Julia McKenzie debuted on Sunday as the new Miss Marple in A Pocket Full of Rye on Masterpiece Mystery. She’s the actress who played Mrs. Forrester in last seasons Cranford who put flannel pajamas on her cow. We shall see if she can also put a memorable spin on Agatha Christie’s famous elderly spinster who dabbles as an amateur sleuth. McKenzie has big shoes to fill. Not only is Miss Marple one of Christie’s most famous characters whose analytical skills are as sharp as her knitting needles, the two previous actresses who portrayed her in this series, Joan Hickson (1982-1992) and Geraldine McEwan (2004-2007), were outstanding, leaving an indelible mark on the role. We shall see if she can wear the Marple mantle as successfully.
Based on Christie’s 1953 novel, three murders in two days has Inspector Neele (Matthew Macfadyen) baffled. Wealthy financier Rex Fortescue (Kenneth Cranham ) poisoned at his London office was found with rye in his pocket, his young wife Adele (Anna Madeley) the prime suspect dies after tea in their home, and the maid Gladys (Rosie Heiney) is found in the garden strangled under the clothesline. Reading about the murders in the paper, Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) is saddened to discover that one of the victims is her former maid Gladys. When she arrives at the Fortescue estate she offers her assistance to Inspector Neele claiming that “People do tend to confide in old ladies,” her only clue the rye found in Rex Fortescue’s pocket. As she innocently interviews the suspects, she manages to wheedle out information from them that they may not have shared with the police, realizing that the murders have been staged to the childhood nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence: Mr. Fortescue is the King in his counting-room, Mrs. Fortescue the Queen in her parlor and Gladys the maid in the garden. Why is the killer using the pattern of a nursery rhyme? Who will be next? Even though Miss Marple’s theories come across to the Inspector as unconnected and scattered, he soon sees her keen logic and agrees to her conclusions, solving the case.
The cast in this production had me so distracted as each new character appeared that I had to remember that this was a Miss Marple mystery and not a Jane Austen movie. Oh, there’s Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfayden) with a mustache no less! Next up is Lucy Steele (Anna Madeley) with a blonde Carol Lombard hairdo. Her boyfriend is Henry Crawford (Joseph Beatie) without his big hair and ruffled shirt, and her stepdaughter is Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) with an updo ready for the prom. Now Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza De Feuillide (Lucy Cohu) arrives looking like Julia Child. Oh, and there’s Miss Bates (Prunella Scales). But – what’s this? She doesn’t want to talk? That can’t be. Oh dear. I think it is time to stop looking at every new production through the specter of Austenland.
Up next in the Six by Agatha series on Masterpiece Mystery on Sunday, July 12th, Murder is Easy. I hope the actors are more anonymous.