Sunday, 22 August 2010

Agatha Christie Marple, ITV1 PREVIEW

Julia McKenzie
(© ITV)
Rating ★★½

ITV1, Bank Holiday Monday, 9-11pm

Someone said to me last week that in her younger days she had read all 80 detective novels by Agatha Christie.

Talk about misspent youth.

That the Queen of Crime is popular cannot be contested. Only outsold by the Bible, she makes even JK Rowling's success look humdrum.

But are her cosy whodunits any good? Every now and again there's a hoo-ha when some writer disses the old Dame for her flat characters and dull prose, but having a go at her worldwide popularity is like trying to force back the sea.

Millions adore her still, and that's why ITV has long been pumping money into productions of Marple and Poirot.

Marple's still got all her marbles
Watching the latest Marple starring Julia McKenzie – The Pale Horse – clues to the character's appeal can be detected. The idea of a pensioner underestimated as a silly old lady by some but who outsmarts the poisoners and shooters makes her something of a champion.

I find Julia McKenzie too unassuming in the role, and would prefer a little eccentricity, but she seems to be building a following.

The post-war setting obviously seduces some viewers too, with its steam trains, country drawing rooms and domestic servants – all a long way from rowdy, multicultural, ill-mannered contemporary Britain.

Finally, there is the parade of familiar actors doing turns as various stuffed shirts, stock sinister types and pretty maidens. Here we have Neil Pearson (Lejeune), Pauline Collins (Thyrza), Holly Valance (Kanga), Nigel Planer (Venables), Bill Paterson (Bradley) and others.

'Wickedness' at the Pale Horse
All these ingredients are in place at The Pale Horse Inn, where Miss Marple has come to discover who is behind the murder of her old friend, Father Gorman (Nicholas Parsons).

It gets off to a nicely menacing start on a foggy night with Gorman attending a dying lady, to the soundtrack of a radio play of the witches' scene from Macbeth, and talk of 'wickedness'.

The witch theme is continued at the inn, whose village is celebrating the burning of a local witch in 1664, and whose inhabitants include some women claiming to be witches. Pauline Collins' Thyrza even claims modern witches can control victims' minds and force them to kill themselves.

So there are bonfires and weird locals, but the Agatha Christie template is so well worn these days that it is easy to tell the red herrings from the real clues (the author's experience working in a hospital and pharmacy means anyone using ointments or exotic drugs in her stories is nearly always connected to her killer).

Which cardboard character will fold under questioning?
'Good Lord, Mr X must be rolling in money.'

'Yes, and no one knows where it came from. He's quite the mystery man.'

So it definitely ain't Mr X. A lot of characters come under suspicion, all with as much personality as Colonel Mustard in the library, but we know whoever looks most likely is never the guilty one.

The Pale Horse is no different, being the usual contrivance, and predictable in its far-fetched conclusion – but the evidence suggests millions will love it. Perhaps someone is controlling their minds.

Best scene: the creepy, fog-bound opening moments