British Mystery Program

Miss Marple, the spinster detective who is one of the most famous characters created by English crime writer Agatha Christie, has been portrayed by a variety of actresses in films and television. In the cinema, Margaret Rutherford portrayed a rumbustious Miss Marple in the 1960s and Angela Lansbury contributed a performance in The Mirror Crack'd before moving on to a similar role in the U.S. television series, Murder She Wrote. In Britain, however, certainly the most famous Miss Marple has been Joan Hickson who starred in a dozen television mysteries over the course of a decade.

Between 1984 ("The Body in the Library") and 1992 ("The Mirror Crack'd"), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in association with America's Arts and Entertainments network, and Australia's Seven network, produced an irregular series of twelve Miss Marple mysteries. The elderly, deceptively delicate Joan Hickson starred in each of these as the amateur detective from the bucolic village of St. Mary Mead.

By conventional critical judgment, Agatha Christie's stories are often flawed. The plots can hinge on contrived and dated gimmicks--in "A Murder is Announced", it is supposedly a shock that a character called "Pip", for whom everyone is searching, is a woman, Philippa. They often end with an abruptly descending deus ex machina, as the heroine makes huge intuitive leaps, based on no clues ("4:50 From Paddington"), or on clues which only she knows, and which have been kept from the audience (the character's marriages in "The Body in the Library"). Despite this, the television programs have attractive elements which kept them popular over the years of their production.

Firstly, the BBC's Miss Marple is a good example of a "heritage" production, with all the pleasures that implies. The term "heritage television" sums up a certain attitude towards the past which developed in Britain during the 1980s, when a mixture of a new Victorianism in moral standards and an increasingly frenetic late-capitalistic commodification led to two tendencies. The first was an attraction to a particularly sanitised version of England's past. The second capitalized on the first with various moves towards rendering that past easily consumable--in television programs, films, bed sheets, jams and preserves, and so on. The BBC's Miss Marple stories are prime examples of "heritage" production. They are mostly set in a rural past. English architecture is featured, and country mansion houses proliferate. As is typical for BBC programs, the "production values" are impeccable and the programs look beautiful--costumes, houses and decor, cars, hairstyles and make-up could all be described as "sumptuous".

As a celebration of English culture, "heritage" also demands that the program be as faithful as possible to their source material. Thus, the BBC's Miss Marple does not chase the villains herself as Margaret Rutherford does in her films, nor are the titles of the books altered to make them more sensational (the novel After the Funeral had been made into the 1963 film, Murder at the Gallop, for example).

Another "heritage" aspect of the program is the morality which structures and underlies the mysteries. Miss Marple is the model of decorum, not only just and good, but also polite and correct. And although Miss Marple herself claims that "in English villages...You turn over a stone, you have no idea what will crawl out", there is in fact very little of a sordid underside in these narratives. There may be murders, but the motives are rarely squalid: mostly greed, sometimes true love. There are dance hostesses, but no prostitutes; there is blackmail, but it is never about anything really shameful. Indeed, these murders are themselves peculiarly decorous--always meticulously planned and rarely messy.

In addition to these "heritage" aspects, Joan Hickson's performance is another of the particularly attractive aspects of the series. Her frail physical appearance contrasts with her intensely blue eyes, and the way she dominates the scenes in which she appears. Her apparent scattiness, staring absent-mindedly over people's shoulders as they talk to her, is delightful. It is believable both that people would ignore her, thinking her to be just "a little old lady", and, simultaneously, that she is very much in control of the situation.

A third point of pleasure is the way in which Miss Marple offers a pleasantly female-oriented version of detective mythology. Not only does the program present a range of roles for older women (unusual enough in television drama), but it also celebrates a feminine approach to investigation. In several of the stories, the traditional strong-arm techniques of police investigation advance the plot only very slightly. Miss Marple takes over; her investigative methods involve no violence, threats or intimidation. Rather, gossip forms the most powerful of her tools. The very term "gossip" is a way of denigrating forms of speech which have typically been taken up by women. In these stories, gossip moves the narrative forward. In "4:50", for example Miss Marple knows that the family are needing a housekeeper, because, "They're always needing a housekeeper. The father is particularly difficult to get on with". This enables Miss Marple to send her own agent into the household. It is gossip which unfailingly allows her to solve the mysteries. The character's standard technique is to equate the circumstances of the mystery with representative archetypes she has encountered in the course of her village life. Such a comparison of types provides her with an infallible guide to people's characters, actions, and intentions.

Miss Marple

In another departure from more typical detective narratives, at the denouements, Miss Marple is never involved in any physical chase or fight. Although she solves the mystery--through observation, a few polite questions and a bit of knitting--Miss Marple has very little physical impact on the progress of the narrative. She is often peripheral rather than central. In some stories, female aides act as her physical stand-ins: but at the denouement of the stories, when television narrative convention demands some crisis and excitement, Miss Marple herself is little involved. Although she may engineer a denouement, as in "4:50 From Paddington", she is not involved in the chase that follows. Rather, it is policemen and good male characters who become involved in car chases and leaps through glass windows.

The particular pleasures of this very British television production ensure it retains its appeal even when new programs are no longer being produced and its wide circulation, through syndication on several continents, attests to its continuing popularity.

-Alan McKee


Miss Marple ..............................................Joan Hickson

PROGRAMMING HISTORY    Twelve irregularly produced and scheduled episodes

Episodes and first dates of broadcast:
" The Body in the Library"        26, 27, 28 December 1984 "The Moving Finger"                   21 and 22 February 1985 "A Murder is Announced"                                          
                                   28 February and 1, 2 March 1985
"A Pocketful of Rye"                              7, 8 March 1985 "The Murder at the Vicarage"              25 December 1986 "Sleeping Murder"                       11 and 18 January 1987 "At Bertram's Hotel"        25 January and 2 February 1987 "Nemesis"                                  8 and 15 February 1987 "4:50 From Paddington"                      25 December 1987 "Carribean Mystery"                           25 December 1989 "They Do it with Mirrors"                     29 December 1991 "The Mirror Crack'd"                           27 December 1992


Conroy, Sarah. "The Spinster's New Yarns." The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), 10 December 1987.

Cuthbert, David. "Marple's Last Look in Mirror." The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 7 December 1993.

Dunne, Colin. "I'll Miss Her Awfully, Says the Actress She Made a TV Star." Mail On Sunday (London), 27 December 1992.

Terry, Clifford. "Cast Carries PBS Whodunit." Chicago Tribune (Chicago), 1 January 1987.


See also British Programming