As sketches go Agatha Christie’s Marple is quite funny but wildly over-extended. It’s true that you sometimes need time for a pastiche to establish its accuracy of tone but two hours is surely excessive by anyone’s standards.
Last night’s example of ITV1’s long-running gag was subtitled Murder Is Easy, and, by the time all the suspects were assembled in the church hall for the unravelling of the truth, it was no longer possible to let the phrase pass uncontradicted. It isn’t easy, it’s bloody difficult, particularly if you’re professionally required to keep your eyes open throughout. I can only assume that the popularity of these things has something to do with their powerful narcotic properties.
It was set in Wychwood-under-Ashe, one of those lethal English villages where the sexton has blistered hands, barely able to put down his shovel from one funeral before he’s back in the graveyard digging another hole. As far as I could see, Miss Marple had no connection whatsoever with this community or any of its inhabitants, impertinently pitching up to do her sleuthing after a conversation on a train with a woman who passed on her suspicions about the spate of recent deaths before pitching head first down an escalator. Thelack of local roots wasn’t entirely surprising, since the Christie novel of the same title doesn’t feature Marple at all; she’s simply been shoehorned into one of the plots they haven’t done yet.
Julia MacKenzie is the latest avatar of Christie’s detective, considerably less sharp beaked than either of her immediate predecessors, Geraldine McEwan or Joan Hickson. Both of those actresses had something a little cruel and predatory in them, flickering away beneath the old-lady gentility. But MacKenzie seems fretted and dismayed by the wickedness of the world rather than disapproving. She’s almost apologetic when she makes her observations, blinking timidly, though she also does a lot of pensive narrowing of the eyes to let us know when a salient clue has just sailed past.
The comedy, incidentally, came from the way in which – while the crimes and motives have been darkened to meet contemporary tastes – the inconsistencies that alert Miss Marple to the hidden truth are inextricably mired in pre-war Middle England. Marple wasn’t fooled for a moment by Miss Conway, an American tourist who claims to be on a brass-rubbing tour of local churches. “All I know,” she said sagely, “is that a genuine brass rubber would refer to heelball and not wax.” A little later, another lie was unearthed by her knowledge of baked goods. “I know shop-bought cake when I taste it,” she said, more in sorrow than in anger.
Given all this you expect the motive for the crime to be something equally domestic or bucolic – a spat over best Victoria sponge at the previous year’s fête, say. But it turns out that the dark secret that is the engine for the murderer’s killing spree really is dark – an incestuous rape by a mentally retarded man that leads to pregnancy and fratricide.
I have a feeling that this wasn’t in the original novel either and that it had been worked into the script in the hope that it might belatedly give gravity to the hour-and-a-half of twittering period escapism that we’d just endured. Naturally, Miss Marple has worked out every detail of the crime and takes us through it with excruciating thoroughness, though only after the killer has already worked through the very long list of people she planned to bump off.
The very last series of The South Bank Show kicked off with a film about the Wagner family by one of its longest-serving directors, Tony Palmer. “There’s sometimes been blood on the walls when we’ve worked together,” acknowledged Melvyn Bragg, sketching in the long relationship between the strand and the film-maker in his introduction, and I couldn’t help wondering whether they’d had words about the heavily accented introduction to this film, taken from an interview with Gottfried Wagner, the estranged son of Wolfgang Wagner, who ran Bayreuth for decades.
It didn’t make for the most accessible opening to this account of the dubious legacy of the great composer. I think I might have flashed forward to Winifred myself, anengrossing monster who also offered the advantage of a British connection. Winifred, who was married off to Wagner’s son Seigfried as part of the family’s private breeding programme, had been born in England, but moved to Germany after the death of her parents.
She naturalised with a zeal that was to prove embarrassing in hindsight, embracing Hitler’s ideas (and possibly Hitler himself) and happily collaborating in the conversion of Bayreuth into a shrine to Nazi racial ideology. All this was brushed under the carpet after the war, but, as if they were all in some Wagnerian fable of guilt and retribution, the family then collapsed into vindictive civil war. Operatic was the only word.