So far I’ve looked at adaptations of a Poirot novel and a standalone. By natural progression therefore it really had to be a Miss Marple next. Everyone has a favourite Marple novel but I wouldn’t say this was mine. Similarly, everyone has a favourite actress who has played Marple. Although it’s widely stated that Agatha Christie was disappointed with Margaret Rutherford’s films of Miss Marple, this book is in fact dedicated to her.
I’ll put my hand up from the very beginning and say my favourite Miss Marple is Geraldine McEwan and to my knowledge she never acted in an adaptation of this book. So it might seem like a strange choice for my first foray into Marple books – not my favourite book and Miss Marple not played by my favourite actor. However, this novel seems very relevant to now. The plot is not as ingenious as many of Agatha Christie’s other novels. For those of you who haven’t noticed the announcement at the top, there are now going to be huge spoilers and I really would advise you to stop reading now if you’ve not read the novel.
An ageing film star, Marina Gregg, moves in to Gossington Hall, a house which had appeared in an earlier novel The Body in the Library. Dolly Bantry has been forced to sell and move out . Marina Gregg hosts a party for all the locals and spends time meeting and greeting the star struck guests, one of whom is Heather Badcock. She is a huge fan of Marina’s and, whilst the party goes on around her, she tells Marina in passing that they’ve met before, in Bermuda when Heather Badcock dragged herself from her sick bed to meet her heroine. Marina Gregg is suddenly very distracted and photographed with the most unusual look on her face – described as being like that of the Lady of Shalot:
‘The mirror crack’d from side to side:
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.’
Miss Badcock spills her cocktail on Marina and Marina then passes her own to the woman. Miss Badcock drinks it and dies almost immediately. It’s later found to have large amounts of the substance Calmo in it. Most of the American’s surrounding the star are taking it. It is assumed Marina was the intended victim as she, being a famous movie star, has built up quite an army of jealous enemies. Her ex-husband is at the party with his new partner Lola Brewster. Lola’s interplay with Marina is part of the joy of this novel and its adaptations – how two movie stars spar with each other. The photographer who caught the cursed look turns out to be a child Marina adopted then later abandoned when she discovered she was pregnant with her own child – a child that is later born with terrible birth defects. Marina was broken by this and is attempting to make a come back after a nervous breakdown that she still appears to be suffering from. Further attempts are seemingly made on Marina’s life and two more people are also murdered. The reason for this fairly detailed description of the plot is that it is the motive for the murder which is the most relevant thing here. Heather Badcock is in fact murdered by Marina Gregg because of the woman’s throwaway tale of how she met Marina once before, how she’d dragged herself from her sickbed suffering from German measles to meet her idol the movie star. In that moment, Marina realized that she was pregnant at the time and it was Heather Badcock who had passed the disease to her unborn child that caused the severe disabilities. For that, she murdered the woman.
When I first read this book, I thought what an innocent victim poor Heather Badcock was. She is universally seen as a kind and caring, if slightly fussy woman. She’s never knowingly hurt a soul in her life. She could not have known what she did so many years ago. How could she be held responsible for that? It could perhaps be seen as little more than an unwitting mistake, a terrible twist of fate. Times have changed. Here is a woman who knows she is ill, perhaps with something that isn’t life threatening for her. But she has the symptoms and goes out in public with no regard for the woman she professes to adore, or indeed for anyone else. When Miss Marple first meets Heather Badcock, she compares her to a woman she once knew, Alison Wilde, a woman she says was very nice indeed, ‘kind, healthy, full of life.’ But she ‘always saw her own point of view so clearly that she didn’t always see how things might appear to, or affect, other people.’ Miss Marple, as usual, has the measure of the woman within moments of meeting her. Now, in the current climate, what Heather Badcock does, going out spreading a terrible illness that can have awful effects on some people is an unforgiveable act. Re-reading this book forty years on from my first reading, I found myself sympathising with the murderer and almost (I stress almost) thinking Heather Badcock deserved her punishment! Her selfish behaviour, her need to go out and take her illness to others, had led to the most dire consequences which she never stopped to imagine and never took a moment to consider. As Miss Marple says of Heather Badcock at the denouement to Jason Rudd, ‘She never did mean harm but there is no doubt that people like Heather Badcock (and like my old friend Alison Wilde), are capable of doing a lot of harm because they lack – not kindness, they have kindness – but any real consideration for the way their actions may affect other people. She thought always of what an action meant to her, never sparing a thought to what it might mean to somebody else.’ She never thought of the person she was meeting, the people she would meet accidentally at what must have been a well populated gathering. She had happily gone on living her life for years without a second thought for the devastation she had brought to other people’s lives. As ever, Agatha Christie stays very relevant and each new age brings a different interpretation and fresh eyes to her work. I thought this would be a very pertinent novel to look at this time.
As with the other novels I have looked at and like so many Agatha Christie stories, there are a large number of adaptations of varying quality. There are some recent Japanese versions adapted by TV Asahi and numerous theatre adaptions, Rachel Wagstaff’s production for Wiltshire Creative at the Salisbury Playhouse being the most significant of recent years and gathering a mixed set of reviews. There’s a very fun, modern trailer for this on YouTube https://youtu.be/sVMIEuB-e9E There are of course the video games and audio books as well. In fact, as always there are far too many to analyse every version so I’m going to stick to the three main adaptations.
Arguably the most famous is the 1980 version directed by Guy Hamilton. It has the usual star studded cast but this transcends the normal tour of famous faces by having the Hollywood movie star, Marina Gregg, played by one of the most famous film stars of all time – Elizabeth Taylor. She steals every scene she is in and radiates the film star glow that Agatha Christie gave Marina. When Agatha Christie describes Marina in the book as ‘suddenly the turn of the head, the movement of the hands, the sudden smile and the magic was there,’ she could have been describing Elizabeth Taylor. Later, Ella Zielinsky (the secretary) describes Marina as having, ‘Temperament. They’ve all got it, more or less, but Maria Gregg has got it more than most people.’ A sentiment often expressed about Elizabeth Taylor. It being filmed in 1980, Elizabeth Taylor just like Marina Gregg was not perhaps in her prime, she was 48 when this was filmed and her movie career had also gone into some decline. Elizabeth Taylor had been in semi-retirement before this film. Her personal life was complicated, she was married seven times and lived constantly under the glare of the media. Just like the Lady of Shalot, Elizabeth Taylor as Marina weaves her magic web around everyone and everything. But she too is ‘half-sick of shadows.’ The gleam is becoming tarnished for her. She’s suffered a terrible tragedy and a long-term breakdown. She repeatedly says Gossington is her home, ‘I’ve come home at last.’ She’s found home in the bucolic English countryside, a place to be quiet. She doesn’t want this strange reflection of a life anymore, she wants to see real life. Sadly, when she sees it, just like the Lady of Shalot, she is cursed. She cannot live a real life and she no longer wants her fantasy life. This film is very good at focusing in on the price of fame and the sacrifices she has had to make. That comes at a price for the film as well though. Elizabeth Taylor as Marina Greg becomes the true focus of this film, she is the star and therefore the difficulty is, it is not Miss Marple.
Miss Marple appeared in twelve books and twenty short stories. Many ladies have played her and there has recently been an announcement that the Big Little Lies producer, Bruna Papandrea is developing a new Marple with the consent of James Prichard, Agatha Christie’s great grandson. Although the rumours are it will follow a much younger version of Miss Marple and will only be loosely based on the books. Still, the question of who was the best Marple will rage forever. However, in this 1980s version Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple is not many people’s favourite and I’m afraid not mine. She is overshadowed by Elizabeth Taylor’s magnificent portrayal of Marina Gregg which is of course no fault of her own. But there is also a contrived nature to this Miss Marple. She is overly made up to look old, she is very clipped and stiff and the addition of the smoking serves no real purpose. I know there will be some who disagree, but Angela Lansbury is not at her best as Miss Marple and her talent is quite underused in this film. The focus is very much on the world of Hollywood and its ‘stars.’
The 1992 Joan Hickson version is the next significant production of this novel and, for many, she is the ultimate Miss Marple. Shrewd, kind, yet never overly emotional. There is just a little element of detachment about her. For many, she is the very essence of Miss Marple. When Agatha Christie saw her on stage in Appointment with Death, she sent her a note saying, ‘I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple.’ And so she did, from 1984 to 1992 and for many her performance has never been surpassed.
Time and again Joan Hickson features as the best Miss Marple of all time.
The Mirror Crack’d was to be her last TV outing as Jane Marple. She is thoughtful, gracious and always courteous even when she’s telling someone she suspects they committed a murder. She’s Marple at her most intelligent and shrewd. You know you’re in good hands from the moment she speaks and, as the viewer, you know she will see everything and there is no doubt in your mind that she’ll solve the mystery. She carries the entire production. Claire Bloom is an adequate Marina Gregg, more quietly fragile than Elizabeth Taylor’s version. The brash edges have gone but so has the humour, particularly with the interplay between her and her younger rival, Lola Brewster. In this version it is a young Glynis Barber who is a pale reflection of the marvellous Kim Novak in the 1980 version.
A large part of the joy of this book is the mutual dislike these two Hollywood actresses have for one another. Lola is the new starlet, Marina the fading star. The fantastic sparring between Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1980 version is sharp and at times seems all too realistic! Two great movie stars, one ageing, one launching her career, snipe and jibe at one another so beautifully. Here are a few of the wonderful lines Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak deliver to one another.
‘In that wig you could play Lassie.’
‘I’m so glad to see you not only kept your gorgeous figure but you’ve added so much to it.’
‘Love your outfit, darling. What are you supposed to be, a birthday cake? Too bad everybody’s had a piece.’
‘Chin up, darling. Both of them.’
None of the other adaptations, including the Joan Hickson version, come close to the fabulous rendition of this movie star rivalry between Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak.
In the final notable version of this novel, that sparring is again lost. This is the Agatha Christie’s Marple series episode of 2010 of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (using the full title of the novel) directed by Tom Shankland. Lindsay Duncan is a good Marina Gregg but Hannah Waddingham’s Lola Brewster is a little weak. Sadly, there is very little humour in their animosity. This version sees Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple, who took over from Geraldine McEwan in series 4. Julia McKenzie played the role from 2009-2011 and was in some very notable episodes. There was a lot of controversy over this series as there were so many changes to the original novels and some of the stories had not originally even featured Miss Marple. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was, however, largely quite faithful to the original story. Julia McKenzie is well-liked as Miss Marple, or Marple as she is known in these adaptations to match up with Agatha Christie’s Poirot. For me however, particularly in this version, I find that she is so very stricken with worry about everything that doubt begins to slip in. I don’t feel like I’m in safe hands. There is none of the cool composure of Joan Hickson. This Miss Marple is so deeply concerned and distracted by everything that it starts to become an issue for the viewer that she may not, this time, solve the crime.
Julia McKenzie said of the role, ‘It’s difficult because Agatha Christie wrote her in two ways… First, very much what Geraldine McEwan played: a slight, rather Victorian creature. Then, a little sturdier and tweedier. I chose the latter. A lot of people say they don’t like the tweedier version. But they’re both genuine.’ She also said, which I think is very much worth remembering, ‘Just about everybody in the world knows about Miss Marple and has an opinion of what she should look like, so I’m under no illusions about the size of the task ahead.’ This is a very fair comment but although she says she has gone for the sturdier, Margaret Rutherford style version, there are definite times of doubt with this version. Although not as physically frail as Geraldine McEwan may have appeared, there is an inherent, worrying seam of weakness in Julia McKenzie’s version.
I think another problem I have with this Miss Marple is that it’s also worth remembering, that The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was written in 1962. Miss Marple had first appeared in 1930 and this novel is one of the last few Miss Marple books. She is old in this book. Julia McKenzie was only sixty-nine when she was in this version. Age and a changing world is a very strong theme in this book – for the movie star who is fading, for an England that is now journeying into the ‘60s and the modern age, not the pre-war years Miss Marple inhabited when we first met her at Gossington Hall in The Body in the Library. This is a new Gossington with new, American owners. The old owner, Dolly Bantry, is in the small gate house.
Joanna Lumley as the previous owner of Gossington is for me the stand-out star of this 2010 version. Here she is with Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple and a wonderful Will Young as the Pharaoh playing opposite Marina Gregg in the movie they are making. Joanna Lumley is a marvellous Dolly Bantry, just as she was in The Body in the Library. It’s quite ironic to see her commentary on the nature of fame. Her wide eyed, star-struck persona when she meets Marina is so realistic, it seems as though it might very well be based on the fans she herself has presumably been presented with on many occasions. In the book, Dolly Bantry imagines how awful it must be to be constantly bothered by fans and unable to say, ‘Oh, for the Lord’s sake stop bothering me,’ a position Joanna Lumley must no doubt have been in countless times. Joanna Lumley provides that wonderful Agatha Christie wit and humour in this version with such marvellous lines as, ‘Arthur always used to get a little frisky after a canter.’ She too is the character who drives home the very important theme of motherhood when she tells Marina that the most important thing for her now is not Gossington but seeing her many children and grandchildren.
Unfortunately, for all its fun and beautifully scripted characters and sets, I think my problem with this 2010 version and this particular Miss Marple stems from the fact that this novel begins with Miss Marple ruing the arrival of the modern age. This is primarily a novel about ageing and the arrival of the new world that leaves so much of the old behind – be they movie stars or St Mary Mead’s old lady sleuth. None of this seems to come through in the 2010 version and I find myself longing for the older, slight Victorian creature Julia McKenzie spoke of when she characterised Geraldine McEwan’s version. This is a Miss Marple who hates seeing herself become old and frail. She is ill when we meet her, being cared for by a patronising carer – ‘Another of those things that elderly ladies have to bear.’ Miss Knight glances back at ‘the frail old lady resting.’ Miss Marple visualises Miss Knight’s description of her as ‘Failing a little now, it’s only to be expected – their faculties get dimmed.’ Miss Marple dehumanises herself in this imagining. She uses the term ‘Their faculties,’ as if they are somehow other, she is one of them now. It’s a surprise for us, the loyal reader, that someone sees our heroine like this or that Miss Marple imagines they would. Miss Marple is irritated that her aged appearance brings no respect for her still razor-sharp intellect. All people see is a very old, frail lady, not a brilliant mind. I’m afraid, for me, the decision of Julia Mckenzie to play her as a much sturdier Miss Marple seems at odds with this. The Miss Marple of the book feels, like many in her position, as if old is the first thing people see – as if that defines her. She longs for a different world and cannot understand the new with its supermarkets where ‘you’re expected to take a basket yourself and go round looking for things… and then a long queue waiting to pay as you go out.’ She travels to ‘the Development’ as if she’s journeying to a whole other world – ‘she was here, observing the brave new world that was springing up.’ And this is where she meets the selfish Heather Badcock.
None of this doubt, this frailty of existence and Miss Marple’s concern for her age comes through in the 2010 version, nor would it since Julia McKenzie was still only sixty-nine. Only Joan Hickson comes close to this feeling but still there is very little wavering, very little room for self-doubt in this incarnation. In the book, Miss Marple is doubting herself as an aging woman, just as Marina Gregg does. This is Agatha Christie, aged seventy-two, faced with the dawning of the 1960s and writing a book starring a character she began in 1930 and trying to make her relevant. She’s stood the test of time, but that’s not to say Miss Marple did not have her moments of reflection. I would have loved to have seen Geraldine McEwan in The Mirror Crack’d but sadly it was not to be. Now rumours abound as to who will play Miss Marple next. I, for one, cannot wait!
Next time I’ll be looking at Witness for the Prosecution and if you’d like a small reminder when it’s out, please do subscribe (button on welcome page.) Thank you so much for reading and, if you’d like to, let me know your favourite Miss Marple by leaving a comment.