Friday, January 10, 2014

For the purist: My favorite filmed Poirot and/or Miss Marple PBS episodes.

In direct response to comments on my Poirot (THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES) post, I've decided to list my own personal favorites from the long-running Poirot and Jane Marple series. These are the episodes I really, REALLY love and you know how I am when I really REALLY love something, I want to share it to my heart's content. So bear with me, my dears, I'm off and running.

For my own personal favorites, the criteria was this: faithful adaptation to the source material (or at least, as faithful as possible considering that film is different from books and some leeway must be allowed), the actors involved and the true Christie 'aura' which is something indefinable unless it's missing and well, you know how that goes.

This is NOT a definitive list by the way, we don't do definitive here. Well, maybe we do (see below), but not every day. I'm no expert, just a life-long fan of Agatha Christie's work.

Joan Hickson - in my view, the definitive Jane Marple.

First up, these are the PBS Miss Marple episodes (or short/term series) I remember best and love most:

THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY (1984) starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. An embarrassment of riches as far as the cast and the setting and faithful adaptation to the story. EVERYONE, and I mean, everyone (including Sting's wife whose real name I've forgotten) is brilliant. The twisted 'how-to' of a particularly clever murderer could only be deduced by an equally clever and maybe just an little bit equally twisted Jane Marple.

This is the episode that introduces the oh-so-belligerent David Horovitch as the inappropriately named Inspector Slack. He is such an awful human being - I adore him.

Miss Marple is hard-pressed but too well-mannered to role her eyes when in his company.

A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED (1985) starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. Another gorgeous English village setting, another fabulous cast of character actors - the sort the British seem able to produce at the drop of a hat - several nasty murders and an almost impossible villain - though in the book, the clues are fairly given, it's a little harder in the film, they are so subtle.

I find the initial crime in the story to be fairly preposterous considering the options the murderer must have had to do the thing quietly and discreetly - you do wonder why this person would bring all this unwanted attention on themselves. But that's just a minor flaw with the original story and let's not quibble since the results are so agreeable.

John Castle makes for an especially handsome (and suave) Inspector Craddock and Kevin Whately (of Morse and Inspector Lewis fame) is Sgt. Fletcher, his assistant in command.

THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE (1986) starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. A view of St. Mary Mead (Miss Marple's abode) as a hot-bed of romantic entanglements, sexual shenanigans and murderous doings - ah, the joys of small town village life. Though in this particular film, the implication that Miss Marple is just another nasty village gossip is hinted at, we all know that not to be the case since she listens more than anything else. Listening is an art, especially when you are on the side of the angels. The story features a fairly pedestrian murder of an unwanted, unloved hubby, still it's the solution that works a treat. Not to mention the deceptively sleepy village ambience.

SLEEPING MURDER (1987) starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. The last of the Miss Marple books, I believe. In this TV rendition, the English countryside is sumptuously on display, so much so, that I sometimes just stop the film and sit staring and thinking, 'surely England must be the most beautiful country on earth'. I know it probably isn't, there are many more spectacular places with much more spectacular scenery, but for sheer bliss, for quietly soothing, gently dignified country scenes set in the last century - mythical scenes, really - you simply cannot top the Brits' homeland.

And then there is the perfect country house at the center of the mystery....sigh.

The cast again is superb, the young honeymooning couple at the heart of the story, so very attractive and so very eager to get on with life right after they solve the mystery of the wife's recurrent nightmares. Even when Miss Marple cautions them that digging into the past can have nasty repercussions. And oh how right she proves to be. As always.

Oh, and this is the only adaptation of Christie's books (that I remember, anyway) which shows us Miss Marple's very obliging novelist nephew Raymond (and his rather snarly-faced, daunting wife).

NEMESIS (1987) starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. An eerie and almost impossible story (thwarted love is the motivation) to transcribe visually, but this is the best version and again, the scenery is superb as Miss Marple takes a bus tour of the English countryside at the behest of a certain newly dead millionaire, Mr. Rafaiel (whom she met in A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY) whose estranged son (living as a hobo) may or may not be a murderer.

Is it possible to fall in love with a green and yellow bus? I did.

Besides the early 20th century streamlined gorgeousness of the bus and the lovely scenery, there's a delightful cast including an addition: a fussy nephew named Lionel played sympathetically by Peter Tilbury. He is not in the book but here he's necessary so that Miss Marple has someone to bounce things off - things that on the written page were her interior surmises. Actually, the story is not especially logical, nor is it very coherent, but on film it is stunning to see and the cast is absolute sheer perfection.

This is definitely one episode which should be accompanied by tea and scones.

A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY (1989) starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. The story that introduces us to the grumpy millionaire Jason Rafiel (see above) and which should have been filmed first, but again, I say: why quibble - it all works out in the end. Here the millionaire on holiday in the Caribbean is played by Donald Pleasance. We all probably remember his score of gleeful bad guys in films from the 80's. Here he's a good guy. More or less.

Worried nephew Raymond has sent Miss Marple off on a holiday to Barbados - her health has been wonky lately - for rest and relaxation. But as we all know, where Miss Marple goes, murder is sure to follow.

Here she interrupts the well-laid plans of a serial killer with a defined modus operandi which only Miss Marple is able to spot - just in the nick of time.

I definitely miss the English countryside in this episode, but the cast and story is so good that I can bear symptoms of scenery withdrawal with a stiff upper lip.

Next up:

Besides THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES, the following list is comprised of a few of the PBS Hercule Poirot episodes (and films) I remember and love best (prodded by the list at Netflix and IMDB): There are, of course, others I watch here and there depending on mood, but in general, these are the ones I turn to when I am in search of a definitive Poirot fix:

THE ABC MURDERS (1992) starring David Suchet as Poirot. This is one of my favorite Christie books, so for me to salute the film adaptation is a 'big thing'. I only have one quibble which I will get to shortly, but aside from that, all is well in 'pretend' serial killer land. Christie was the first (at least that I can remember) to use the complex 'trick' of one murder hidden in the midst of several others in order to throw the police off the killer's real motivation. A brilliant stratagem. In the book it is practically impossible to guess the killer's identity until the very end - although once all is revealed, it's head slap time- well, of course! you shout.

I like that Inspector Japp is all over this episode (I love Philip Jackson) as well as Hastings (Hugh Fraser) who seems to me particularly dense in this one - but then he's just come back from the wilds of Argentina (with a stuffed cayman (similar to alligator) as a gift for Poirot) and can be forgiven if he's a bit rusty.

My one quibble is the casting of the killer. Sometimes just from the actor chosen you can get an idea where the story's going and I'm afraid that is the case in this episode. But maybe that's only because I'm so familiar with the whole thing from having read the book many times over the years.

THE ADVENTURE OF THE CLAPHAM COOK (1989) Starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. In which we were first introduced to David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. (Oh, happy day!) Here Poirot is humbled into accepting the case of a missing cook (he actually has to go to Clapham, for goodness' sake) and before long is involved in a more heinous crime -  stolen bonds and a garroted body in a trunk.

This is not a whodunit episode as we know early on who the miscreant is, the fun is in the foiling of the plot. And it's also an episode in which the casting duties begin as they mean to go on. In other words, the cast of character actors is superb as it will remain so over the course of the series. Where do they find these wonderful actors?

In this episode, Poirot receives a rather loud rancorous scolding from an ostentatious house-wife and essential info from the adorable below-stairs servant (sweetly played by Katie Murphy). There's also a nice scene stealing turn by Daniel Webb as a weisenheimer railway porter. Not to mention, a last minute chase at the docks for a killer bound for South America but more importantly there's the wonderful scene of Poirot and Hastings trudging about the countryside while a fussy Poirot laments the lack of pavement and states that the country is fine for 'little furry things' but Poirot enjoys the 'good air of the town'. Lovely stuff.

FOUR AND TWENTY BLACKBIRDS (1989) Starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. A favorite of mine primarily because of the spot-on casting and the scene, early on, showing Poirot dining with a friend (his dentist) on roast turkey and all the trimmings. "No French geegaws tonight!" There is such warmth and charm in this scene of two old friends at a restaurant where, coincidentally, they take note of an older gentleman, a well-known artist, who is uncharacteristically breaking his hard and fast rule of 'no thick soup' or 'blackberry crumble'.

You can see I am very big on charm as a component of my Poirot episodes.

I also love watching Poirot and Hastings at the art institute, chatting with a worldly-wise artist's model who just minutes before had been posing nude. The look on Hasting's face is priceless.

"The auburn hair, mon ami, always the auburn hair." 

Though in truth this episode does deviate from the original story in fairly significant ways, it is one of those very rare instances where the television script is actually better than the original short-story source. You will hardly ever hear me say that about Christie.

THE THIRD FLOOR FLAT (1989) Starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. An offbeat episode, it almost all takes place indoors - inside Poirot's apartment house in London - the rather claustrophobic hallway and stairs, a dumb waiter contraption and a flat either above or below Poirot's (can't remember which) where a dead body is discovered.

Poirot, as you know, is fond of  'bright young things' on the make in London, especially when one of them is a lovely and rather ethereal young woman in love with the wrong man. Well, we don't know that, initially, until Poirot steps in - this wise old Belgian does enjoy 're-arranging' the course of true love.

This is one of those episodes that improves upon re-watching by the way.

THE MYSTERY OF THE SPANISH CHEST (1991) Starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. This episode is populated with people one wouldn't really want to know, but that doesn't stop us being fascinated. Here we immediately suspect who the bad guy is going in and while we wait for this repugnant person to get his just deserts, we are mesmerized by a clever plot which is one of Christie's more icky ones. Icky in the way of the murder, that is. Very foul indeed.

In the midst of all the dark doings (a terribly intime crime full of subtle cruelty) we find ourselves smiling at Poirot's evening out with another old friend. She is Lady Chatterton (played delightfully by Antonia Pemberton), a woman of a certain age who has run into Poirot at the opera and requests his help.

We are also privileged to watch Poirot and Lady Chatteron do the Charleston which is one of the highlights of this episode. It is the 1920's after all.

THE INCREDIBLE THEFT (1989) Starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. A mysterious woman in a veil requests Poirot's help in preventing her husband's invention (some sort of airplane guidance thing) from falling into the hands of the Nazis. The setting is the gorgeous English countryside (and you know how much that carries with me) and the time is just before the Brits' official entry into the war with Germany.

The cast and scenery are just plain dazzling. The Nazi sympathizing femme fatale, Mrs. Vanderlyn, is perfectly played by Carmen Du Sautoy, her long slim figure draped in fabulous period clothing. "How English," she says as she appears in a slinky gown on the country house terrace, a late-comer to afternoon tea, "How very, very English."

THE MILLION DOLLAR BOND ROBBERY (1991) starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. The opening credits of this particular episode are wonderfully wrought: a busy throng of business types in black suits and derbies, minions of finance, flow upwards on escalators from the underground, unfurling umbrellas, jostling each other to get to their job destinations in a heavy London rain.

As the name of the episode implies, there will be a million dollar bond robbery but with Hercule Poirot on the scene, the guilty parties will soon be apprehended, all will be well and Hastings will be a wiser man - at least when it comes to the wiles of women.

But not before some heavy-duty obfuscation and the first transatlantic crossing (with appropriate newsreels of the time) of HMS Queen Mary, with Poirot and Hastings on board. This time out, it is poor Hastings who suffers from the 'mal de mer'. The scenes on 'ship-board', as you might expect, are quite delightful.

PERIL AT END HOUSE (1990) Starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. Christie's original story of a particularly heartless murder, is one of her weakest and the cast of characters isn't very likable (this is not a rare occurrence with Christie) but it makes the list because of the spectacular scenery  (Devon standing in for Cornwall) and lavish production values.

I also love the ivory three piece suit Poirot wears for most of the film. Hastings too looks rather natty in his 'casual' attire. Those are good enough reasons for me to watch this one over and over again when I have the idea in my head that I want to visit the English seaside as it might have been once upon a time. Even if the insertion of Miss Lemon who was never more that a couple of sentences in a few of the stories is a bit disconcerting. But Pauline Moran makes a lot out of an essentially thankless role.

This is not a comprehensive list, by any means, but enough to begin with, I think.

Oh, and as a last thought, here are three non-Poirot or Miss Marple films made of Christie's early books which are definitely Top-Notch and worth a look-see:

THE SEVEN DIALS MYSTERY (1981) Starring Sir John Gielgud (who is utterly delightful), Cheryl Campbell, Harry Andrews (as Superintendent Battle) and James Warwick.

WHY DIDN'T THEY ASK EVANS? (1980) Starring Sir John Gielgud (again most delightful), James Warwick and Francesca Annis.

THE SECRET ADVERSARY (1983) Starring Francesca Annis and James Warwick as Tuppence and Tommy Beresford. Our first introduction to the wily crime-solving couple. (Though they don't marry until later.)

I've just discovered that the Kindle edition of THE SECRET ADVERSARY (the first Tommy and Tuppence novel ) is available for FREE at Amazon. Hurry, hurry and get your 'copy'. I just did.


  1. Wonderful list! I have most of these on DVD & as soon as I can replace my dying DVD player, I'm going to treat myself to a Christie fest.

    1. I don't blame you, Lyn. I'll bet they're all on blu-ray by now. :) I have an old player myself, so I currently watch mostly on Netflix. But I'm resolved to buy several Miss Marples this year (and a couple of Poirots), old player or not.

  2. The adaptation of Sleeping Murder has one of the great exchanges that shows Miss Marple's razor-sharp mind. I don't think it's in the book, but it occurs when Miss Marple warns the young woman that sometimes it's best not to delve too far into the past. Miss Marple tells the story of a young man whose mother won a contest for the best flowers and "when his mother died, he couldn't find her award. He looked everywhere for it and finally he found out--"
    The young woman interrupts rather impatiently, "He found out his mother hadn't won the contest." To which Miss Marple replies calmly, "Oh no my dear, he found out that she wasn't his mother.
    Love that exchange.

    1. Oh, that's in the book, Deb. I remember it clearly. Miss Marple's razor-sharp mind was honed on experience in her little village where every human foible seems to have been on parade.

  3. I'm no fan of Poirot: for some reason he irritates me, so I don't bother watching the TV adaptations. However, I really do enjoy Miss Marple, so I watched the films, but only the Joan Hickson ones. I tried the two later dismal attempts and after a few minutes I have up. My favorite of the adaptations is Nemesis. The others come in a close second.

    thanks for the information on the others. I wasn't aware that they were adaptations of Christie's novels. I shall have to take a look now.

    1. Oh, Fred, don't miss those last three I listed if you have the time and/or the inclination. John Gielgud shows up in two of them and he is simply delightful.

  4. Oh, I have to weigh in.

    I love ALL the Joan Hicksons, no matter which. I own them all. The productions are steeped in the period (all brought into the early 1950s for consistency) and the casting is superb. (Well, I'll quarrel with the presentation of dear Raymond's wife, Joan/Joyce as a toffee-nosed uh, witch, because she WASN'T)

    I don't think we have to use the term 'purist' to love Joan Hickson, because the others just aren't in the running.

    Margaret Rutherford is a lot of fun, and does a very good job in her movies, as long as we forget that she's supposed to be Miss Marple.

    Julia Mackenzie and Helen Hayes. Not bad, but again, not really Miss Marple.

    Geraldine McEwen. Good grief.

    And as for the latest producers calling the series "Marple", all I can say is, That's MISS Marple to you."

    1. I haven't seen nor do I plan to see the latest - thank you very much. I'm with you Susan. Ugh. When the saw the actresses chosen to carry on as Miss Marple and I read that they had given her some gloppy heartbreak romance background, I rolled by eyes to heaven and knew they would be awful. Miss Marple was not a cutey-pie.

  5. I'm glad you rate 'Sleeping Murder' so highly - it is my absolute favourite of the 'Hickson' Marples (although The Murder at the Vicarage is a close-run second!)
    The settings are indeed quintessentially English! My husband's aunt lives in a delightful Sussex village, rejoicing in the name of Hurstpierpoint - but we always refer to it as 'St Mary Mead'! Every time we drive diwn its winding main street I half expect to see Jane Marple emerging from one of the quaint little shops....

    We are indeed blessed with beautiful villages - even if the literary fashion is for them to be dens of murder and

    Yvette - have you watched the latter-day village homicides in 'Midsomer Murders'? (Mainly set in the local countryside just south of our home)

    1. Oh Sue, if only I could drop in on you - you could be my very own personal English countryside tour guide. :) I don't have to tell you how much I love your country - you can guess that. Ha. Yes, I have watched the Midsomer Murders - but only the original first couple of seasons. I enjoyed them very much. But what horrible nasty doings - HA!

    2. :-) Right at this monent we're watching the latest MM - so far a drowning and a death-by-bulldozer......& that's just the first 40 minutes! :-o But beautiful riverside scenery ;-)

    3. You've put me in the mood to re-watch Midsomer, Sue. Maybe a couple of the early ones. I wasn't crazy about the change in cast later on.

  6. Yvette, thank you, thank you, for putting together this list. Perfect for me, who has not watched any of these, and hasn't read a lot of these books within memory. A lovely list.

    1. Thanks Tracy, I thought of you when compiling the thing and hoped you'd get a chance to see it. I love doing good deeds. Especially when it comes to Chrisite watching and/or reading. :)

  7. Dear Yvette,

    I will respect your assessment of Joan Hickson as Miss Marple because I've never seen her perform, but for me Miss Marple will always be Dame Margaret Rutherford. There was a slyness to her that I always appreciated.

    1. Oh, but Mark, you must, at least take a look at one. I recommend THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY. See what you think. We all love Margaret Rutherford, but she was totally NOT the Miss Marple of Christie's creation. Just someone else having a great time solving murders and doing a fabulously fun job.

    2. Well, you and Joan could change my mind.

  8. They have a few Ms Marples but Hickson is the best.
    I am doing a happy dance it's like a summer day in Maine.
    How is Boston?

    1. We agree, Yvonne. Don't know about Boston, but New Jersey isn't bad today. Yesterday I had to turn off the heat. Go figure. :)

  9. Yvette, you've perked up our "packing up Christmas" day as Vinnie and I read about your superb post about your favorite Miss Marple and Poirot TV adaptations! I'm relatively new to the Joan Hickson versions, but we LOVE David Suchet's POIROT! By the way, strange though it may sound, I saw a CBS version of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS a few years back, with Alfred Molina as Poirot and doing a darn good performance, even if others in the cast here merely OK. :-) By the way, we thought Angela Lansbury did a swell job as Miss Marple in the movie version of THE MIRROR CRACK'D. In any case, you've got me wanting to catch up with them again. Great post, my friend, as always!

    1. Thanks, Dorian, glad you enjoyed it. :) I never did get to see the Alfred Molina version of Poirot. Maybe one of these days. I adore Angela Lansbury but didn't love her Jane Marple as much as you did. I thought she looked too aristocratic. She can't help herself, after all.

  10. Yvette,

    The library has a DVD of the Seven Dials Mystery, so I will take a look at that first.

    1. SEVEN DIALS is so much fun, Fred. I hope you enjoy it. Listen particularly to Gielgud's dialogue. He is a hoot. In fact, the whole story is a hoot. :)


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