoë Wanamaker, Sienna Guillory, Virginia McKenna, and Cherie Lunghi (EXCALIBUR).  "Sleeping Murder" features Phil Davis (the cabbie in episode one of "Sherlock"), Una Stubbs (another "Sherlock" regular), Paul McGann (ALIEN 3), Martin Kemp, Sophia Myles (UNDERWORLD), and Geraldine Chaplin.  Starring in "The Moving Finger" are Sean Pertwee, Imogen Stubbs, Kelly Brook, and director Ken Russell.

The remaining episodes--"By the Pricking of My Thumbs", "The Sittaford Mystery", "At Bertram's Hotel", "Towards Zero", "Ordeal by Innocence", and "Nemesis"--feature such guest stars as Timothy Dalton, Greta Scacchi, Claire Bloom, Charles Dance, Steven Berkoff, Mel Smith, Francesca Annis, Danny Webb (ALIEN 3), Jane Seymour, Lisa Stansfield, Tom Baker ("Dr. Who"), Julian Sands, Zoe Tapper, Saffron Burrows, and Richard E. Grant.

The 12-disc DVD collection from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital stereo sound and English closed-captioning.  The first disc contains an hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary, while several of the other discs offer brief featurettes as well.  Text-based extras include a history of "Miss Marple" film and TV adaptations, an Agatha Christie biography, photo galleries, and cast filmographies. 

Alternately playful and dark, slyly self-aware yet convincingly sincere, the engrossing mystery tales contained in MARPLE: THE GERALDINE McEWAN COLLECTION are irresistibly entertaining.   It's the sort of thing you can just settle into and get lost in for hours.

Buy it at


The Rush Blog said...

"At Bertram's Hotel" was a complete disaster. Changes were made to Christie's original story that I found completely unnecessary and did not serve the plot very well.

Porfle Popnecker said...

I'll have to read it sometime so I can compare the two. Thanks for your comment.