Joan Hickson was hardly the first actress to play Agatha Christie’s owlish sleuth Jane Marple, but on British television she may still be the most generally liked. Produced by the BBC between 1984 and 1992, this genteel and well-appointed show was a bit languid perhaps but beautifully shot on film (which was slightly unusual for British TV at the time) and conveyed that un-hurried vision of ‘Mayhem Parva’ with great dexterity. It was not perfect – stories were often altered and settings relocated to a generic late 40s, early 1950s, not always to its complete benefit – but it now belongs to a bygone era of British TV, almost as remote as Christie’s own. And now it’s been remastered for High Def!
All twelve of the novels were adapted either as multi-part serials or as one-off feature-length productions. In the 1980s Thatcherite Britain found itself in a backward-looking state of mind, film and TV dominated by so-called ‘heritage’ productions. The result was a decade dominated by such glossy literary adaptations as Brideshead Revisited, Jewel in the Crown and Fortunes of War on TV and the likes of Room with a View, A Passage to India and Howard’s End (all from EM Forster) as well as the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire at the cinema.
The BBC ‘s Marple series fitted right in and showed the books a lot more ‘respect’ than the the highly comedic Margaret Rutherford adaptations of the 1960s (only one of which in fact was even based on a Marple novel). The more recent ITV series, starring Geraldine McEwan and latterly Julia Mackenzie, has been even less concerned with textual fidelity, seeking to expand the brand with adaptations of non-canonical works and to bring in new audiences with a more up-to-date sensibility (with mixed results).
This now means that most of the major Christie adaptations for the screen can be found in HD, including Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, the blockbuster cinema films of the 1970s (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, Mirror Crack’d and Evil Under the Sun) as well as the David Suchet TV series. It’s a shame that the version of the 1945 version of And Then There Were None is technically inferior but hopefully that will get revisited too someday.
The original BBC shows have tended to look a bit grubby on home video but apparently the remastering has been a real success and reportedly the shows look terrific. At the moment these are only being presented in the US though I hope they will make it to the UK soon. The first set presents the first 4 films fromt eh series: Murder at the Vicarage, The Body in the Library, The Moving Finger and my favourite, A Murder is Announced. I’m really looking forward to watching these again under (hopefully) optimal conditions – I just hope all 12 will make their way to Blu-ray in Europe really soon!