‘An Old Character Bag’: Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

by: , June 14, 2021

© Screenshot from The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1992) dir. Norman Stone

Joan Hickson’s casting as Miss Marple in the BBC adaptations broadcast between 1984 and 1992 was endorsed by Agatha Christie herself, albeit forty years before Hickson actually played the role. Here, I consider how the characterisation of Miss Marple was inflected by the political and cultural commitment to nostalgia and a sense of tradition, led by a Conservative government hostile to the BBC. Christie wrote to Hickson in 1946 after seeing her performance in a West End production of Appointment with Fear in which Hickson acted the part of a spinster, saying, ‘I hope that one day you will play my dear Miss Marple’. (Younger 1998) Hickson’s performance has subsequently been judged to be truest to the fictional character by many fans and critics, and was endorsed by both the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. The BBC series was a landmark in placing female ageing at the centre of the narrative, yet constructing a model for ageing which was rooted in the past. The adaptation was true to the tradition of female detective fiction of the interwar years, of which Christie’s Marple has been the most enduring template for female agency. Hickson’s performance bridged the gap between past and present, her career being paralleled by Marple’s, stretching back to the 1920s. My intent is to explore how the this iteration of Marple was animated by a desire to be true to the books, and the legacy of Christie, who had been unhappy with previous attempts to bring her work to the screen.

The BBC adaptation rendered Marple a nostalgic articulation of Englishness which draws on the figuration of the village spinster, an apocryphal imagining of conservative middle-class femininity wherein the attributes of ageing are foregrounded. Hickson’s performance was true to Christie’s Marple in perpetuating the stereotype of old age equating with the gaining of wisdom, highlighting Marple’s role as a moral guardian and a nanny-like figure supervising the community from the sidelines. This was a Marple for Thatcher’s Britain, articulating an Englishness which was inscribed by an iteration of female ageing which evoked a nostalgia for traditional values, set in the early 1950s. Hickson’s Marple is indicative of a wider cultural imperative to reclaim a mythical golden age of Englishness, wherein the ageing single woman is rendered ‘other’, restoring order within a community with uncomplicated social hierarchies and moral codes, in contrast to the complexities of the 1980s. This article sets out to explore the ambiguities inherent in the representation of an iconic female detective, with particular regard to the nuanced construction of ageing femininity which defines the character of Hickson’s version of Miss Marple. Hickson starred in twelve feature length adaptations over eight years, being eighty-six in her final appearance in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side. I will explore the wider context of Hickson’s performance, looking at the specificities of ageing femininities and issues regarding adaptations of Marple, before focusing on the first BBC adaptation, The Body in the Library (1984).

Female Ageing in the 1980s

The Marple series was commissioned within the context of a discernible heightening of awareness and concerns about ageing, allowing for the possibility of an elderly female detective as a prime time protagonist, especially one who is wise, middle-class, community-minded, and does not challenge accepted notions of how to age ‘well’. Pat Thane observed of images of old people that at any one time there are many competing representations of both male and female ageing, but higher status and respect was accorded in line with ‘material or cultural power or … through evident wisdom or past or present services to the community’. (2000: 458) Britain in the late 1980s was a contradictory society in terms of attitudes to ageing, not least because the two most powerful positions were occupied by ageing women, the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom were entering their sixties during the decade, but were rarely referred to as ‘old,’ according to Thane. In America shows such as The Golden Girls and Murder She Wrote were seen to be indicative of a ‘true golden age’ of representation of older characters: according to Newsweek, ‘[s]uddenly the elderly are finding themselves portrayed as intelligent, attractive, vital—even, astonishingly enough, sexy and hip’. (Walters 1985) This apparent new visibility was an exception, only serving to emphasise the invisibility of the ageing woman in the media. Simon Biggs notes how ageing women were largely effaced on the television screens of the time, at best being cast in supporting roles with little influence on the narrative, with notably younger women being cast in older roles, and occupying less important roles as they aged, compared to men. (Biggs 1993: 44)

It was clear that the media continued to sustain the double standard of ageing suggested by Susan Sontag, with women experiencing a greater degree of marginalisation. (1972) Perennial types of ageing employed in cultural texts work to marginalise the older woman. Lynne Segal reflects how as far back as the writings of both Euripides and Aristophanes the elderly were portrayed as stock figures of ridicule, with old women ‘as helpless and pitiable, if not ridiculous’. (Segal 2013: 41) Women are not merely rendered invisible and marginalised on account of their age, but become inherently abject and the objects of pity and scorn when their age becomes manifest, with Sontag identifying ‘the visceral horror felt at aging female flesh’. (1972: 37) E. Ann Kaplan applied Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection to explain the position of the ageing woman in the patriarchy, arguing that ‘old women are what we have to push away from both the social body and even the individual body in order for that body to remain clean, whole, pure’. (1999: 188) The older woman is both exiled and undesirable, the two being inseparable.

The resistance to female led drama had been gradually eroded by the success of programmes such as Juliet Bravo and The Gentle Touch, although the difficulties faced in commissioning Tenko (BBC 1981-1984) demonstrated that this continued to be a contentious area, the show having been initially rejected, with the BBC arguing that ‘[n]o one’ll want to know about an all-woman cast looking their worst’. (Moran 2013: 254) Nevertheless, one male viewer noted how unusual and refreshing it was to see older women on television, praising Tenko for its ‘portrayal of women over 30 as human beings … We need to see older women more often if we are to see them as real people’. (Moran 2013: 254) In the decade of the launch of Saga magazine, there was a dawning recognition of the importance of an older audience as consumers, with the emergence of the financial heft of a generation of baby-boomers. As the Newsweek article suggests, the fascination was with narratives of ageing well, in an era when the Saga brand was promoting an idealised old age of leisure and consumption, and Jane Fonda workout videos spearheaded a home fitness boom, promising everlasting youth with Fonda looking glamorous and youthful in her forties.

Christie’s Marple

The BBC Miss Marple reflected the cultural and political remit of the Thatcher administration, perpetuating a nostalgic and mythologised version of female ageing in contrast to the baby boomer narrative of ageing well. A key tenet of the production was a determination to be true to the original Christie vision of the character. The actress Barbara Mullen, who was the first to play the role of Marple on the stage in the 1949 production of The Murder at the Vicarage, believed that ‘[t]o play Miss Marple you have to study Agatha Christie … the part is as near a self-portrait as you can get’. (Haining 1990: 122) Christie herself had assumed iconic status on account of the global popularity of her books, being the best-selling novelist of all time, awarded a CBE and made into a Dame in 1971. To the global readership, Christie and Marple were one and the same, making the casting of Miss Marple often rather contentious, for audiences as well as the guardians of Christie’s estate: her family members. The character’s status is such that she was the subject of her own biography, The Life and Times of Miss Jane Marple, published in 1985 to coincide with the BBC series.

Miss Marple’s first appearance was in a short story ‘The Tuesday Night Club’, published in 1927, followed by the first full Marple novel The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930, and eleven further novels, as well as short stories. The character conformed to the stereotype of genteel old age, Christie summarising her as ‘a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner—Miss Weatherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much more dangerous’. (Christie 1930: 22) She is the essence of conservatism, an aged middle-class spinster who has lived her whole life in the quintessential English village of St. Mary Mead. Nevertheless this iteration of old age worked as a façade for superhuman powers of deduction and steadfast tenacity, making Miss Marple ‘[t]he finest detective God ever made. Natural genius cultivated in suitable soil’ according to her friend, retired Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering in 4.50 From Paddington. (Christie [1957] (2002): 220) Originating in a golden age for female crime writers in the interwar period, Miss Marple was a product of the age of the spinster, one of the generation of women unable to follow the normative life cycle of marriage and children as a consequence of the casualties of World War One. The ageing spinster was part of the iconography of English national identity, as evoked by George Orwell’s image of ‘old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning’. ([1941] 2000: 139) The character of Marple pre-dated Orwell’s apocryphal image, with the spinster seeming to have a superhuman agency rooted in the ordinary. The tropes of female ageing are rendered essential tools in the solving of the crime, whether it is the ability to gossip, solve crosswords or knit. For Zoe Brennan characters such as Miss Marple ‘manipulate pejorative stereotypes of aging and refer to more archetypal images to produce heroines who are wise, independent and irreverent’. (2005: 134) Nevertheless, Alison Light concludes that ‘[f]eminists would surely be mistaken to set too much store by Miss Marple,’ arguing that her skills and knowledge do ‘little to challenge the conservative view of femininity as an extension of domestic life’. (1991: 244) The spinster detective has an agency which is rooted in a stereotype of female ageing which, although powerful and intruding into what had traditionally been the masculine world of crime, in her case ironically works to maintain the status quo and the marginalisation of the ageing woman.

Hickson has been widely deemed to be the most authentic Miss Marple, to the extent of having been endorsed by Christie herself, with whom Hickson had formed a friendship while performing in a stage production of Christie’s Appointment With Fear in 1946. Hickson was the first actor to be cast as Miss Marple for British television, with the character being most strongly associated with Margaret Rutherford’s performance in the four films of the 1960s. [1] Rutherford was established as a star of British film comedy, her eccentric and robust persona defining her performance of the role with the films doing well at the box office on both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, Christie disapproved of the casting, Rutherford being far from her conception of Miss Marple, with the actress herself writing that Christie’s Marple was ‘a fragile, pink-and-white lady’. (1972: 176) Rutherford had been deemed too physical, both with her energetic exertions and comic turns, whether it be in a sword fight or doing the twist on the dance floor, and actually being more actively involved in pursuing the criminal. The problem for Christie, and for Marple purists, was that Rutherford was the star, rather than Marple herself. Rutherford’s Marple betrayed the trope of age being commensurate with frailty and gentile femininity as embodied by the spinster sleuth, with Christie purists arguing that: ‘[s]he is no longer a dear old auntie but the stock, unacknowledged lesbian figure of popular fiction, the stout golfing lady of forthright views’. (Craig 1986: 171) In 1980 Angela Lansbury was cast in the role for a film production of The Mirror Crack’d, featuring a host of Hollywood stars, including Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Kim Novak, demonstrating the prestigious international appeal of the character. Nevertheless, Lansbury’s Marple was not deemed a success, with Aldridge concluding that she was ‘a caricature, not a character’, being unconvincing as an elderly lady, and lacking the authenticity demanded by Christie fans—most controversially in smoking cigarettes! (2016: 148) The freedoms taken with Christie’s work upset the Christie family, as with the 1983 Marple television adaptation, an American production of A Caribbean Mystery for CBS starring American actress Helen Hayes. British critics were harsh in their judgement of Hayes’s performance with Lynda Lee Potter in the Daily Mail referring to her ‘ghastly portrayal [which] made that well-bred spinster, dear Jane Marple look like an elderly tart’. (Potter 1989) The Christie family were not happy that Miss Marple was American rather than English, with Warner Brothers executive Alan Shayne commenting that ‘Dame Agatha had intended Miss Marple to be an old, rather fey, maiden aunt rather than a feisty, strong, capable woman like Helen’. (Aldridge 2016: 193) Again there was an immense divide between the imperative to maintain an iteration of female ageing which was pertinent to pre-war Britain, and the desire of producers to construct a Marple consistent with emerging narratives on ‘ageing well’.

The Charismatic Ordinariness of Joan Hickson

American adaptations of Marple stories had tried to update the detective to make her relevant to the era, yet the BBC chose to approach it as a costume drama, constructing an iteration of female ageing consonant with pre-war values. The casting of Joan Hickson drew on an established heritage of film and television appearances, making the actress a known quantity, whose low-key persona conflated the ordinary with the familiar. For Hickson, Miss Marple was a dramatic contrast to her previous work, and not merely because it elevated her from character actor to star. She had enjoyed a sustained career across theatre, film and television, in the tradition of the British character actress, with Raymond Durgnat remarking how ‘roles abound’ for ‘such excellent character actresses as Flora Robson, Brenda De Banzie, Margaret Rutherford, Kathleen Harrison and Thora Hird … While England’s young stars languished in their limbos’. (Durgnat [1970] 2011: 219) The character actress was not constrained by her looks and age to the short-lived careers of more glamorous stars, although often constrained to specific types dictated by their performance style and persona, as with the character actresses who attained minor stardom. Whilst Robson was typecast as the tragic spinster, and Rutherford as a be-tweeded eccentric, yet Hickson remained unrestricted by typing, unless it was to be the essence of ordinariness; her career was prolific, and she enjoyed the freedom to cross genres in her roles. Furthermore her roles were not confined to a particular social class, her first stage part in 1927 being that of an aristocrat, before making her London debut as a maidservant the following year. She belonged to a generation of character actors who lived a double life, nurturing a daytime career in film, before appearing in West End productions in the evening, developing a versatility and flexibility which put them in great demand in both film and theatre. These performers were indispensable in their reliability and craft as actors, although Hickson persistently played down her acting ability, opining that ‘I wasn’t beautiful so there were plenty of character roles. I never did any Shakespeare, I’m far too superficial for that. I just act instinctively’. (Jennings 2007) Across film, theatre and television she covered the full range of female character roles which were the bedrock of British drama, including maids, nosy landladies, fearsome barmaids, batty old ladies, eccentric aunts and doting mothers. Her career spanned over sixty years, including over eighty films and numerous television roles dating back to 1946. The Times noted in her obituary that

she tended to fill the bill as either the understanding mum or the slightly dotty aunt—one of those middle-aged women so helpful and endearing in English comedy and farce. Their names, Mrs Pottle, Aunt Prudence, Gladys Rumbelow, might not mean much outside their theatre programmes, but on the stage they have always been valuable to dramatists and audiences … her gift was by no means limited to one type of part.

Hickson was a gifted character actor, able to fill out the bill and to inhabit the role with a charismatic ordinariness, a familiar face for the audience, yet not inscribed by a star persona. She was known, but as part of the texture of British film and television, being familiar from roles stretching back to the pre-war era, and offering a continuity of experience for audiences.

In the tradition of many character actresses and their failure to possess the ‘looks’ of a star, Hickson was consigned to older parts whilst still young, referring herself as an ‘old character bag’. (Bonner, November 1989) For Hickson age became a career opportunity, being consciously aware of how it had led to her biggest role. Accordingly, she foregrounded her ageing in interviews, commenting that ‘[i]t is not so bad for me being so old. I have a corner of the market. You can’t fake wrinkles’. (Bonner, December 1989) Hickson stated that she made the decision ‘to act the part ‘my way,’’ with a focus on cultivating a more aged and reserved Marple, having had initial reservations that she did not appear sufficiently fragile to be true to the character. (Daily Telegraph 1998) The Times evoked her performance as Miss Marple as ‘[a] mildly self-depreciating gentlewoman who apparently should have been put out to grass in a nursing home on the Sussex Costa Geriatrica decades ago’ yet with ‘a steely side to her character’ which characterised her persistent pursuit of the criminal. (1998) The challenge for Hickson was to convey the acuity of the elderly sleuth, whilst evoking an ageing middle-class woman who is frail and on the periphery of society.

In interviews and the press Hickson’s persona was honed so that actress and Marple converged, a project more easily achieved with the absence of any previous defining roles. Much of this publicity worked to suggest an uncanny connection between Hickson and the fictional character, with the Daily Express commenting that ‘she was every inch the screen’s new Miss Marple in real life’ (Bond 1985) and the Daily Mirror commenting on the similarity in their vocal mannerisms: ‘[t]he perfectly enunciated English is from a bygone age’. (Bonner November 1989) Hickson was reportedly called ‘Miss M.’ on set, where ‘she and Miss Marple become almost indivisible’. (Bonner December 1989) Likewise parallels were made between Joan Hickson’s house and that of Marple, with the actress living in ‘a friendly cottage in a narrow-streeted English village’. ( Nevin 1991) She claimed that she was quite different to Marple, yet in interviews conveyed conservative attitudes which defined the vision of Englishness that was promoted in the adaptation, often complaining about modern architecture, the demise of the English village and muzak in shops, admitting that ‘I do share some of Miss Marple’s ideals’. (Honan 1987: 21) Although Hickson felt she was fundamentally unsuited to the role of Marple, her ordinariness defined her performance, being known for, yet not defined by, a particular role, she was ideal for the part of a character who, as an elderly sleuth, is defined by contradictions.

The Body in the Library

The commissioning of Miss Marple was politically astute for the BBC, whose deployment of an intransigent and wily ageing woman helped them assert their position as a global broadcaster, but also resulted in their greatest critic, the Prime Minister, becoming a fan of the series. The BBC’s decision to commission the Miss Marple series came in the midst of a decade of challenges for the corporation driven by Thatcher’s determination to deregulate British broadcasting, and a fundamental distrust of public service broadcasting, wishing ‘to knock the BBC down to size’. (Malnick 2014) Thatcher’s concerns particularly focused on perceived anti-Government bias in its current affairs work, and programmes which were ‘distasteful to the point of offending against public decency.’ The Thatcher government was dedicated to ‘moral regeneration’ of the nation, reacting against permissiveness, in ‘a return to what were specifically designated as ‘Victorian values.’’ (Hall 2000: 185) Alison Light commented on the BBC Marple adaptation that it ‘owed as much to a Toryism of the 1980s as it did to any conservatism on Christie’s part’ in its focus on nostalgia and ‘painstaking reconstructions’ of the past. (1991: 62-63) The Miss Marple adaptations proved to be politically astute, satisfying Thatcher’s concerns on many fronts: evoking a nostalgic pastoral Britain for a global audience, where a strong moral code is reinforced by an ageing woman.

The BBC were clearly prompted to develop the series following ITV’s run of success with Christie adaptations starting with Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? in 1980, a two and a half hour Sunday evening transmission with high production values, manifest in its exuberant foregrounding of period detail and a star cast led by Francesca Annis, John Gielgud, Bernard Miles, and a cameo role from Hickson. The BBC teamed up with American and Australian networks for Marple, hoping that this iteration of heritage England would sell well with overseas audiences, facilitating a bigger budget and boosting its prestige status as a consequence. Its importance to the corporation was evident with a budget in the region of £350 000 per episode, extensive location filming and shot on 16mm film. (Aldridge 2016: 219) The first adaptation was The Body in the Library, broadcast in three instalments over 26-28 December 1984 on BBC1, and proving very popular with audiences, helping the BBC in the ratings war with ITV, particularly given its scheduling in the prestigious Christmas drama slot. This was followed by a further three adaptations in the first series, before a further series was made, with The Murder at the Vicarage broadcast on Christmas Day 1986. The Miss Marple adaptations were a stalwart of the Christmas schedules, with a further four Christmas specials, finishing with Joan Hickson’s final performance in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side broadcast on 27 December 1992.

The Body in the Library was originally published in 1942. The story centres on the discovery of the body of young woman in the library of Gossington Hall, the home of Marple’s friends Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly. Dolly immediately fetches Marple, who undertakes her own investigation alongside that of the police. Hickson’s debut in the role establishes an archetypal image of the mid-century, middle class older woman, evoking decency, self-righteousness and gentility, behatted and gloved, clasping a handbag, with her head bent forward as if burdened with age. This façade of conventional ageing renders her the elderly everywoman of a mythical golden age of Englishness, her appearance being seemingly anonymous to the extent of invisibility, particularly in contrast to the overt glamour, youth and good looks of the younger characters who are so often the victims, or suspects, in the stories. In her first scene, she stands over her maid, supervising her as she lays the fire in the grate, directing her every move, dispensing her advice as to what makes a good fire. The elderly Marple is established as wise, acute in her observations and kindly in her intentions as she pats the much younger maid on her back, praising her for her efforts. Nevertheless, she commands a position of power within her household, the village, and the narrative, on account of her knowledge and her powers of observation. The young girl is grateful and desperate to please this paragon of domestic knowledge, establishing a dynamic which is continued throughout the programme, as the spinster’s friends and acquaintances clearly hold her in awe, seeking to please her and acknowledge her wisdom and omniscience.

Hickson’s Marple is seemingly dithery and fragile, often knitting or sipping a cup of tea in a bone china cup. Her clothing is demure, grey and discreet, wearing a buttoned up blouse fastened with a brooch, and shapeless cardigans and skirts. The Body in the Library establishes her moral superiority, underlying her power to root out criminals and reinforce moral codes through establishing a clear divide between the wisdom of old age and the troubling consequences of youth and sexuality. This moral hierarchy is established when Marple inspects the corpse of the murder victim in the library. The adaptation creates an initial dichotomy between Marple’s age and wisdom and the tawdry glamour of the murder victim, cutting between close ups of her impassive acute gaze and of painted nails, scuffed silver high heels and gauzy fabric. Each such close up is accompanied by a subtle magical sound effect suggesting Marple’s deductive powers as she processes the significance of these details. The adaptation develops a binary wherein age is equated with wisdom and moral superiority, and youth with sexuality, ambition and foolishness, the two victims being young girls destroyed by their ambitions, having strayed into the forbidden and punished by death. This BBC adaptation embellishes this theme, in the juxtaposition of Marple with the victims and Josie Turner (Trudie Styler), the glamorous young dancer who, motivated by greed, murders her cousin in cold blood, all of whom are represented as flawed on account of their youthful femininity.

Marple’s abilities are repeatedly praised by her friends and marked as being superlative, elevating her above mere mortal abilities. Sir Henry Clithering makes clear his admiration for Marple’s deductive powers, exclaiming ‘What a wonderful prosecuting counsel you’d have made!’ Marple’s acuity and moral supremacy places her above the nominal agents of law and order, as is made clear in her meeting with the Chief Constable, Colonel Melchett (Frederick Jaeger). The Colonel praises her ‘forensic intuition developed to the point of genius … the result, she tells me, of a lifetime’s education in an English village.’ Marple puts the Colonel in his place, unnerving him by suggesting that his praise was a consequence of his discomfort with her, her directness causing him to admit that she ‘might dog our official plodding footsteps.’ Accordingly, her investigation is shown to proceed in parallel to that of the police, although it is strangely offscreen or in the margins of the frame, whilst for much of the narrative the bluster of the police investigation occupies centre stage. This approach was noted by the New York Times: ‘Miss Marple is almost a subsidiary character, watching and listening unobtrusively, and then going off into quiet corners or on brisk walks to allow her extraordinary powers of deduction room for inspiration’. (O’Connor 1986) The older woman remains marginal, yet commands superlative, almost divine powers, in her omniscience. Her cogitations are left unspoken for much of the time, but hinted at with repeated scenes of thoughtful tea drinking from china cups, her face impassive.

The role of Miss Marple required Hickson to become silent, subdued and inert; to drink tea in a refined manner and occasionally frown: in short, to conform to an archetype of idealised female ageing which is virtually invisible and unheard, a marginal figure. Yet there is a subversive edge to this representation, for ultimately Marple rights wrongs by cultivating the attributes of age. While appearing to impassively sip tea she is observing words and movements closely, absorbing information along with her tea, a slight frown and pursing of the lips signalling her interest in Josie’s unease. The characterisation required a subdued performance style, with Hickson remaining still, with her head at a slight angle, looking down evasively when questioned directly. When Dolly proclaims her confidence that Marple has solved the crime already, Marple mutters an anecdote about the school mistress who was surprised by a frog jumping out of her clock when she goes to wind it up. Reaction shots juxtapose the bemused and amused reactions of her audience, in particular the smirk of Josie, denoting her amusement at the seemingly demented babblings of the elderly woman. Marple appears distracted and mumbling at times, with characters unaware of her abilities patronising her on account of her age, whilst those who know her are in awe as they witness her powers of deduction. Nevertheless by deploying the effect of fluster, she manages to work unobtrusively to collect the information required to work out the events of the night of the murders.

The BBC production accentuates the message of Christie’s book, that the aged woman is a force to be reckoned with, whilst the younger woman is flawed and vulnerable. The script repeatedly highlights how the two older women have an intuitive understanding of each other—one that is not shared with any other character—appreciating each other’s needs, and presenting a united front in the face of the police, suspects, and their social circle. The resourceful middle-aged Dolly scrambles Marple within minutes of discovering the body in her library, the BBC adaptation accentuating this for comic effect, by cutting between the ponderous progress of the local bobby to get to the body in the library, while Dolly swiftly drives to Miss Marple’s, and then gets her friend to the body first so that they can inspect the crime scene together before the police arrive. In many of the scenes, the two become a comic double-act, as Dolly mirrors her friend’s actions, and shadows her, deferring repeatedly to her wisdom, but also assisting Marple’s progress by exercising her privilege as a moneyed Lady of the Manor to get her way. Their unity is underlined by matching outfits in many of the scenes, as well as their mirroring of each other’s body language for comic effect, as when they quietly observe the rival suitors’ attempts to impress a younger woman, swivelling their heads back and forth between the two. For Dolly the investigation is an adventure, and she is a willing audience for her friend’s investigation, having unswerving faith in Marple’s powers. The younger Dolly is less resilient than Marple, failing to keep up with her as she paces along the beach, complaining that she needs her lunch while the older woman is wholly intent on cogitation. Dolly is ultimately vulnerable because of her concern about her husband, particularly as he becomes the victim of speculation regarding his role in the murder; in contrast Marple remains self-contained and focused on clearing her friends’ names. Whereas Marple is self-contained, having been summoned by her friend, she dutifully, and above all quietly, exercises her superlative abilities.

Marple’s spinster status allows her a freedom and power which transcends traditional gender roles, being rendered an outsider within a society defined by heterosexual norms, but also on account of her age. This is in contrast to the transgressive behaviour of the younger women in the adaptation, who masquerade as single, but who are actually married. Dinah Lee (Debbie Arnold), turns out to be married, despite wishing to maintain a ‘bohemian’ lifestyle of co-habiting with Basil. Her amorality is coded through her ‘platinum blonde’ hair, garish make up, her louche character being conveyed through her patronising rudeness to Miss Marple and her use of a cigarette holder, all while wearing night attire during the daytime! The villain of the piece is the glamorous Josie, who also conceals her marriage, flirts with Dolly’s husband, and whose dubious morality is signified by her profession as a dancer. The adaptation reinforces the moral certainties of a bygone era, wherein the younger female characters who stray—whether in terms of ambition, greed or not respecting the marriage bond—are punished. It is only Marple in the margins who sees past appearances and notes the weaknesses of the younger, attractive and duplicitous women.

In contrast to the trickster energies of Rutherford’s film performances of the 1960s, Hickson’s lean, bird-like physique enhances a sense of both fragility and acuity. Behatted, buttoned up in a sombre tweed suit, sporting gloves and clutching a handbag or even knitting, her character is constructed as a timeless figuration of the village spinster. Hickson’s Marple lacks the athleticism and bustle of Rutherford, replacing them with gimlet eyes and pursed lips, constantly on surveillance, unnoticed as an older woman, and thereby deadly and efficient in her pursuit of justice. Hickson is true to the spirit of Christie’s Marple in her subdued and still performance style, foregrounding the attributes associated with the older character actress of being asexual, marginalised by the younger characters at the heart of the crime narrative, and often in the periphery of the frame. The spinster sleuth maintains the social and moral hierarchy, ensuring that social order is not disrupted, and thereby being an agency for continuity, true to Orwell’s evocation of the old maid as nationhood.


The BBC series of adaptations of the Agatha Christie Miss Marple stories were a huge success for the corporation, signalling its emergence from the doldrums of the 1970s in terms of its drama output, to becoming a global entity as a broadcaster. As Aldridge points out, the adaptations continue to be broadcast ‘throughout the world’ over 30 years after they were made. (2016: 239) The success of the series can be seen as a wider move away from crime drama as a masculine genre, one centred on male heroes and detectives, opening the way for female-centred crime dramas such as Prime Suspect (ITV 1991-2006). In contrast to other female centred television crime dramas of the era, such as the American Cagney and Lacey (1982-88) and Britain’s The Gentle Touch (ITV 1980-84), and Juliet Bravo (BBC 1980-85), Miss Marple was a decidedly older female protagonist, her age being accentuated in the casting and performance of Joan Hickson. The BBC’s Miss Marple was fully endorsed by the establishment, being reputedly ‘the Queen’s favourite detective series’ according to the Daily Telegraph (6 June 1992), as well as the programme which the Thatchers chose to watch for relaxation at Chequers. This iteration of elderly spinsterhood had gained a renewed resonance for a national institution looking to rebrand its output, for a country seeking to rebrand its national identity and for an audience seeking reassurance at a time of national upheaval and social schism. The programme became the face of Britain abroad, being sold around the world, even to China, and was ‘top of the Soviets’ shopping list’ of BBC programmes in 1990, with the BBC explaining ‘[t]he Russians believe this is how English people behave. It is their vision of Britain, gentle, quiet and polite’. (Underwood 1990)

Christie’s writing lends itself readily to adaptation to the cultural climate of a given time, having a malleability rooted in its timelessness, for, as Alison Light pointed out, the books seem ‘fixed in a mythic time, ‘a golden age’ apparently outside history’. (1991: 62) Charles Nevin referred to this as ‘Christie time’, elaborating

It is ostensibly the late Forties and Fifties, but it is as if the war had never happened, or the Tories had won the 1945 election: the old order continues, safe and comforting, with everyone knowing their place, including the police, who resent it – particularly when put in it by Miss Marple. (1991: 24)

Hickson’s Marple captured the national mood and a desire to return to a hazy conception of post-war conservatism, a time evoked by director John Huston as ‘a regime of terrifying old ladies, ruled over by a scarcely seductive girl guide. London’s no city for men—it’s a spinster’s capital’. (Durgnat [1970] 2011: 220) The casting of Joan Hickson was crucial to this project, given her status as a character actor known from hundreds of appearances on film and television over the decades, which evoked a sense of history and familiarity befitting an iconic character, and the work of Christie. This image of genteel ageing femininity was a projection of Thatcher’s desire to take the country back to an idyllic golden age, cleaning up the schedules and restoring a consensus around British values. Although Marple supports the rule of law in her work, she is above and beyond the police, who are not equal to her powers of detection. It is the charismatic individual who can police the shires effectively, endorsing the libertarianism at the heart of Thatcher’s politics.

By the time the series drew to a close, the country was moving on: Thatcher had been forced to step down in 1990, and Miss Marple was starting to define what was wrong with the country in terms of how other nations viewed Britain. In an article entitled ‘Hit-and-Miss Marple’ the Daily Mail reported that tourists were staying away from ‘time-warp Britain’ seeing the country as ‘Miss Marple and her home at St. Mary Mead’. (Poulter 1992) Two years later, Prime Minister John Major told American business leaders that Britain was no longer the world of Miss Marple, ‘a hidebound, unchanging, class-ridden society’. (2 March, 1994) Hickson’s Marple was a detective for her time—a golden televisual age for female crime drama, and for older women on television—and moreover an era in which older women occupied the leading roles in British society. Hickson’s performance pleased Christie fans and critics equally by not disrupting or challenging their vision of both the character and Christie herself. Nevertheless, the BBC adaptations constructed a nostalgic view of a golden age of Englishness and the elderly spinster which was more reflective of the cultural and political climate, as well as the Corporation’s needs to assuage the government, compete with ITV, and move towards becoming a broadcaster with a global brand presence.


[1] Gracie Fields had played the role in an American adaptation of A Murder is Announced broadcast in 1956.


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TV Productions

A Caribbean Mystery (1983), CBS.

Cagney and Lacey (1982-1988) created by Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday (7 seasons).

Juliet Bravo (1980-1985) created by Ian Kennedy Martin (6 series).

Miss Marple (1984-1992) BBC (12 episodes).

Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996) created by Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson and William Link (12 seasons).

Prime Suspect (1991-2006) created by Lynda La Plante (7 seasons).

Tenko (1981-1985) created by Lavinia Warner (3 series).

The Gentle Touch (1980-1984) created by Terence Feely (5 seasons).

The Golden Girls (1985-1992) created by Susan Harris (7 seasons).

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1980) ITV.

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