Miss Marple: The Blue Geranium on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Miss Marple: The Blue Geranium: Julia McKenzie in Miss Marple © 2010 MASTERPIECEMiss Marple concluded last Sunday on Masterpiece Mystery with the final episode, The Blue Geranium, a twisted tale infused with the seven deadly sins, those tempting vices that have plagued man since the beginning of time. I can think of no better foundation for an intriguing murder mystery than, wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. They are the stock and trade of the genre. And like the super-sleuth that she is, Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) is the only one who can unravel the complicated mystery surrounding three deaths in the quaint village of Little Ambrose.

Based on a short story by Agatha Christie published in 1932, the mystery begins almost immediately with the death of heiress Mary Pritchard (Sharon Small) whose life up until her demise involved hypochondria and histrionics. Her husband George (Toby Stephens) does not take her concerns over medical ailments or the flowers in her bedroom wallpaper turning blue very seriously. She on the other hand is convinced that it symbolizes her impending death. Proving him wrong is not what anyone expected. Did she indeed die of shock, or are there people around her who would benefit from her death? In Miss Marple’s view it all seems very odd and the villagers escalating tensions equal a long list of suspects. Two more victims and a quick confession by George Pritchard closes the case for Detective Inspector Somerset (Kevin R. McNally) who hopes to ride on the glory of the case right back to London after being banished for bad behavior.

On the day of the court hearing all seems to be wrapped up neatly until Miss Marple watches her gardener mixing a cyanide solution to kill wasps and it suddenly becomes clear that she has made a mistake. George Pritchard is not the killer and she must stop the court hearing. Phoning Inspector Somerset she gets no farther than the court assistant and rushes to London in search of her friend Sir Henry Clithering (Donald Sinden) who she hopes to convince to use his influence to intercede in the case. As she tells him the story of the Blue Geranium Murder we are taken back in time through the events leading up to Mary Pritchard’s death, the family and villagers involved, and all the reasons why she got it all so terribly wrong the first time round. “It became so knotted that it was difficult to tell one thing for the other” until she sees the light when her gardener mixes the poison to kill the wasps. Mary was also poisoned. Is it the philandering husband full of pride, the jilted sister full of wrath, or another whose lust for money will drive their greed to commit murder?

On first viewing, this episode was rather flat for me. I could not identify or sympathize with any of the characters. Fortunately, this script really gave Julia McKenzie a chance to use her acting skills showing greater depth of emotion than I remember in past episodes. The rest of the cast gave fine performances, but their characters were so unappealing that I never warmed to any of them. Mary Pritchard was an odious, manipulating, gluttonous woman whose death no one seemed to grieve. Her family was not much better. Husband George was cheating on her, sister Philippa Pritchard (Claudie Blakley) was a bitter and spiteful, her brother-in-law Lewis Pritchard (Paul Rhys) was an alcoholic gambler, her doctor Jonathan Frayn (Patrick Baladi) was a revengeful thief, and even Miss Marple’s friend Reverend Milewater (who shall remain a mystery because this actor is shamefully not credited, anywhere) is downtrodden over his decaying church and unproductive life. Oh my. Add to that a gray winter setting and not so thrilling locations and I was nonplused. On second viewing the story grew on me as I caught more of the seven deadly sins subtext by screenwriter Stewart Harcourt who greatly expanded the original short story. With so much sin in such a small place there had to be one vice that I could identify with. It arrived in this beautiful vintage red roadster.

Images courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Miss Marple: The Secret of Chimneys on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Miss Marple: The Secret of Chimneys: Julia McKenzie and Stephen Dillane © 2010 MASTERPIECEThe fifth series of Miss Marple continued on Masterpiece Mystery last Sunday with a new episode, The Secret of Chimneys. I was not familiar with this Miss Marple mystery novel written by Agatha Christie in 1925, so I just sat back and let it take me by surprise. It certainly did. There was distinct difference in this episode. The script, direction and editing were a cut above the normal fare which piqued my curiosity to investigate the original novel and the production team. I do not know whose feet I should throw all the accolades at or who deserves the laurel wreath of distinction, but screenwriter Paul Rutman, director John Strickland and film editor Nick Arthur made a triple play worthy of Eric Bruntlett. This is the best Miss Marple episode I have seen so far in the new Julia McKenzie reign. Fast paced, packed full of red herrings and double takes, I was questioning each character’s motives and analyzing every possible clue to the last, and then was totally surprised by the final reveal.

Ambitious M.P. George Lomax (Adam Godley) is pressuring the Revel family on many fronts. He has given their young daughter Virginia (Charlotte Salt) a deadline to accept his marriage proposal and her father the ninth Marquis of Caterham (Edward Fox) must entertain an Austrian count Ludwig van Stainach (Anthony Higgins) at his grand, but fading, country estate Chimneys to seal a deal for iron ore that England is desperate for after the war. The guests assemble for the weekend including cousin Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie), eldest daughter Lady Eileen “Bundle” Brent (Dervla Kirwan), National Trust advocate Miss Hilda Blenkinsopp (Ruth Jones) and faithful servant Miss Treadwell (Michelle Collins).

The count arrives and agrees to the deal on the condition that Chimneys be given to him in compensation. This does not sit well with anyone but Lord Caterham whose reputation and finances went south after the theft of the Mizoram diamond at a Chimneys party twenty years ago. His daughter Bundle is determined to carry on in grand decline, Miss Blenkinsopp wants the property for the National Trust and Miss Treadwell silently observes in disapproval. When the count is found shot with Virginia’s beau Anthony Cade (Jonas Armstrong) standing over him and the smoking gun near-by, scandal seems to be following the family across the generations as Miss Marple and chief inspector Fitch of Scotland Yard (Stephen Dillane) team up to investigate the murder discovering clues to the past that will unearth the deadly secret that happened at Chimneys so many years ago.

Faithful readers of the Miss Marple mysteries will be quite puzzled by this new adaptation. The original novel of the same name does not include Miss Marple at all, the plotline has been changed drastically and characters have been interchanged at random. Even the murderer is not the same. If this was a Jane Austen adaptation I would be screaming bloody murder in her defense. Having not read the original novel, I just took it for face value and loved it. Happily, Miss Christie did not write only six major novels so the offense seems less invasive to me, but short shrift for Marple book fans. Screenwriter Paul Rutman who I have admired in the past for his previous Miss Marple episode from last year, They Do it with Mirrors (2009) and two Inspector Lewis episodes, The Vanishing Point (2009) and The Great and the Good (2008) is a superb storyteller and a master at multilayered suspense. I am certain that the Marple die hards will not agree with me on that, but que sera, sera. It was a great story and ironically a cut above some of the previous episodes even though it has little Christie in it. I was thrilled to see Miss Marple do something besides observe and drop hints to the inspector on the case and enjoyed Julia McKenzie’s performance thoroughly. Finally they gave her more than one sentence of dialogue at a time.

The staid and measured performance by Stephen Dillane as Inspector Fitch was the highlight for me. He stole every scene that he appeared in because I was so intently listening and watching his every word and gesture that the other characters were secondary. If he could have his own series I would be enthralled. Virginia’s beau Anthony had me squinting in deep thought to place him before I realized it was Robin Hood without his bow and arrows. Ah, and Edward Fox as Lord Caterham. What distinction. What grace. Besides coming from the distinguished Fox acting dynasty (his brother is James Fox, nephew Laurence Fox and daughter Emilia Fox) he is a national treasure and never disappoints. As usual, the locations and costumes were superb. I want the Austin Healey that Miss Marple and Virginia arrive at Chimneys in. Ah, perchance to dream.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Miss Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Miss Marple: The Mirror Crack'd: Joanna Lumley and Julia McKenzie © 2010 MASTERPIECESpinster sleuth Miss Marple returned to Masterpiece Mystery last Sunday with her sensible shoes and ingenious deductions in one of Agatha Christie’s venerable warhorses, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. What true classic mystery aficionado has not seen one of the movie adaptations of this wonderful 1962 book of the same name? It has been trotted out no less than two times prior to this new production showcased by former Miss Marple’s: Angela Lansbury and Joan Hickson. Now Julia McKenzie gets her chance to slip into the Marple mantle and solve a double murder at a grand manor house  in her own village of St Mary Mead.

The locals are all aflutter when an American film actress Marina Gregg (Lindsay Duncan) takes up residence at Gossington Hall with her fifth husband, a dashing young English film director Jason Rudd (Nigel Harman) who has resurrected her waning career and the country estate formerly owned by Miss Marple’s friend Dolly Bantry (Joanna Lumley). A charity benefit hosted by the glamorous couple includes the press and all of the community but Miss Marple who must regretfully remain at home with a sprained ankle. During the party, the inquisitive Dolly Bantry observes local Marina Gregg fan Heather Badcock (Caroline Quinten) rambling on to her hostess about their meeting years earlier. Marina’s mysterious reaction to Heather’s recollection is to stare off into the distance in frozen shock? Dolly thinks it quite odd, but is later distracted by a more tragic event. Heather is dead and a poisoned daiquiri is suspected.

Dolly wastes no time in revealing all the details of the party to her friend later that afternoon. Miss Marple suspects murder and wonders if the cocktail was really meant for Marina but given to Heather by mistake? Dolly continues her report by equating Marina’s death-like daze to a Tennyson poem, “Out flew the web and floated wide – The mirror crack’d from side to side; “The curse is come upon me,” cried The Lady of Shalott.” As the investigation continues, Inspector Hewitt’s (Hugh Bonneville) suspect list lengthens as all the guests are interviewed. Is it Marina’s ex-husband the spiteful gossip columnist, her husband’s ex-girlfriend the jilted starlet or the suspicious young female photographer snapping shots of the guests at the party? It appears that many at the party have secret reasons to want Marina dead, including Marina herself.

It is easy to understand why The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side has been adapted so many times by movie producers. It is an intriguing story dripping with Hollywood glamor and colorful characters.  In this instance, the campy screenplay by Kevin Elyot moves Chrisite’s characterizations and plot twists even further toward a farcical spoof of the mystery genre than written or previously filmed. Director Tom Shankland’s use of over-the-top melodrama through clips of Marina’s films and the Movietone-like newsreels poke fun at the era and set the tone for the entire film. Oddly, Miss Marple is sidelined with an injury early on so her friend Dolly becomes her eyes and ears. Watching actress Joanna Lumley as Dolly acting like a giddy school girl over the celebrity parade and snooping on her neighbors was the highlight for me. Lumley’s infectious energy and deadpan comedy is so well suited for this type of role reminding me that Julia McKenzie’s low key and flat Miss Marple has yet to grow on me. The next episode of Miss Marple is an encore presentation of A Pocket Full of Rye on June 6th.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Masterpiece Mystery: Miss Marple – Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Recap & Review

Georgia Moffett in Miss Marple: Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (2009)The fourth and final episode for this season of the Miss Marple Mysteries aired on Sunday, July 26th on Masterpiece Mystery with Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, a new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel on PBS. The new Miss Marple Julia McKenzie is growing on me. I will admit that change is hard, but in this last production she won me over as she energized the old gal into action, adding a new dimension to the character that her predecessors Joan Hickson (1982-1992) and Geraldine McEwan (2004-2007) had not revealed.

Bobby Attfield (Sean Biggerstaff) discovers a body on the edge of a cliff near his home in Wales whose last mysterious words were, “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” prompting him to discover the victim’s identify and unravel the riddle. Joining him in the investigation is his childhood friend, the beautiful but bored Lady Frankie Derwent (Georgia Moffett), who is more than willing to drop all her social engagements in favor of this new adventure in sleuthing. Together they bicker and blunder along, until Miss Marple arrives for a visit with Bobby’s mother Marjorie (Helen Lederer) and joins in the investigation. She helps them logically analyze the clues and offers more than elderly advice to two headstrong and impulsive youngsters who think that they know better. They locate the dead man’s car by the cliff and inside a map with Castle Savage circled on it. Could this Evans live there?

Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple in Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (2009)

The trio manages to wheedle their way as house guests of the Castle; Frankie by feigning injury after crashing her red Austin Martin into its entrance gate, and Miss Marple and Bobby arriving shortly after, impersonating her governess and chauffeur. They are taken in by the dramatic mistress Lady Sylvia Savage (Samantha Bond, Mrs. Weston in Emma 1996), whose second husband Jack, who made his fortune in tea in China, recently died of a heart attack on the same day he uncharacteristically altered his will. Living in the household are her two teenage children, daughter Dorothy (Hannah Murray) hip to her dysfunctional family and keen on Bobby, and her broody son Tom who is obsessed with snakes and sulking over the changes in his father’s will which left the entire fortune to an orphanage in China. Also among this collection of dissipates are Dr. Nicholson (Rik Mayall), a local physiatrist and his weepy wife Moira (Natalie Dormer), Roger Bassington (Rafe Spall), a handsome live-in piano teacher whose amorous crooning distracts Frankie away from the investigation, and finally Claud Evans (Mark Williams), the man who may be the Evans alluded to in the enigmatic message. When he is murdered before Miss Marple, Frankie and Bobby can ask him if he understands the meaning of the dead mans last words “Why they didn’t ask Evans?”, they must rely on direct questioning and clever deduction before they uncover how all of these characters are inner-connected and who among them is a murderer.

Book cover of Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1934)This plot had me saying what? out loud so often, I had to just roll with it and hope that it would all make sense in the next scene. It did. However, a second viewing really clarified the bits that had not sunk in. The screenplay of Agatha Christie’s novel by Patrick Barlow (Julian in Bridget Jones’ Diary 2001) was not rushed, but moved along very briskly aided by sharp direction by Nicholas Renton (Wives and Daughters 1999). Visually, this episode was superior to any I have seen this season. I particularly liked the art direction by Miranda Cull. The atmosphere that she created in this production was richly layered. The interior scenes in the manor house were filled with chiaroscuro and accented against stunning costumes. The psychological effect was that his family had a dark secrets in its past that they were trying to mask. It was very effective. Coupled with excellent performances by Samantha Morton and Natalie Dormer, two key characters in the narrative, and Julia McKenzie’s Miss Marple showing a lot more energy and action, I can safely say this was my favorite episode of the new season. Oh, and the red hot Austin Martin that Frankie drove didn’t influence my choice at all. *wink*

Masterpiece Mystery continues August 16th-23rd with an encore presentation of Inspector Lewis: Series I, followed by seven new episodes August 30th-October 18th, rounding out a full season for mystery lovers on PBS.

Masterpiece Mystery: Miss Marple – They Do It With Mirrors Recap & Review

Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple (2009)The third episode of the Miss Marple Mysteries aired on Sunday, July 19th on Masterpiece Mystery with They Do It With Mirrors, a new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1952 novel on PBS. The new Miss Marple Julia McKenzie adds a sympathetic and knowing mantle to her interpretation of the famous elderly detective of St. Mary Mead, ever-ready to volunteer her sharp eye and deductive reasoning to solve a crime. Who says old ladies are sedentary, dim-witted and forgetful? Not Miss Marple! 

Jane Marple’s glamorous friend Ruth Van Rydock (Joan Collins) is concerned about her sister Carrie Louise (Penelope Wilton). Strange goings on at her home seem to be escalating; the most recent a suspicious fire in her office destroying her personal papers. On the premise of a social visit, Miss Marple arrives at Stonygate, Carrie Louise’s large estate that also doubles as a correctional facility for young men. Underway are the rehearsals of a play to entertain the inmates organized by Carrie’s third husband Lewis Serrocold (Brian Cox) and his troubled assistant Edgar Lawson (Tom Payne) who thinks he is Winston Churchill’s son. All of the household have been recruited to participate in the play including Carrie’s two daughters from her first marriage, Mildred (Sarah Smart) and her adopted daughter Gina (Emma Griffiths Malin) now married to an American GI Wally Hudd (Elliot Cowan, Mr. Darcy in Lost in Austen), and a stepson Stephen from her second marriage to theatrical producer Johnny Restarick.

Julia McKenzie and Joan Collins in They Do It With Mirrors (2009)

When another stepson Christian Gulbrandsen (Nigel Terry) from her first marriage arrives unexpectedly wanting to discuss urgent business with Carrie Louise’s husband Lewis, Miss Marple’s antennae go up. Christian retires to his room while the rehearsal proceeds. When the play is interrupted by Edgar wielding a gun threatening Lewis, and the faulty house lights go out, everyone is horrified until the surprise entrance of Johnny Restarick subdues the assailant. Center stage is the distracting drama unfolding with a gun. Off stage, Christian is murdered in his room while typing a letter. Was the over-the-top gun scene a staged cover-up for the murder? The local police are called in to investigate, and another murder unfolds right before their eyes, and then another. Three murders in as many days has the inspector scrambling to keep up. With such a line-up of eccentric suspects before them, it will take Miss Marple’s shrewd maneuvering to wheedle the clues out of everyone and expertly deduce that the murders unfolding before her were a clever ruse done with mirrors, to hide a deadly secret. 

They Do It With Mirrors First Edition Cover (1952)Wow! This story was like a stage play within a stage play. With so many characters and so much back story, the details and timing were critical. Honestly, as the investigation began I had my suspicions which Miss Marple quickly dashed as new evidence disqualified one suspect, and incriminated another. With this complex and creative plot, it is easy to see why Agatha Christie is considered the queen of crime. I have to commend screenwriter Paul Rutman for attempting to keep the narrative clean and straight forward. Given the time restraints of the production a few plot wholes arrived, like too many sides stories going on that could not be fleshed out properly, a chase scene on a bicycle that seemed pointless, and the unbelievable ending at the lakeside (which I will not spoil with further detail) leaving me with sinking feeling *wink* . The director Andy Wilson conducted traffic with precision, energizing the cast into strong performances. Julia McKenzie’s previous staid and controlled presence in the series showed more spontaneous craft and confidence. I can tell that she is settling in to her new role and finding her stride. When her eyes twinkled and her face lit up in recognition of a clue, she connected with the character and her audience. 

Next up, the concluding episode of the Six by Agatha series on Masterpiece Mystery on Sunday, July 26th, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?