Mirren, Rigg and Annis in the frame for a new, sexier Miss Marple

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The Independent Online

Sex is coming to the sleepy English village of St Mary Mead - slowly, steadily, and on a bicycle. More than 70 years after she first brought tenacious detective work to the realm of thatched roof and church fête, Miss Jane Marple is set for a television revamp that will mix a hint of 1970s sensuality with the old-fashioned sleuthing.

Chorion, owners of the Agatha Christie portfolio of 80 novels and plays, is looking for an actress to follow in the footsteps of the most recent, and most lauded, small-screen incarnation of Miss Marple, Joan Hickson. The company is drawing up a shortlist of around a dozen potential candidates for the role. Though Chorion refused to be drawn on the precise composition of the list, and has yet to make any formal approach to its possible candidates, several names have emerged to be in the running - amounting to a fantasy who's who for the 50-something generation.

The Independent on Sunday can exclusively reveal that actresses believed to be on Chorion's initial wish-list include Dame Helen Mirren, Francesca Annis, Dame Diana Rigg and Joanna Lumley. "We have a long list at the moment," said Chorion's new chairman, the Labour peer and media millionaire Waheed Alli. He would neither confirm nor deny names on the list, though formal approaches to actresses from a final list of three or four names are expected to take place within a few months. "There are established, familiar names - favourites," he said.

"I love Miss Marple," added Lord Alli, who made his fortune with the youth-orientated TV production company Planet 24. "She is my favourite literary character. I read all the books, watched all the TV series." However, Lord Alli was keen to stress that, whoever does eventually become the new Marple, fans of the old-style character should have no fears. "People in the end don't want you to muck about with a traditional form."

Chorion has recently signed a four-year contract with ITV to produce 16 feature-length dramas based around Marple and Christie's other great detective, Hercule Poirot. Two weeks ago the company secured the largest single sale of Christie programmes to the US TV networks: eight new shows for the A&E cable network. Poirot is to remain the fiefdom of the actor David Suchet. Production of new versions of Death on the Nile, Sad Cypress, The Hollow and Five Little Pigs starts next month.

Joan Hickson, who died in 1998, is believed to have come closest to Christie's vision of a physically delicate but intellectually tough English spinster. Her portrayal of Marple for BBC television from 1985 to 1992 is regarded as having set the standard, and will prove as formidable to follow in real life as her character was to tangle with in drama.

Hickson was aged 79 when she began her Marple role for the BBC. At a mere 57, Lumley is the youngest actress thought to be on Chorion's list. Strangely, Hickson had previously been asked to play Marple in the 1961 film version of Murder, She Said - by Christie herself. "She said to me 'Some day I would like you to play my Miss Marple'," Hickson recalled in the 1990s. "I was taken aback, as I was young at the time!" She was 56. Others who played Marple include Angela Lansbury, Margaret Rutherford, Helen Hayes and even Gracie Fields.

Plans to modernise another famous character from the Chorion stable have, however, been dropped. Noddy, says Lord Alli, stays Noddy. Stand down, Ralph Fiennes.

Classic Christie on the screen

Dame Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972) was the first on-screen Miss Marple in 1961's Murder, She Said. She went on to appear in four more Agatha Christie films, including Murder Most Foul (1964).

Albert Finney played the diminutive Belgian detective Poirot in 1974's Murder on the Orient Express. The film received six Oscar nominations and won three Baftas; the cast included Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery.

Sir Peter Ustinov was the next screen Poirot. British-born with Russian, Italian and Ethiopian blood, he starred as Emperor Nero in Quo Vadis and won an Oscar for his role in 1960's Spartacus. His best known portrayal of Poirot was in Death on the Nile (1978).

David Suchet: 1989 saw the start of the long-running TV drama series starring Suchet as Hercule Poirot. He appeared in many Agatha Christie mysteries including Murder on the Links (1995) and Evil Under the Sun (2001). Suchet's first job was as an assistant stage manager in Chester.

Tom Matthews