Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, who is the best Miss Marple of them all?

Margaret Rutherford

A connoisseur of mystery and crime novels will probably tell you that when it comes to ticking all the boxes for the genre of classic crime there is one name which settles itself automatically on the tip of one’s tongue. The Queen of Crime herself Agatha Christie.

She knew how to spin her mysteries with the finesse of a maniacal Rumpelstiltskin. Planning the demise of her victims with the precision of a literary assassin.

Christie wrote the type of books a reader just never grows tired of re-reading, listening to or watching. I am one of those people, who amongst many other genres, enjoys the classic structure of Colonel Mustard in the library brandishing the candlestick. I enjoy watching new adaptations or new thespians try their hand at a bit of Christie.

However, when it comes to Agatha Christie’s star detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple not everyone agrees with who best represents the scribes fictional characters. Personally I believe it depends on how much the actor has delved into the actual books and not just the script. So, who do you think is the fairest Marple of them all?

Margaret Rutherford was the first actress to play Marple on the big screen. The public adored her and yet Agatha Christie was not so enamoured with Rutherford’s portrayal. Although hilariously funny and certainly very memorable, Rutherford doesn’t play Marple in the way she was written. Instead of the elderly, warm, scarf knitting and meddling friendly grandma type, Rutherford plays the exact opposite. She is boisterous, rude, eccentric, makes wicked jokes, cackles, snorts and is as brusque as a Sergeant Major deploying his troops.

I wonder in how much measure the script, the director and Rutherford chose how to play the character?  Christie dedicated the novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side to Rutherford. She happens to be my favourite, despite not gelling with the written character, she is the one who makes me laugh the most.

Joan Hickson

Joan Hickson appeared in the 1940s on stage in Appointment with Death. Agatha Christie watched Hickson and later wrote “I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple” . Hickson went on to star in the BBC series Miss Marple from 1984 to 1992. I do believe Hickson comes the closest to playing the perfect Marple. She portrays exactly the right balance between sharp intellect, busybody, armchair detective and friendly auntie type.

Gracie Fields was the first to portray Marple on television, in the US, but perhaps with a little too much Hollywood glamour and style. Helen Hayes played Marple in two CBS movies, which was more on the button but too much little old lady. I found her a wee bit soft for my taste. I like my Marples sharp, witty and ruthless, and not doddery, sugary and a sandwich short of a picnic.

Gracie Fields and Helen Hayes

Geraldine McEwan played Marple in the first three seasons of ITV’s Miss Marple and Julia McKenzie from the fourth season onwards. Now McEwan’s portrayal of Marple has divided fans. many found her too flirty ( yes, you read that right), flighty, fluffy and sometimes too harsh. (sorry, I ran out of words beginning with f). Her performance from one end of the spectrum of silly old lady to menacing pensioner with the stare of a serial killer. Personally I kind of liked the ‘I’m going to rip your heart out, fry it with onions and eat it for supper’ stare, but then we all know I love a kindred spirit.

Geraldine McEwan, Angela Lansbury and Julia McKenzie

Julia McKenzie plays Marple very much like Hickson, with a gleam in her eye, a kind word for the innocent and swift judgement for the wicked. Unfortunately both McEwan and McKenzie weren’t given the opportunity to show their full potential because a lot of (not all) the ITV scripts were quite frankly appalling.

Cheesy scripts obviously written by soap opera flunkies with no sense or feel for the aura of a Christie mystery. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn they had never picked up one of her books before. Methinks she would turn in her grave and grimace with disdain at the inept adaptation of her work. Bloody shame to waste such talented casts on such pathetic drivel.

Angela Lansbury played Marple in 1980 film The Mirror Crack’d, which boasted a star studded cast including Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Lansbury is a wonderful actress, however her long run in Murder She Wrote has made it difficult to see her as anything other than the Jessica Fletcher type detective.

Difficult eh? So many fine actresses to choose from and such a variety of performances. Much like a good cup of tea, it depends whether you like it black, with sugar or just like your tea with the whole kit and caboodle, ergo with milk too.

Me? I would rather have hot blackcurrant with a wicked shot of whiskey and sugar, but then that is probably why I prefer the eccentric Marple of Dame Margaret Rutherford.

Free downloads of the above mentioned and more:
Download to read The Mirror Cracked, What Mrs McGillicuddy saw, Nemesis, The Body in the Library and A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie at the Internet Archive.
Download to watch Murder She Said starring Margaret Rutherford at the Internet Archive or perhaps the trailer for Murder Ahoy instead. Download to listen to At Bertrams Hotel by Agatha Christie starring June Whitfield at the Internet Archive.

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