When you’re looking for a little Crime Scene Investigation, PBS isn’t always the first channel you turn to.
But the programming featured on PBS’s Mystery! in recent years has included some classy (The Inspector Lynley Mysteries) and truly fantastic (Foyle’s War) detective shows. However, I’m sad to say that up to now the latest Marple series, which has been airing sporadically since 2004, hasn’t fit in either of those categories. Geraldine McEwan played the spinster sleuth with a mischievous twinkle, the production values were high, the early 20th-C. settings flashy, and many of Britain’s finest acting talents made cameo appearances, but one flaw tainted everything: the writing. Not content to stick to Agatha Christie’s beloved stories or even to freshen them up a bit, the writers chopped up plots, rejiggered motivations, and introduced elements presumably intended to be “sensational” (secret lesbian affairs, incest, and secret incestuous lesbian affairs) into every single episode — wildly departing from anything resembling classic Christie.
Hearing that McEwan had been replaced, however, and that new mysteries would be airing this month starring Julia McKenzie in the title role, I decided to tune in and see if the series had been revamped in other ways as well. The third of four new 90-minute episodes, “They Do It With Mirrors,” aired on PBS last night.
One minute into the program and you’ve got all the standard cozy mystery elements: a country house, a lightning storm, a sudden noise, the electricity cut, lighted candles, shrieks of terror. Then there’s the first crime — I’ll gloss over the details — followed by the obligatory scene where a dear old friend asks Miss Marple to investigate. (No one has as many dear old friends as Miss Marple.) In this case the friend is Joan Collins, with fabulous clothes and coiffure — which may be what she was thinking of when she invited Miss Marple to stay in her beloved sister’s home. I’ve never understood why anyone would invite Miss Marple (or Jessica Fletcher) to stay. How bad would your problems have to be for the mayhem, bloodshed, and betrayal that inevitably follow her coming to be considered an improvement?
What follows is a sequence of deaths and twists, and an ending I didn’t see coming, but which made a certain amount of sense. Julia McKenzie is a sweeter, more grandmotherly Jane Marple, which I think I prefer to McEwan’s friskiness; her evident arthritis doesn’t make her seem any the less clever. There are a few very good supporting performances, both from recognizable faces and newcomers. (I very much liked the Inspector, played by Alex Jennings. Young actors Emma Griffiths Malin and Tom Payne were interesting to watch. I didn’t even recognize Elliot Cowan, and I watched him as Mr. Darcy in Lost in Austen only two weeks ago!) Though the movie does feel like a retread of familiar elements, a sort of serious version of Clue — the secret passage, the murder committed in darkness, ropes cut and stage machinery falling from above — one reminds oneself that these elements are familiar because of Christie and her imitators. All in all, I’d rather have too much classic material than too little.
If you decide to check the series out, stand-alone episodes 2 and 3 are available to view for a limited time on the Mystery! website, and the final one — “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” — co-starring Harry Potter‘s Oliver Wood (Sean Biggerstaff), airs this coming Sunday 7/26. Check your listings.
In the case of “Evans” I have read the book (it’s great) and Miss Marple isn’t in it, so it should be interesting to see how they finagle that!
Personally, I’m waiting for the one where Miss Marple did it.