Features

Miss Marple on Stage, Screen and Radio

Thumbnail Joan Hickson Credit Trinity Mirror Mirror Pix Alamy Photo
Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery, Credit Trinity Mirror/Alamy Stock Photo

Written by Dr Mark Aldridge

Agatha Christie’s female sleuth has captured crime fiction fans' hearts since her arrival on the page in 1927. Here are just some of the most famous and notable portrayals of Miss Marple.

Agatha Christie

The first person to play Miss Marple was none other than the character’s own creator, Agatha Christie. In 1934 the BBC asked Christie to write a story for the radio which she would then read out. She penned the supernaturally tinged ‘In a Glass Darkly’ for the occasion, but the BBC preferred a more traditional style of mystery. Christie duly agreed to provide a replacement, and wrote ‘Miss Marple Tells a Story’. Written in the first person, Christie’s reading of the story in May 1934 therefore saw her performing as Miss Marple. Unfortunately, no recording is known to survive.

Barbara Mullen

Miss Marple made her stage debut in 1949, in a version of The Murder at the Vicarage adapted by Moie Charles and Barbara Toy. Perhaps surprisingly, it was 35-year-old Barbara Mullen who won the part of elderly spinster. Already well-respected in the theatre (and later to become well-known as housekeeper Janet in Dr Finlay’s Casebook), she received warm reviews despite the fact that she was decades younger than the character. In the 1970s she reprised the role in a revival of the play, and by this point was a more suitable age. This performance caught the eye of the BBC, who considered casting her in a Miss Marple television series, but it never got off the ground.

Gracie Fields

Throughout the 1950s American television companies were keen to bring Christie’s stories to the small screen, but Miss Marple often eluded their grasp. Producers had tried to convince Christie to allow Miss Marple to become an American living in Cape Cod, possibly played by Peggy Wood. However, they were unsuccessful in this endeavour, and instead the first screen appearance of the character saw her portrayed by Gracie Fields. The versatile British star was joined by a young Roger Moore and top-billed Jessica Tandy for a one-hour production of A Murder is Announced in 1956. Fields didn’t appear to be comfortable in the role, and it wasn’t well received.

Margaret Rutherford
Few depictions of Miss Marple inspire such nostalgia as Margaret Rutherford’s take on the role. She starred in four films beginning with Murder She Said in 1961, which adapted 4.50 from Paddington. Rutherford was placed front and centre of the action, absorbing the roles of some other characters in the book to make her the undoubted star. Her comic skills were well used, as was her strong character – this Miss Marple was a real force of nature. Rutherford’s performance was popular with audiences and many critics, but not Christie herself. Christie respected Rutherford, and even dedicated The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side to her. But as the later films deviated from her novels, so her uneasiness grew, and she later wrote that ‘Margaret Rutherford was a very fine actress, but was never in the least like Miss Marple’.

To Margaret Rutherford in admiration
Dedication to The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, Agatha Christie
Thumbnail Angela Lansbury TMC Credit Studio Canal
Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack'd, Credit Studio Canal

Angela Lansbury
The 1980 film of The Mirror Crack’d had spent several years in development, and Angela Lansbury had been earmarked for the part of Miss Marple long before production started. Appearing alongside Hollywood royalty Elizabeth Taylor, Lansbury brings real strength of character to the role, but also later said that she ‘just did my best to make her as close to what I felt was a true depiction’. The idea had been to alternate Miss Marple and Poirot films, but the productions came to an end before this could happen. A few years later Lansbury would star in murder mystery series Murder, She Wrote, in which she played Jessica Fletcher, a character not unlike Miss Marple in some ways.

Helen Hayes
The high calibre of actresses given the role of Miss Marple continued with Helen Hayes, who appeared in two American television movies in the 1980s. Hayes was regarded as the ‘first lady of American theatre’, and so it was something of a coup to have her star in adaptations of A Caribbean Mystery and They Do It with Mirrors (using its American title Murder with Mirrors). Hayes’ mid-Atlantic accent and the placing of the action in the then-present day may momentarily confuse, but this Miss Marple still hails from England’s St Mary Mead, and is as keenly observant as ever.

Joan Hickson
It almost sounds too perfect that in the 1940s Agatha Christie wrote to Joan Hickson to suggest that she may play Miss Marple one day, but the story is true. However, Christie would never see Hickson in the role as the BBC series that starred her began in 1984, eight years after her death. Christie’s daughter, Rosalind Hicks, later wrote that ‘I am sure she would have loved her in the part,’ and that the series was ‘one of the best things done with my mother’s work’. The programme was a huge critical and commercial success, and it adapted all twelve Miss Marple novels, concluding in 1992. Hickson’s intelligent and measured performance played a significant role in the positive reception of the series, for which she offered a shrewd and thoughtful interpretation of the character that is still widely admired decades later.

June Whitfield
One of the most enduringly popular performances of Miss Marple has been June Whitfield’s interpretation of the character for BBC radio. Whitfield first played the role in 1993, and the productions continue to be regularly heard by appreciative listeners thanks to regular repeats who enjoy the warmth and strength that the actress brought to the role.

Geraldine McEwan
When the character of Miss Marple was brought back to television in 2004 the decision was made that this new interpretation should be a contrast with the still well-known former portrayals, especially Joan Hickson. BAFTA winning actress Geraldine McEwan was therefore placed into a brighter, almost comic-book world. The mysteries are often played out in broad strokes, with McEwan’s quirky interpretation of Miss Marple at the core. The series also furnished the character with a new backstory, including an affair with a married man during the First World War.

Thumbnail Julia Mc Kenziein ITV Marple
Julia McKenzie is Miss Marple, in Agatha Christie's Marple

Julia McKenzie
After three seasons Geraldine McEwan decided to relinquish the part of Miss Marple, and Julia McKenzie was cast to replace her. McKenzie did not mimic her immediate predecessor, but instead provided an interpretation that was somewhat quieter and more thoughtful, and more likely to be a quiet observer of human nature.

These are just some of the actresses who have played Miss Marple, but there have been many more across the globe, including in Germany, Japan, India, Italy and South Korea. Each actress has offered their own interpretation of Miss Marple, and there are surely more to come…

About Mark Aldridge
Dr Mark Aldridge is an Associate Professor of Screen Histories and author of the books Agatha Christie on Screen and Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World. He is currently working on a new book, Agatha Christie's Marple.

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