Meet the modern Miss Marple with a past and a lesbian plot
By Tom Leonard, Media Editor (Filed: 22/10/2004) Telegraph
Conversation at the St Mary Mead vicarage tea party may never be the same again.
Twenty years after Joan Hickson packed away her knitting for the final time, ITV yesterday unveiled a new "modern" Miss Marple that sweeps away the schoolmistress image for an open-minded woman of the world who even, ahem, has a lover lurking in her past.
At 72, Geraldine McEwan may not be a radical departure in terms of the age of Agatha Christie's famous spinster detective, but elsewhere the latest adaptation of the stories breaks new ground.
With the blessing of the author's estate, the producers have even changed the identity of the murderer in one of her best-known mysteries and introduced a lesbian theme that may alarm Christie traditionalists.
At a screening of The Body In The Library - one of an initial four glossy, star-studded adaptations of the Marple whodunnits - producers of the new series insisted that they had remained true to the spirit of the character but wanted a new audience. Fans of the books had better brace themselves for new plot twists, more comedy and a contemporary feel alongside the period setting. Christie wrote 12 novels featuring Jane Marple, the first of which - Murder At The Vicarage - was published in 1930. The writer said she based the character on "cronies" of her grandmother, who "although cheerful, expected the worst of everyone".
Previous incarnations by Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury and particularly by Hickson - often regarded as the definitive Marple in the BBC version - portrayed an unassuming spinster with an ear for gossip and a razor-sharp mind.
While being anxious not to denigrate the late Hickson's Marple, the Granada bosses responsible for the new series said they and the Christie estate had agreed to "modernise" the stories.
"She was too good a brand not to re-make but we had to do something different," said Michelle Buck, the controller of Granada drama.
Unlike previous Marples, who have "felt like a very old-fashioned maiden aunt", McEwan's character "has a very modern mindset", she added. McEwan, who said she felt as though she had been "entrusted with a national treasure", insisted that Granada had "kept to the spirit and period" of the books.
"Obviously when you are doing it in 2004 you want to have a contemporary feel about it. These things are bound to reflect the times in which they are made," she said. Damien Timmer, the head of Granada drama, said the new series was "less twee" than the BBC version.
He pointed out that Miss Marple was famously unshockable - a fact that is difficult to credit if she has led a completely sheltered life. The existence of a past "man in her life" emerges during the series, he said. "Previous Marples were rather pious and judgmental. Ours isn't. The characters in Murder At The Vicarage discuss their love lives with her in detail."
Mathew Prichard, Christie's grandson and the chairman of her estate, welcomed the adaptation. He could not be certain if his grandmother would have agreed but stressed that she was "open-minded".
"Sometimes you can't always stick rigidly to what she wrote. What she wanted to do was entertain and this is very entertaining," he said.
"It's an enormous compliment to her that people still want to see these stories and different interpretations are like different interpretations of Shakespeare."
Referring to the inclusion of lesbian murderers, he said: "If you think my grandmother was not aware of different sexual preferences, of course she was. If you read the books carefully, it's all there. This is just more overt."
ITV has also adapted A Murder Is Announced and 4.50 From Paddington, with four more to follow next year.
McEwan, who starred in television adaptations of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, said she recently watched the Hickson version while shopping for a new television in John Lewis.
"I must have stood there for three quarters of an hour watching it," she said.
"She was wonderful as Miss Marple but, as an actor, when you're asked to play a great character, you want to take it on as you know an audience won't want a copy of what's gone before."
Our own star becomes Christie's super sleuth
IC Berkshire ----- Slough and Windsor Jul 29 2004 By Daniel Lyons
POLICE have been left baffled by the murder of retired colonel found with a bullet in his head at the vicarage. In a last-ditch effort to discover the murderer's identity, they have turned to an elderly spinster, Miss Marple, whose intimate knowledge of village life may provide the key to the mystery.Agatha Christie's most unlikely sleuth is returning to our screens this year, with Old Windsor-born actor Geraldine McEwan breathing new life into the role. And she returned to the picturesque streets behind the Guildhall this week on location for Christie's first Miss Marple mystery, The Murder at the Vicarage, which is being filmed at studios in nearby Bray.McEwan, who is following in the footsteps of Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury and Joan Hickson, said: "I feel that I have been entrusted with a national treasure of whom I already feel both protective and extremely fond." The renowned actor was attending Windsor County Girls School when she made her theatre debut at the age of 14 at Windsor's Theatre Royal. By 18 she was starring in the West End and had stints with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961.In the 1960s and 70s she was a member of the Royal National Theatre, acting alongside Laurence Olivier and Albert Finney Among her numerous TV appearances are The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her Bafta-winning performance in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and her role as Lucia in the cult series Mapp and Lucia. She has also appeared many times on the big screen, most recently in the powerful The Magdalene Sisters.Curious tourists and patient motorists were kept at bay on Sunday morning as production staff turned modern Windsor into 1950s Melchester. In the scene being filmed, the soon-to-be deceased Colonel Protheroe, played by Sir Derek Jacobi, is involved in a near miss with a masked motorcyclist. Matthew Read, the film's producer, told the Express why Windsor was an ideal location for the scene. "People see Miss Marple and they conjure up a nostalgic idea of small English villages and towns. There are quieter places to come to than Windsor but the production value is brilliant, and it is very close to our studios in Bray," he said.The Murder in the Vicarage, plus three other Miss Marple mysteries, are due to be screened on ITV later in the year.
Stars Dying to Be in Miss Marple
THE MIRROR - July 24, 2004
SHE'S just a little old lady with grey hair and a twinset. But ITV1 sleuth Miss Marple seems to have extraordinary pulling power...The cast list for the new series, which hits screens in December, reads like a who's who of acting.
Take The Murder At The Vicarage. In it, you'll find Blackadder star Tim McInnery as the vicar, with Tipping The Velvet's Rachael Stirling as his glamorous young wife and League Of Gentleman's Mark Gattis as the nervous curate.
Lock Stock's Jason Flemyng pops up as a dashing artist while veteran Sir Derek Jacobi takes the role of odious Colonel Protheroe, who wakes up one morning to find that he's dead.The murder is investigated by Ballykissangel hunk Stephen Tompkinson - Inspector Slack - and along the way viewers will spot cake star Jane Asher rubbing shoulders with Pink Panther legend Herbert Lom.
Then we come to A Murder Is Announced... This time, the sharp-witted spinster, played by 72-year-old Geraldine McEwan, is surrounded by other terribly famous women.My Family's Zoe Wanamaker becomes posh Letitia Blacklock, whose home is the venue for a murder advertised in the local paper.
Singing star Elaine Paige and Spooks beauty Keeley Hawes play pals who live with her, while actresses Frances Barber and Claire Skinner are Marple's mates. And Cherie Lunghi plays a nosy villager.Meanwhile, comedian Catherine Tate is an angry Jewish refugee servant and Love Actually's Sienna Guillory is Letitia's distant cousin.
After the murder occurs at the appointed time, funnyman Alexander Armstrong arrives in the guise of DI Craddock to investigate.
We already know that Body In The Library, which was filmed first, features Jamie Theakston, Little Britain's David Walliams and Ab Fab's Joanna Lumley. Now it just remains to be seen who in the world of acting is left to be cast in the final film, The 4.50 From Paddington.
"People are falling over themselves to appear in the series," says our insider. "They want to be in something they know will be remembered as a classic."
New Miss Marple gets modern edge BBC News 10.22.04
The latest incarnation of TV detective Miss Marple has been unveiled, with actress Geraldine McEwan stepping into the role of the determined sleuth.
ITV has adapted four Agatha Christie novels to give them a more modern feel and evolve the detective's character. The late author's estate has welcomed the modernised adaptations, hoping they will attract a new audience.
McEwan, 72, star of 1970s drama The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, takes over from Joan Hickson, who died in 1998.
"With Miss Marple, I feel that I have been entrusted with a national treasure of whom I already feel both protective and extremely fond," said McEwan.
"I love Miss Marple and when I was asked to play her, I just felt it was - well it sounds a bit dramatic - but I thought it really was right that I was asked to play this part.
'Evolving' "I felt it was my destiny really, and I've enjoyed every minute of it. She is still evolving for me, and she's still becoming more things to me as I discover more about her," she added. Other cast members in the series include Joanna Lumley, Simon Callow, Tara Fitzgerald and Stephen Tompkinson.
Christie's grandson, Mathew Pritchard, who is also chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd, said he hoped the new series would bring "the classic stories to a whole new generation".
The new episodes, set in the 1950s, will reveal more of Miss Marple's past, showing the spinster did have a romantic side and a relationship in her younger days. She is also less judgemental than in her previous incarnations, and is depicted as an unshockable modern woman with many young friends.
The first four books to be adapted are The Body in the Library, The Murder at the Vicarage, 4.50 From Paddington and A Murder is Announced.
ITV plans to make another four next year.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2004/10/22 13:10:17 GMT © BBC MMIV
The case of Miss Marple's sepia-tinted photo
New version of Agatha Christie murders finds a mystery man for spinster heroine
Matt Wells, media correspondent
Friday October 22, 2004 The Guardian
Miss Marple, probably the only detective ever to solve a murder while out collecting for the village fete, may not have been quite the pious spinster of previous incarnations.
Writers of ITV's lavish new adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie character have given the old maid a new dimension: a past lover to whom she remains deeply attached.
The first of four new films, to be screened in December and starring Geraldine McEwan as the amateur sleuth, permits only the mildest hint of her new inner depth. When Marple is introduced to the audience, resting in an arm chair of her home in the quiet English village of St Mary Mead, she is gazing fondly upon a sepia-tinted photograph of a uniformed man.
Only the most careful of viewers will recognise the face as that of Marc Warren, an actor whose name on a cast list invariably spells trouble, as fellow characters in Hustle and State of Play can attest. The mystery man remains enclosed by the picture frame in the first film, The Body in the Library, but it is understood that he comes fleetingly to life in a later episode.
"Previous Miss Marples have been rather pious and judgmental," said Damien Timmer, the executive producer for Granada Productions. In this adaptation, however, she empathises with the passions of other characters, including the murderers, because she has experienced the same emotions.
"If you read the books she's unshockable, but you have to ask yourself where that comes from. We have filled in some gaps," said Mr Timmer.
There are other changes. Viewers will notice the case of the missing "Miss": to match ITV's other set-piece Christie whodunnit, Poirot, only Jane Marple's surname features in the title.
A more substantial update involves a change in identity of one of the two killers responsible for the eponymous body in the library. There is a sexual twist that was absent from the book. The rewrite was made, the producers said, because the original plot would not resonate with a modern audience.
Matthew Pritchard, Christie's grandson, approved the changes. "I think it's quite subtle. You can almost imagine my grandmother chewing the end of her pen and wondering whether she could have done it differently."
McEwan's portrayal of Marple is markedly different from that of Joan Hickson, thought to have been the definitive. She is warmer, less prim, and with a hint of a hippy past, yet still the recognisable maiden aunt who carries everywhere a knitting basket and a pair of reading glasses.
After a screening of the Body in the Library in London yesterday, McEwan said she had hoped to be approached for the part as soon as she heard of the revival.
"I met my friend Sylvia Sims about a year ago, and she said 'You know they're doing Miss Marple'. At the time, I didn't know who 'they' were. She said 'You should do it', and I thought that would be lovely."
She wanted to give a different performance from Hickson's, and hoped she would not be judged as better or worse. "I think Joan was wonderful, but as an actor when you're asked to play a great character you just take it on and you know that the audience won't want a copy of what they've seen before. "
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
Manchester film & tv TV news Friday, 26th November 2004
A Marvellous Marple by Ian Wylie
GERALDINE McEwan was happy to solve the mystery of who would play one of fiction's greatest detectives in four new TV films. "I feel that I have been entrusted with a national treasure," smiles the veteran actress, who stars as spinster sleuth Miss Marple. "I was thrilled when I was asked to take the role. I felt it was my destiny. It just came at a marvellous moment for me and I've enjoyed every minute."
Marple - as the missing "Miss" suggests - adds a modern slant to Agatha Christie's 1930s creation. Although faithful to the spirit of the character, it's an adaptation fit for a 21st century audience.
"I hope that Agatha Christie devotees will see a different Miss Marple, but one that they think is appropriate," explains Geraldine, 72. "Obviously, my interpretation will be different to Joan Hickson or Margaret Rutherford's. As an actress, you can't be haunted by previous performances." The Christie family has given its permission for one ending to be changed and agreed other updates, including one scene of a lesbian kiss.
"It might well be controversial for the real devotees. But I hope they will keep an open mind to this being done in 2004," says Geraldine. Fans have no need to worry about Granada's fresh and vibrant co-production, which arrives on ITV1 next month. No expense has been spared to give viewers a real treat. The cream of British acting talent is on show, including Joanna Lumley, Simon Callow, Tara Fitzgerald, Stephen Tompkinson, Derek Jacobi, Jenny Agutter, John Hannah, Niamh Cusack, Pam Ferris and Zoe Wanamaker. Inspired casting choices have also been made, with Little Britain's David Walliams joining the likes of The League of Gentleman star, Mark Gatiss, The Pink Panther's Herbert Lom, Marion and Geoff's Rob Brydon and stage musical actress Elaine Paige.
Viewers will discover Miss Marple's past, including a lost love. In one film, we see the young Jane Marple, with Marc Warren playing her lover - later killed in the war. "She did have a lover when she was younger, but he was married. She's probably had a number of relationships in the past, but has chosen not to marry," adds Geraldine. The older Miss Marple retains a twinkle in her eye. "She's quite flirtatious and she loves young men. So it's been nice for me. I like that element of it."
Best known to TV audiences for her performances in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Geraldine has grown fond of her new character.
"She has an incredible intelligence and diamond-sharp mind. Of course, it all happens by chance that she's no sooner solved one murder, that another one falls in her lap.
"I think she's a very modern woman, lives life to the full, and is totally unshockable. I've also come to admire Agatha Christie and feel very responsible to her because she's created a wonderful character.
"Miss Marple spends her whole life solving what are very often horrific and really Gothic murders, with no training - and yet she's always one step ahead of the police. Only somebody with a certain amount of humour could have created that."
Geraldine enjoyed unravelling the whodunnits. "The whole business of working out the plots intrigues me and I get a certain satisfaction doing them. I was very good at maths at school and doing problems and equations, so I get a kick out of that. "I've got to be right on the ball as Miss Marple. I make notes for myself all through the script as to what I'm meant to know at each stage in order to keep myself on track. But you can get Agatha Christie blindness, when you suddenly think, 'Where am I in this plot?'"
With eight more novels to film if viewers like what they see, Geraldine hopes to play Agatha Christie's English eccentric for some time to come.
"I've met her grandson and he's invited me to visit the family in Wales, including her daughter. They've been very warm and welcoming and I feel as if I've joined the family."
DAILY RECORD Daily Record & Sunday Mail Glasgow FRANCES TRAYNOR Dec 16 2004
AGATHA CHRISTIE'S MARPLE (ITV, SUNDAY)
THAT'S quite a makeover the old gel's been given.
A romantic past, a liking for gin and the capacity to spot lesbian lovers at 100 paces.
Beneath the batty and natty exterior, Geraldine McEwan's Jane Marple was as sharp as a tack and 10 moves ahead of everyone else.
Christie purists, of course, are up in arms about the modern interpretation of the crime mistress's thriller The Body In The Library.
But they shouldn't be. ITV has managed to breathe new life into the old dear with a lot of help from McEwan and her enigmatic smile.
Changing the plot so that good-time dancing girl Ruby was murdered by her cousin and her secret - female - lover was a masterstroke, as was having Joanna Lumley play a Fifties' version of Patsy, all plummy vowels and large sherries.
If there is a criticism to be made, it's in the number of weel-kent faces swanning around the set.
Jamie Theakston, Little Britain's David Walliams, Ian Richardson, Tara Fitzgerald and Simon Callow were all present and correct, some with a lot less to do than others.
But it was all frightfully well done - rather marvellous Marple, in fact.
Telegraph/Arts 12.8.2004 'Fishnets, tarty wigs I love all that'
Geraldine McEwan may seem the perfect choice to play Miss Marple, but, she tells Cassandra Jardine,
she is not as prim as she appears.
"Crikey," yelps Geraldine McEwan, her pale blue eyes starting from their sockets. The cause of this genteel alarm is not finding a body in the library bar, where we are discussing her new role as Miss Marple, but glancing at her watch. Two and a half hours have elapsed, rather than the expected one.
Making the role her own: Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple
"Oh dear," she says in her unmistakable, high-pitched voice. "Can I really have been talking for so long?" It is a bit of a surprise. McEwan is famously shy and uncomfortable about revealing herself yet, apart from a few moments when she has pursed her lips and announced "this must be very boring", she has talked enthusiastically.
She doesn't just want to do the actressy thing of revisiting the highlights of her lengthy CV - the years with the RSC, her long association with Laurence Olivier at the National, her triumph in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or her best actress award for Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World. Her real interest lies in trawling back over her life, the better to understand herself and those she has loved and lost.
Something seems to have changed and it does not take a detective of Miss Marple's acuity to work out that McEwan is suffering from grief. Two years ago, her husband Hugh Cruttwell, the universally loved former principal of RADA, died after a long illness.
She had known him since she was 14 and while she was trying to pursue her career and often away for long stretches, he was the bulwark at home. They were only a year short of their golden wedding anniversary and what she calls "the long goodbye, never to be seen again" has left an enormous hole. Even now, she cannot bring herself to read his diaries, though her first glance has revealed only affectionate references to herself.
"Fantastic", "incredible", "marvellous" are the adjectives she uses repeatedly of the current stage of her life - gamely trying to enjoy the good fortune that has given her two children, seven grandchildren and a fat new part. But she seems a little lonely.
She hasn't many friends of her own age, she explains, because she went straight into the theatre as a teenager. "In the theatre you have these intense friendships - and then..." she says, her voice trailing off into a low whisper at the thought of how actors drift apart.
Miss Marple has proved the perfect tonic. It's not just the role itself but the role model that Jane Marple has provided for McEwan at this stage in her life.
Being both practical and having a mathematical mind, she feels an affinity with the detective but, more than that, a deep admiration. "Miss Marple enjoys every minute of her existence and is not worried about getting old," she says.
"It's the biggest challenge. Everybody says you have to live for the moment and she focuses totally on the particular moment she is in, her mind is very channelled."
The new versions of the Agatha Christie books are determinedly modern. At one point, the characters are changed so that there is a lesbian embrace - McEwan feels sure the author would have approved. Nor does she have any reservations about the other innovation - giving Jane Marple a past.
As one who keeps photos of both her parents and her husband by her bed, she is delighted that Miss Marple kisses the image of her long-dead lover. "It's good to know that she has experienced love and the pain of losing," she says.
What she likes about Christie's world of St Mary Mead is the combination of "a conventional setting and horrible, Gothic murders". She, too, likes it to be known that she is not as prim as she appears. In her time, she has appeared in fishnets and high heels, tarty wigs and bustiers.
"I may seem like a very English sort of lady and very precise, but I love all that sort of thing," she says. Indeed, she is flattered that several scripts she has been sent recently (but not accepted) feature nude scenes. "I thought I had missed out on that," she told her agent.
In other ways, too, she is not as she appears. The upper-class voice that has had her playing princesses from her first days in the West End is not her natural accent. Her father was a printers' compositor who ran the local Labour Party branch from their front room in solidly Tory Old Windsor; her mother was working-class Irish.
Elocution lessons transformed her but she tries to hang on to her radical principles, talking regretfully of compromising on her children's education by going part-private. Earning considerable sums doesn't worry her - "Not so long as I pay my taxes" - but in her forties, she took a course in women's studies. She has also turned down honours; two years ago it was rumoured that she could have become a Dame.
"I will never speak of that," she says, her gentle face resembling for a moment the more hatchet-faced women she has played, notably Sister Bridget in The Magdalene Sisters and Jeanette Winterson's mother in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
Some of her working-class loyalty no doubt stems from having felt so out of place when she won a scholarship to Windsor County Girls' School, then a private school.
Not only was she the youngest girl in the year, she felt unable to keep up with the "Viyella brigade", whose parents could afford expensive shirts and "lovely long socks that came over the knee", while she wore cotton shirts from Woolworths and socks that needed yanking.
"I was very shy, very private," she says of herself in those days, but it was not long before she found an outlet for all her pent-up feelings. It came when she stood up to read a poem at a Brownie concert. " I realised it was going to be a way in which I could manage the world. I could protect myself by losing myself in other people."
A blissful reverie comes over her, just as it must have done 60 years ago, as she recites Lady Macbeth's speech, "Glamis thou art and Cawdor..." It was that speech that confirmed in her a passion for acting. Soon after, she lost interest in school and began to spend every spare minute at the local repertory theatre.
At 14, working as a walk-on at the Theatre Royal Windsor, she met Hugh Crutwell, an assistant stage manager, public school and Oxford-educated and 14 years her senior. Her parents were alarmed when he asked her to see The Third Man; five years later, when they became engaged, "all they asked was that he shouldn't take me away from my background".
Soon, she was getting West End leads and, by the time her children, Greg and Claudia, were born in the Sixties, she was working flat out doing three or four shows at a time at the National Theatre.
"I find it painful to talk about, as part of me feels I should have been at home. They have sweetly said that they were glad that I didn't let the acting drop." Greg is now a writer and director; Claudia is a full-time mother. Their children, aged four to 16, are McEwan's chief delight. Since her husband's death, she has traded in the family home for two bases, one near each of her children, so she can wallow in being granny.
During her husband's illness, she confined herself to small roles but, by early this year, she felt ready for something big again. When Miss Marple came along, she was initially extremely nervous.
"She seemed to belong to everybody but me. I had been watching Joan Hickson in the part only six months before, when I was shopping for a television in John Lewis. She was wonderful but I try not to think about how others had played her, as each actress has to make her their own."
The past few months have been very hard work. Twelve hours a day filming plus a long journey at each end of the day has been exhausting, even for a fit 72-year-old. She has needed a constant supply of Kit Kats in her capacious carpet bag to keep her going. It was a strain, too, when shooting scenes out of sequence, to remember what she was supposed to know at what point and she had constantly to make notes to herself.
But she loved every minute of it. "Each day, there would be another wonderful actor arriving to do a few scenes," she says. Best of all, she loved the handsome young detectives whom she had to outsmart - Jack Davenport and John Hannah.
"And Alexander Armstrong," she says, with such a fond smile that I ask if she is looking for a toy boy. "Oh no," she says, not minding at all.
The Scotsman Fri 10 Dec 2004 Murder she said
I'M ON THE set of The Murder at the Vicarage, a new ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple story. It is an idealised vision of England, a place where the sun always shines on village cricket matches, the cheery landlords in thatched pubs serve the most delicious beer and jolly maids wave as they cycle to evensong.
It has an impossibly quaint, old-world air. But the cast don't mind about this rather oldfashioned tang. In fact, they positively relish it. The star of the show, for one, appears to be having the time of her life.
I am introduced to the 72-year-old Geraldine McEwan in unlikely circumstances. The latest actress to incarnate the most celebrated female detective in literary history, she pauses to shake my hand before dashing off to clamber into the plush sidecar of a gleaming 1936 Sunbeam motorbike.
Stephen Tompkinson, who portrays the deliciously-named Inspector Slack, wanders past and quips: "Look, it's Evel Kmarple!"
Even though the thermometer on this scorching August day is pushing 32C, McEwan manages to keep her cool in Marple's trademark outfit of a hat, silk blouse with a bow tied at the neck, long sage skirt, a knee-length cardy and - the pièce de résistance - a pair of sensible brown shoes.
She may be of a mature vintage, but McEwan has a twinkle about her. Still beaming after shooting a scene with Tompkinson, she enthuses that "today I've been in this wonderful sidecar, and the other day I was driving to Eastbourne in an open-top sports car with Joanna Lumley. Things like that make it a pleasure to come into work every day".
Meanwhile, Janet McTeer, who is playing Anne Protheroe, the widow of a murder victim, is also clearly having a ball. "Making this has been absolutely gorgeous," she raves. "This film has no social relevance whatsoever, but then neither does Marmite. Who cares? People still lap it up."
Mark Gatiss, best known as one of the sinister comic quartet, The League of Gentlemen, is also having a whale of a time as the curate Ronald Hawes. He looks absolutely at home, strolling around between the gravestones in a dog-collar, full-length black cassock, a pair of post-war standard-issue NHS specs, and a hairdo which has apparently been smeared down with several tubs of Brylcreem. "This get-up is rather too convincing, isn't it?" he laughs. "I fear a whole career of playing vicars may now be beckoning. Derek Nimmo's dead, so there's definitely a vacancy!"
He revels in the escapist nature of Christie: "We were filming in this really pretty village called Hambledon the other day, and some American tourists were watching us. I bet they think we dress up like this every day!
"A friend recently asked me, 'Are you going away in the summer?' and I replied, 'Yes, to 1951 England.' I could do this forever. It's been so much fun, I think I might become a curate in real life."
So, the cast are evidently having a gay old time, but the worry remains that die-hard Marple fans may not be quite so amused. And there are legions of them out there - Christie has shifted more units than anyone except Shakespeare and the writers of the Bible.
There have already been rumblings about alterations to her original novels. In The Body in the Library, the gender of a murderer has been changed, and A Murder is Announced includes an entirely new section imagining Marple as a young woman who meets an alluring lover.
But that's not all. Some sections of the press have got themselves into a lather over the fact that a decidedly racy moment - a lesbian clinch between two of the show's younger characters - has been added to the screenplay of The Body in the Library. "It might be controversial for the devotees," McEwan concedes. "But hopefully, they will keep an open mind."
This view is borne out by the Christie family. The author's grandson Matthew Pritchard, chief executive of the Christie estate, gives these new interpretations his seal of approval. "My grandmother had a phenomenal imagination and an exceptionally lively mind," he says. "I think she would have approved of Geraldine as Miss Marple."
The actress is delighted to have received this pat on the back from the clan: "The Christie family have said that after filming I should come to Wales to meet everyone, including Agatha Christie's daughter. I've now joined the family!"
McEwan has nothing but admiration for the author, paying tribute to her often underestimated, wry sense of humour: "I feel very responsible to her about Miss Marple because I think she created a wonderful character. It's such an amusing idea of Agatha Christie's that this elderly woman spends her life solving crimes which are often Gothic and quite alarming, and yet at she is also leading this very ordinary, conventional, middle-class life in the village.
"No sooner does she finish solving one crime than another drops into her lap. That's a fanciful idea that makes me think that Christie had a very ironic and sly sense of humour."
McEwan was also drawn to the drama by the surprising modernity of the character. "Miss Marple is timeless," she says. "She could be living today, because she's leading an incredibly independent life and she's very happy with it. She feels totally fulfilled with her life. She has no feeling that she should give up on life just because of her advancing years."
In addition, she reckons, Marple has great empathy for her fellow human beings: "People of all ages open up to her because she's completely non-judgmental - she's compassionate and very interested in other people."
The part of Marple has previously been played by such icons Gracie Fields, Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury, Helen Hayes and Joan Hickson, but with her marvellously mischievous aura, McEwan has made the part her own.
"I didn't feel the weight on my shoulders of actresses who have played Miss Marple in the past," she says. "I've had a long career in classical theatre forever playing parts that had been done before. I did The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on television after Maggie Smith had won an Oscar for the film and Vanessa Redgrave had done it in the theatre. You can't be haunted by previous performances. The better the role, the more likely other actresses will have done it well in the past. I have no problem with that.
"Joan Hickson was simply wonderful, and I feel very privileged to be following in her footsteps. But my performance is totally different from hers. It's like when you play Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet - every performance is different because it's about the character being filtered through the imagination and emotions of that particular actor. Nobody wants a carbon copy - that's why things can be done again and again. Hopefully, in the future someone else will give it a go."
These ITV adaptations are undeniably classy, and they boast casts to die for. Tompkinson jokes that one of the reasons he took the part was that "when I started to read the cast-list, I was the only person I hadn't heard of!"
The offer to play Marple appeared at exactly the right time. For the previous two years, McEwan had done little work as she came to terms with the death of her husband of 49 years, the former principal of RADA, Hugh Crutwell.
"Miss Marple just came at a marvellous moment for me," she says. "I was wanting to take on something big that has the challenge of something like this. So it had a kind of rightness about it. All kinds of things have happened in the last two years, and although I've worked a bit, playing a few cameo roles, I'd made a conscious decision during that period not to take on anything too demanding. But this came at just the right time. It was wonderful." She thinks her husband would have been "tickled pink" that she has taken on the role of Marple.
Born the daughter of a printer in Windsor, McEwan is often mistaken for a Scot, but in fact her roots are Irish. She first realised she wanted to become an actress when, as a ten-year-old schoolgirl, she had to learn Lady Macbeth's speech - "Glamis thou art, and Cawdor" - in an elocution lesson.
Aged just 14, she made her stage debut at the Theatre Royal in Windsor and went on to star opposite Laurence Olivier and Albert Finney at the National Theatre. She picked up two Evening Standard Best Actress Awards (for The Rivals and The Way of the World) and also directed an acclaimed production of As You Like It for Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company.
The mother of two children, Gregg, 43, and Claudia, 39, and seven grandchildren, McEwan is rumoured to have turned down a damehood in 2002 and has never been interested in using her work to vault into celeb-land: "I suppose I could have capitalised on my success and become more commercial, more famous and earned more money, but I've never sought fame or fortune just for itself. Right from the beginning, I wanted to be a proper actress and take my work seriously."
Equally adept at playing monsters (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, The Magdalene Sisters) or sweethearts (Marple, Mapp and Lucia), McEwan has attained an iconic status. Although far too modest ever to say so herself, she is revered as a national treasure. Her fellow actors certainly view her as such. McTeer laughs as she recalls her first scene with McEwan in The Murder at the Vicarage: "She's a real heroine to me. Her late husband was my principal at RADA, so, from the age of 17, she has been a figure in my life. When we did our first scene together in this, I felt 17 again and just started to giggle - "I'm acting with Geraldine McEwan. I can't believe it!" The good news is that, even though she is now in her 70s, McEwan has no intention of fading away. She will continue to twinkle and light up our screens. "People talk a lot about the sexual invisibility of the older actress," she says. "But I always think that a person's sexual attractiveness is to do with their personality, even when they're young.
"At the moment, the person I'm totally in love with is Ricky Gervais. He just exudes creativity and sexuality. On the surface he's not your big handsome figure, but his talent, his observational skills and imagination are totally beguiling. He'll have that when he's 80. Take all the others - give me him!" Agatha Christie's Marple starts at 9pm on ITV on Sunday
Sunday Herald - 12 December 2004
Grime and punishment Preview By Damien Love
"Believe it or not," trills Joanna Lumley, showing off her old friend with the breathless quiver of a schoolgirl intro ducing her parents to the hockey mistress she has a crush on, "but Jane has a mind that has plumbed the depths of human iniquity!"
For the first time, I believe it. Jane, you see, is Jane Marple, who, before ITV decided to go with the bold, single-name title that makes her sound like a strange action movie, used to get called "Miss," and who, with respect to the galloping Margaret Rutherford, used to look only like Joan Hickson.
Hickson was a woman of great abilities, but plumbing the depths of human iniquity was not something you could imagine her doing. Making a nice plum jam, perhaps. But Miss Marple doesn't look like Joan Hickson anymore.
Ten minutes into this marvellous series, the new Marple, Geraldine McEwan, has briskly tidied away any lingering memories of Hickson's portrayal of Agatha Christie's favourite amateur sleuth. And one glimpse of McEwan's particular, peculiar twinkle, and you readily accept that, as a young gel, she probably danced often with iniquity in the pale moonlight.
McEwan, who is 72 and something like Anna Massey and Helen Mirren combined, has been working wonders on stage and screen since 1950, but she's probably best remembered as Jess's demented mother in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Some small tang of that show's subversive zest seems to have followed her into Christieland, knocking everything a fraction off-centre.
For instance, the first story, adapted from The Body In The Library (a fetching blonde has turned up murdered in Colonel Bantry's library), suddenly has a devious new twist Oranges' young Jess would have heartily approved. Watching it unfold, I found myself marvelling that Christie could have written something like that in 1941, before remembering that, of course, she didn't, it's just that the new addition barely causes a ripple on the show's surface.
That surface is the other great attraction. The story has been slightly updated, to 1951, but this is a 1951 that still looks like 1925, if 1925 had been designed by the artists who designed children's adventure books back then.
Under plastic-blue skies, the grass of St Mary Mead seems to have been freshly painted; buildings look as though they just came out of Hornby packaging; and, when we glimpse them, Dover's white cliffs appear scrubbed with toothbrushes.
In common with the Hickson films, sinking into all this nostalgia is like being handed a mug of Horlicks. When you get to the bottom of this mug, though, you realise someone's slipped a healthy belt of scotch in there, too. We're into panto season, and this is the grandest around. The supporting cast features everyone who has ever been on television during the past 25 years, including Ian Richardson, James Fox, Tara Fitzgerald, a stuttering David Walliams and baffled cops Simon Callow and Jack Davenport. With liberal exclamations of "gosh", "s'quite dreadful" and "any chance of a gin?", everyone tiptoes merrily along in parody. It's a perilous affair; while Lumley is perfection as Marple's dotty best friend Dolly Bantry, the way she's knocking back drinks, it's hard not to think of Patsy. Similarly, during Walliams's scenes, you keep expecting Matt Lucas of Little Britain to materialise in a frock.
That the centre holds is down to Christie's plotting, and, finally, to McEwan. Miss Marple has always been a curious pro tagonist. She doesn't really act, or even react; she observes. Listening and thinking are the hardest things an actor can do, but McEwan can do them till the cows come home. She cuts an almost surreal figure: her make-up seems to have involved closing her eyes while someone threw flour at her; and her clothes are a soft explosion of cardigan, topped off with shapeless hats that make her look as though she's emerged from an egg with shell still in her hair.
She moves like a goose, and speaks in this tinkling little voice that should be wrapped in tissue and kept in a box. But when she's on the scent, her sweetness melts, you sense her mind snapping like a bolt-cutter, and she starts speaking the way Obi-Wan Kenobi did when he did his mind-control thing.
And, always, there's mischief. When first we see her, McEwan sits gazing at a photograph of a young man in uniform (perceptive viewers might recognise Marc Warren, the ratty marvel from State Of Play and Hustle). We'll probably discover he was the love of Marple's life, long ago in some flashback world. Then again, given McEwan's twinkle, I wouldn't be surprised if it simply turns out that Marple has a toyboy 40 years her junior.
Joan Hickson was 86 when she made her last Marple; if McEwan chooses to do nothing but this for another 14 years, we should count ourselves fortunate.
Financial Times Arts & Weekend
By Robert Shrimsley Published: December 17 2004 02:00
Talking of bygone eras, ITV wafted us back to the 1950s for its new series (Sunday) with Geraldine McEwan in wonderful form as Agatha Christie's eccentric sleuth Miss Marple.This first episode was like a roll call of British drama: Joanna Lumley, Ian Richardson, Simon Callow, Jack Davenport, Tara Fitzgerald, even Jamie Theakston. One wondered what Richard Griffiths and Judi Dench, who were not present, had done to offend.A right jolly romp it was too. Light as a soufflé but fun nonetheless. The plot itself was a mere distraction, as the thesps camped it up gloriously.Lumley, in particular, was hilarious - essentially playing Absolutely Fabulous's Patsy's sober mother. The only gripe is that Marple did not seem sure whether it was playing it for laughs or not, so it veered wildly from poignant moment to high farce and then to investigative insight. Callow was pretty tiresome, playing the chief constable as if he were in panto at the Bournemouth civic centre.As Big Ron might once have said, the series needs to settle down, play to its strengths, concentrate on the story and get Marple up front more often.
The Stage Online
Slick detective work Phil Penfold 12.3.04
Famed for her memorable roles in series such as Mapp & Lucia, Carrie's War, Geraldine McEwan now takes on ITV's new version of Miss Marple. She tells Phil Penfold how she discovered a fresh take on Agatha Christie's amateur sleuth
It has not been an easy couple of years for Geraldine McEwan. The actress who has always been equally at home on television, screen and stage, lost her husband Hugh Cruttwell two years ago, and found herself "without any sense of direction". The much-missed Hugh had been a kindly but forceful head of RADA for almost 20 years - and a major influence on Geraldine's life, both personally and professionally.
Reflecting on their first meeting, the veteran actress, who has just finished filming four of the new Miss Marple films for ITV - the start of what looks to be a whole new franchise of the adventures of the amateur and elderly sleuth from the fictional village of St Mary Mead - recalls: "Hugh and I met when we were both involved in a play that was trying out at the Theatre Royal in Windsor - Who Goes There? It was all about this young girl (me!) who falls in love with a guardsman at Buckingham Palace. It did so well that it transferred to the West End, and, while the rest of the original cast were all jettisoned in favour of star names - that happened a lot in those days, I was the only 18-year-old that the producers could think of to play the 18-year-old, so I kept my part. Hugh and I got on famously, and, well, the rest is history."
But when her husband died, says Geraldine, she was cast into a "sort of void, really".
She says: "I wanted to go on acting, of course, but there were so many things that had to be settled up, I wanted to move house, and I just felt that I needed a bit of space for myself. And then, after I'd got a lot of things out of my system, and after I'd done a few cameo roles, nothing too demanding, I decided that I need the 'next big challenge'."
She was aware that ITV were wanting to do a whole new series of Miss Marple mysteries, and remembers that she was pleased that her name went forward to be considered. "I just had that gut instinct that this was the right moment."
McEwan confesses that she was amused by the situation. "A lot of actresses of a certain age were in what you might call the 'Scarlet O'Hara' position - you know, where every actress worth her salt in the thirties wanted to play the heroine of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. There we all were, being very modest about wanting to be Miss Marple, and each of us, I'm sure, gagging for the role, which is one of the classic parts on film or television."
And then they offered her the role. "It was my 'Vivien Leigh' moment - she became Scarlet, I'm now Miss Marple! I was wanting to take on something big, something that would challenge and stretch me, and I really got that, didn't I!"
The new TV series, already sold and marketed around the world ("David Suchet told me that he was mobbed in Japan recently, when he went to promote the Poirot series - apparently the Japanese think that Agatha Christie is the bee's knees when it comes to crime literature") is peppered with guest appearances from the cream of UK veteran film and theatre talent, including Derek Jacobi, David Warner, Pam Ferris, Simon Callow, Herbert Lom and Joanna Lumley, as well as the (relatively) new crop of performers such as Amanda Holden, Jamie Theakston and David Walliams. The new series is set in 1951-52, and there are several slight departures from the original novels, all of which have been "wholeheartedly" approved and agreed by the estate of the redoubtable Dame Agatha Christie.
These include a twist on who colluded on the murders in The Body in the Library, and the fact that there is a mysterious man in uniform seen on Miss Marple's table - the faded sepia portrait, reveals McEwan, "is indeed a former lover. And she is not a dry old stick, she has had a relationship before (probably more than one!) and she knows what makes people tick."
There is also a flashback sequence when we see the young Miss Marple and her beau together. Unfortunately, he was killed in the Great War, and she still remembers him to this day. McEwan finds this touching, something that adds a new dimension to the sleuth. "I love so many of the things that make Miss Marple tick. She has so many facets about her. I love, for example, the way that she is so self-sufficient and the way that she is fascinated by people - but not in that nosey, prying way. She just wants to find out what it is that makes them tick. And she has a very broad, very enquiring mind.
"She is equally at home in the company of young people as she is in the world of the elderly. She never puts anyone down. She's not an old disapproving spinster, she's a young at heart enquirer. She wants, at every level, to discover more about the human experience. The nice thing about her is that people want to be in her company. Especially, I feel, young men, because she is - I've discovered - a wonderful old flirt with a prodigious imagination. She lives in the present, not the past, and I really do love that. There's nothing that she likes better than being in a room with a couple of nice young and handsome detectives hanging on her every word."
Then Geraldine twinkles and adds: "The other things about her that I find admirable are that she is totally unshockable, completely non-judgemental and very passionate about the things that she believes in. Now, who wouldn't want to play a woman like that?"
So would she be happy to play more Miss Marple? "Oh, definitely, assuredly. But let's see what the public think about the first four films, shall we? They are the ones who will put their thumbs up - or down. If it's an affirming reaction, then I'd be only too happy to be Miss Marple over and over and over again."
In the films, Miss Marple is dressed in sensible shoes, small knitted capes, and beige or vaguely pastel frocks, each topped off with a felt hat on her white hair which seems to seldom have felt the touch of a responsible hairdresser. And wherever Miss Marple goes, a huge carpetbag follows, stuffed with contemporary crime novels, her binoculars and her magnifying glass, as well as other objects she finds useful. She almost looks like Mary Poppins of a pensionable age. McEwan is a very different person - a slight figure in a fashionably tailored black trouser suit and a white blouse with a high collar, and a beautiful necklace of thing silver strands onto which are woven jet beads. Her silver hair is beautifully coiffed and layered.
Did McEwan read any of the novels before she prepared for the role? "I suppose that I must have done over the years, but there just wasn't the time to mug up on them all as a refresher course before we started filming earlier in the year. So I went on an intensive read-up to get two or three under my belt plus also a volume of short stories. That definitely gave me a good feeling about Miss Marple."
THE STAGE Monday 20 December 2004 04:25 PM
TV review Harry Venning
The Miss has gone missing in Marple, ITV's reworking of the Agatha Christie perennial. Presumably this is to distinguish it from the eighties BBC series starring Joan Hickson, regarded by many as the definitive interpretation.
Or maybe the producers thought it would give the show more impact. Geraldine McEwan in the title role has yet to kick down a door and announce herself with a "Marple! You're nicked!", but you get the feeling it could yet happen.
For here is a Marple with a skip in her step and a twinkle in her eye.
Not only is she unpeturbed by a corpse in the library but even the revelation of murderous lesbian lovers as culprits fails to disturb the spinster sleuth's cool. Indeed, it falls to Miss Marple to comfort the shellshocked detective (Simon Callow) investigating the case. "Such things happen," she reassures him, a suggestive smile playing on her lips. Or maybe I imagined that bit.
No expense has been spared on Marple, which looks fabulous in every frame. But a big budget hasn't brought complacency to the show. It is skilfully crafted, well paced and excellently performed by its starry cast. Nor does it pull any punches in its depiction of murder. The abduction and violent death of a Girl Guide, whose disfigured corpse was intended to provide an alibi, made for very uncomfortable viewing.
Times Online December 11, 2004 Old maid new - Miss Marple's makeoverAgatha Christie's Miss Marple has undergone a makeover. Daphne Lockyer meets the people whodunnit
If you are a member of the British acting fraternity and have not been invited to appear in one of ITV’s four new and extremely good looking Miss Marple dramas, you should be both miffed and worried. You should, at the very least fire your agent — or, as we’re talking of Agatha Christie whodunnits, murder them with lead piping, perhaps in the billiard room. The cast list for the latest Christie fest — four two-hour glossy dramas — reads like a guest list for a Bafta awards bash in a particularly stellar year. Who would not, after all, want to be included in a project with Geraldine McEwan in the central role as the spinster supersleuth? And who wouldn’t want to be among the fresh A-list cast that has been hand-selected for each of the four dramas? The first of the whodunnits, The Body in the Library, showcases such national treasures as Joanna Lumley as Miss Marple’s posh sidekick, Simon Callow as the camp and slightly inept police inspector and Ian Richardson as a wealthy wheelchair-bound benefactor. Later episodes offer up Sir Derek Jacobi, Zoë Wanamaker, Miriam Margolyes, Celia Imrie, David Warner, John Hannah, Stephen Tompkinson, Griff Rhys Jones, Jane Asher, Frances Barber, Janet McTeer, Elaine Paige and Cherie Lunghi. As if that wasn’t enough, the producers have also hauled in a net-busting catch of actors likely to appeal to the “yoof” market. In episode one alone these include Tara Fitzgerald, Ben Miller, Jack Davenport, David Walliams of Little Britain fame and the former kids’ TV presenter Jamie Theakston. Later episodes will feature Keeley Hawes, Rachael Stirling, Alexander Armstrong, Amanda Holden, Jason Flemyng and Sienna Guillory. “We hope that Miss Marple will offer something for everyone,” says the producer, Matthew Read. Something . . . and someone, of course. The casting, however, is just part of a larger strategy that aims to shed Christie’s rather crusty — and ill deserved, in many respects — image and to do for Miss Marple what the last batch of ITV Poirot dramas did for the moustachioed Belgian himself: reposition both sleuth and creator for a 21st-century audience. Other tactics include the employment of groovy directors and writers. The Body in the Library is directed by Andy Wilson (Gormenghast, Spooks, Cracker) and written by Kevin Elyot (My Night with Reg) who, says Read, “is one of the best contemporary script writers in Britain today. “He loves the early 1950s period in which The Body in the Library is set and writes the dialogue impeccably well. It’s an added bonus that he brings a sort of naughtiness to the drama as well. He has this great sense of mischief that Christie herself would have approved of.” When I visited the set of The Body in the Library, there was a lot of talk among the lavish backdrops in Bray Studios about what Christie would and wouldn’t have accepted. The lurch towards modernity, for example, has meant taking certain liberties with elements of the four renovated Miss Marple tales, which also include Murder at the Vicarage, 4.50 from Paddington and A Murder is Announced. You wonder if Christie herself might not have knifed, poisoned or bludgeoned with a candlestick the person who decided to include a lesbian clinch in The Body in the Library, or to imply that Miss Marple was once involved with a married man. “But I think she’d have liked those changes,” Read insists. “Everyone involved is protective of Agatha Christie,” he adds, including, presumably, Agatha Christie Ltd, which has struck an exclusive deal with ITV to produce adaptations of all the Christie titles and must have approved the changes. “But you have to keep in mind that she was also a very modern writer. She was cheeky, mischievous and radical. Not to have used the radicalism would have been a disappointment to her memory.” Still, even with the tweaks you wonder if Miss Marple will be radical enough for a modern audience currently feasting on brilliant, hardcore contemporary dramas such as State of Play, Shameless and Sex Traffic. “But we’re not aiming to compete with those kind of dramas,” says McEwan herself who is talking to THE EYE in her trailer during a break in her hugely demanding film schedule. She appears in almost every scene and yet she’s also prepared to take you on a little tour around some of the sets where filming is taking place: an opulent dining room, humble servants’ quarters. “The attention to period detail has been great. At one point a beach ball was needed, but modern ones are too bright. So props spray painted a basketball instead,” she says. “Every detail is 1950s and yet the drama itself has a kind of contemporary resonance. There are no four-letter words or graphic scenes of sex or violence. But there is a kind of darkly gripping undertow that gives Miss Marple a modern flavour.” A great deal rests on McEwan’s own performance in the role made legendary by Margaret Rutherford and Joan Hickson. Stepping into their sensible, flat shoes has, she admits, been demanding, yet marvellous. “I’ve been offered a small nugget of gold. Miss Marple, I think, is one of the great British roles, but you must forget the performances that went before and make it your own. That’s both the challenge and the thrill of it.” Challenging, too, is the brilliance of the supporting cast. Powerfully comedic performances such as Simon Callow’s sometimes threaten to eclipse rather than complement McEwan, who favours a far softer, more feminine, interpretation of Miss Marple than seen before. “We wanted to get away from the whole tweedy, village spinster on a bicycle image,” the actress adds. Forget, then, the kind of clothes that might go well with elasticised support stockings, and picture instead soft pastel knitwear, little acorn hats worn at jaunty angles and a squishy carpet bag that will soon be as much of a trademark to Miss Marple as a black waxed moustache is to Poirot. “She keeps all the tools of her trade in the bag,” says McEwan, rooting around in it. “Notebooks, magnifying glass, her specs, a letter opener, a novel and some knitting. She often knits when she wants to watch people unobserved.”