Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced

Joan Hickson as Jane Marple.
For many Agatha Christie fans, Joan Hickson's portrayal of Miss Jane Marple in the 1984-1992 British TV series is considered the definitive one. It's difficult to disagree, although I'm also fond of Julia McKenzie in a later television series. But whereas McKenzie showcased Miss Marple's soft side, Hickson admirably captures the elderly amateur detective's sharp intelligence and subtle interrogation skills. Her Marple can be warm and understanding--while simultaneously probing for a crack in a suspect's alibi.

Samantha Bond as a suspect.
The highlight of the Hickson series may be A Murder Is Announced, which aired in 1985 as a three-part episode. It begins with a most unusual premise:  A notice appears in the Chipping Cleghorn newspaper announcing that a murder will take place at Little Paddocks at 7:00 that evening. Little Paddocks is the home of Letitia Blacklock, a elderly woman who lives with two younger cousins, a dear friend, a widow who serves as gardener, and a housekeeper. Anticipating the arrival of curious villagers, Letitia opens a bottle of sherry and prepares to receive her guests.

The drawing room is full of people when seven o'clock arrives. Suddenly, the room goes dark, the door is opened, and a man with a flashlight shouts: "Stick 'em up!" Three gunshots are fired amid much screaming. When the lights are restored, there is a corpse on the floor.

Letitia's friend Bunny recognizes the victim as a foreign lad who worked as a clerk at the local hotel. Apparently, he was the man with the flashlight. But who was he firing at and why did he kill himself? Or, if it wasn't suicide, who at Little Paddocks would want to kill a stranger and announce the murder beforehand in the newspaper?

Chipping Cleghorn (not a painting!).
In addition to Dame Agatha's crackerjack mystery, A Murder Is Announced makes excellent use of its rural 1950s setting and benefits from an exceptional teleplay. Powerstock, a village in Dorset, England, stands in for Chipping Cleghorn. Its quaint stone buildings and rolling hills provide a charming backdrop for murder and deceit.

The teleplay by veteran British writer Alan Plater remains remarkably faithful to the 1950 novel. Moreover, it captures the atmosphere of a post-World War II England where foreigners still drew suspicion and food rationing was a way of life. Miss Marple hardly appears in the first episode, in which Inspector Craddock (well played by John Castle) takes lead on the investigation.

Kevin Whately, prior to Morse,
as a Detective Sergeant.
When Craddock requests her assistance, based on the advice of his superior, Miss Marple confides that suspects will tell an elderly spinster things they might never confide to a police inspector. One of the series' best scenes has Miss Marple ever-so-subtly introduce the topic of family photos during a conversation with suspects. It's her way of gaining access to a family album that might contain an old photo of the killer.

As with many Agatha Christie mysteries, there are numerous red herrings and the key to unraveling the murderer's identity hinges on an incident in the past. That makes it a hard puzzle for the audience to solve, but armchair detectives likely won't mind. In this version of A Murder Is Announced, the joy lies in watching the investigation being conducted by Joan Hickson's Miss Marple.


Caftan Woman said...

I adore watching Joan Hickson and her no-nonsense observations and understanding as "Jane." Past time for a visit to St. Mary Mead.

Ron said...

What little I know of Marple is formed by watching Margaret Rutherford's portrayals. I'll follow your lead and check out Hickson. Thanks.

Rick29 said...

The Margaret Rutherford movies are amusing in their own right, but her Miss Marple is nothing like Dame Agatha's detective. I think you'll like the Joan Hickson movies. They're pretty faithful to the books, too, which is a good thing.