Over the years there have been a few misconceived caricatures and a couple of commendable interpretations, but it is with very good reason that Joan Hickson’s characterization of Miss Jane Marple (BBC, 1984-1992) is generally considered to be without peer.
A stage and screen actor whose accolades included an Olivier and a Tony (along with an OBE from fan Queen Elizabeth II) and who died in 1998 at 92, Hickson was extraordinarily well-suited to the role of Agatha Christie’s English village sleuth, the perfect alloy of sweet charity and steel—on the outside, a charming if occasionally absent-looking senior gentlewoman, on the inside a crime solver with a shrewd understanding of human nature, incisive intuition, and rational thinking as sharp as a cheese wire. Even though she didn’t live to see her in the part, Agatha Christie herself, decades before, had thought Hickson would be ideal casting: after seeing her in a West End production of her non-Marple play Appointment with Death in 1945 Christie wrote Hickson a note saying, “I hope one day you will play my Miss Marple”.
Marple is a challenging character. Though fond of sensible shoes and matronly blouses with eyelet collars, she is intended to be neither too quaint and twee nor bumbling and batty—far from it. Though her worldly grasp of human motivations often springs from seemingly parochial experiences in her hamlet of St. Mary Mead, to all who come to know her she is a redoubtable force of deductive reasoning, a broadminded, unsanctimonious, moral corrective. Her modest, dignified confidence, politic sense in choosing her battles, and capacity for reading people extend to the occasional local constable whose fragile ego or patronizing arrogance she must forbear in order to bring a case to its appropriate resolution. (These encounters afford some of the running threads of sly humor in the series.) Those who write her off as an unworthy and intrusive competitor, or a bemused, distracted old lady, learn better—not because she ever stoops to engage them in turf disputes but simply because her hypotheses and lines of investigation inevitably prove the correct and useful ones. As her old friend Sir Henry Clithering, a retired Scotland Yard Commissioner, says with admiration, “She has one of keenest forensic minds in the country”.
Though very much the heart and soul of these features, Hickson’s brilliant and deeply engaging performance is not their sole recommendation. Every character is brought to vivid, highly specific life by an A-plus roster of British character actors, and once the high calibre of the first couple of outings was established, guest stars (among others Claire Bloom, Donald Pleasance, and Jean Simmons) joined Hickson in major roles. The novels are faithfully adapted, most of them by T.R. Bowen, and the production values in all 12 entries, helmed by eight adroit directors, are exceptional, with an attention to detail that is immaculate in tone, narrative development and pace, scenic and costume design. Ranging in length from just under two hours to about 2:45, the films are set in the early through mid-1950s and are a fond feast of period exactitude. The acting, though unafraid of juicy British eccentricity, is never broad or over-colored. There is a rich rightness, a charming but very real believability, in every aspect of the acting, narrative, and mis-en-scene. Viewers are more likely to feel that they are being drawn into a world than merely looking at it.
Not insignificantly, along with murder and complicated passions, there is occasional humor. Though never veering into silliness or the overly cozy, the tone of the series makes room for moments of levity, always glancing, dry, expertly handled. And it’s not for nothing that Hickson’s stage awards were for her roles in intelligent, sophisticated comedies: her Marple has touches of subtle drollery here and there. Key to the performance—the hallmark that lifts it beyond other portrayals and beyond type—is that there is never a suggestion of condescension. It is invigoratingly clear that the actor meant it when she said of the character, “I think she’s a wonderful woman with a very clear outlook on life.”
Hickson evinces, definitively, Jane Marple’s quiet doggedness in creating order out of chaos, conducting her own private investigations at a polite distance from the official police murder inquiry. The tools of her trade are tweed suits, frequent cups of tea, her knitting, hawk-like but discreet powers of observation, and the acute hearing which enables her to overhear crucial conversations from considerable distances. As she explains to a helpful young friend when some information needs rooting out: “No, you might appear too inquisitive to them. Let me. After all, an old lady asking a few questions is just—well, an old lady asking a few questions”.
Hickson’s Marple succeeds in earning our respect and affection, in part, because we see that she is respected and liked by almost everyone in her orbit, from the tradespeople of her village, to her old friends among the local landed gentry, distinguished criminologists, and the succession of young girls from the county institution whom she “trains up” in her home. Because she believes in the power of goodness, she never misses a chance to be civil, even kind and gracious. She also never misses a trick. Perhaps most emblematic in her inhabitation of the character are Hickson’s eyes. We see the wheels of curiosity turning with a delicate but piercing persistence. Watchful, eloquent, limpid pale blue, they can look with gentle empathy and warmth, when needed, into the heart of a distraught fellow human, and without delusion, when necessary, into the machinations of evil.
Many of Hickson’s fellow actors of both stage and screen concur that this was a seemingly destined meeting of a particular great actor and a role awaiting its ultimate realization. In the actor’s obituary The Observer put it well: “She was justice in a hand-knitted cardigan”.
– Hadley Hury
(Available through Netflix and Amazon, streaming in Acorn and BritBox. These features have been beautifully restored and remastered in HD, and the complete boxed-set is reasonably priced.)
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