Miss Marple (Season 7), PBS

Three new episodes, starring Julia McKenzie in the title role, offer first-rate acting, high production values and fascinating scripts based on Agatha Christie whodunits.

Agatha Christie’s “Miss Marple” (Season 7)

Masterpiece Mystery

Starring Julia McKenzie

PBS stations, Sundays, Sept. 21 and 28, 2014

Twinkly-eyed Julia McKenzie (“Cranford”) is back as Miss Marple in three new productions of well-acted, tightly written, complex and mysterious cases — “A Caribbean Mystery” and “Greenshaw’s Folly” (Sept. 21 at 8 and 9:30 p.m. PT/ET respectively) and “Endless Night” (Sept. 28 at 9 p.m. PT/ET).

Jane Marple, St. Mary Mead’s master sleuth, though imbued with intelligence, shrewdness and wisdom, often hides these qualities under her disguise as an elderly “spinster lady.” It is interesting to notice the variations in her approach to crime-solving in these terrific episodes. Miss Marple has help in resolving “A Caribbean Mystery.” In “Greenshaw’s Folly,” she nervously hesitates and stammers while revealing the solution of the crimes that only she has been astute enough to decipher. While in “Endless Night,” she exhibits courage almost to the point of recklessness.

Written in 1964, “A Caribbean Mystery,” finds our Jane vacationing at a deluxe hotel on a gloriously technicolor tropical West Indies island (actually filmed in South Africa). A loquacious Major Palgrave engages Miss Marple in banal conversation, until he mentions his photograph of a serial killer. But before he can show it to her, he recognizes someone and quickly puts it away. The next day he is found dead in his room. Under a ruse, Miss Marple tries to retrieve the damning photograph, but it has disappeared.

Another guest, the ailing and irritable business magnate Jason Rafiel (Sir Antony Sher, “God on Trial”), becomes Miss Marple’s ally and helps her put together the pieces of the murder puzzle. Unfortunately, they are too late to prevent the deaths of a money-starved maid and a money-hungry blond, before they solve the unlikely solution to the mystery.

And who does Miss Marple bump into on the island but Agatha Christie’s contemporary, Ian Fleming (Jeremy Crutchley). We have the fun of watching Fleming “borrow” the James Bond name from an ornithologist, who is played by the episode’s writer, Charlie Higson. Higson has published a series of books about a young James Bond, so he must have enjoyed writing himself and his character into the script. The tycoon Rafiel appears posthumously in Christie’s great novel, “Nemesis,” where he sends Miss Marple on a case specifically because of her success in solving the convoluted events in “A Caribbean Mystery.”

(If you think you have seen “A Caribbean Mystery” before, you well may have. A 1983 TV movie adaptation starred Helen Hayes as Miss Marple and Barnard Hughes as Rafiel. A 1989 BBC TV adaptation starred Joan Hickson as part of the BBC series “Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple,” with Donald Pleasence as Rafiel.)

Shakespearean sonnets, flowers, birthdays, poisons and half a century of secrets all play a role in the exciting “Greenshaw’s Folly,” adapted from two of Christie’s short stories, “The Thumb Mark of St. Peter” and “Greenshaw’s Folly.”

Miss Marple helps Louisa (Kimberly Nixon), with her young son (Bobby Smalldridge), escape an abusive husband by finding her a secretarial position at the Folly, a spooky tear-down of a country home with stately grounds. The Folly is the home of the eccentric botanist, Miss Greenshaw (Fiona Shaw, “Harry Potter”), who has devoted her life to developing a codex of medicinal plants.

The exposition unravels slowly, as we meet other characters: Folly guest, historian Horace Bindler (Rufus Jones); a seemingly kindly reverend; some friends of Miss Marple’s who knit clothing for children in a nearby orphanage; a quiet gardener, Alfred Pollock (Martin Compston); and Miss Greenshaw’s nephew, the self-important minor actor Nat Fletcher (Sam Reid).

Soon, the butler falls to his death while changing a light bulb. But the audience watches him fall and his death appears to be straightforward. Although Christie audiences are suspicious of all death, we take comfort in knowing that the butler couldn’t have done it. The housekeeper, Mrs. Cresswell (Julia Sawalha), seems more annoyed by his death than upset.

While her angry husband lurks in the background, Louisa becomes the love interest of the gardener and the actor. Two gruesome murders occur, and some dastardly secrets are disclosed in a complex solution that Miss Marple reveals, but you may not have seen the solution coming. I didn’t.

“Endless Night” begins with a young man writing his recollections. He is Mike Rogers (Tom Hughes), a handsome blue-collar chauffeur with a pleasing manner. His story begins as Miss Marple makes his acquaintance and together they view Gypsy’s Acre, an abandoned house in a beguiling setting with an ancient gypsy’s curse, personified by the Romany, Mrs. Lee. Miss Marple is visiting a newly widowed, rather strange friend, Miss Phillpot, who lives nearby, so she and Mike seem to meet often, even abroad.

Mike falls in love with Ellie (Joanna Vanderham, “The Paradise”), an innocent American heiress longing to escape her cloistered life. The two soon marry, despite the objections of Ellie’s family and advisors. An architect friend of Mike’s builds them a gorgeous Le Corbusier-style house at Gypsy’s Acre, in repayment for Mike having tried to save the life of the architect’s brother years ago. The young couple seem genuinely happy in their fabulous home and ignore old Mrs. Lee’s evil campaign to make them leave.

When Ellie twists her ankle, She invites her dear, and perhaps, only friend, Greta Anderson (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) to stay. Mike seems unhappy to have Greta stay, but Ellie prevails. Miss Marple is a bit suspicious of Greta, which means that the audience should be as well.

When tragedy strikes Gypsy’s Acre, not once, but three times, Miss Marple shows uncommon bravery, almost foolhardiness, in her quest to bring the guilty to justice.

Recent television productions have starred Joan Hickson (a bit too glum) and Geraldine McEwan (a bit too cute) before Julia McKenzie appeared. McKenzie plays Miss Marple with animation and verve. The director takes advantage of her mutable facial expressions for meaningful reaction shots that express her thought processes.

Don’t miss these episodes. They are a pleasure to watch, with first-rate acting, high production values and fascinating scripts based on great mystery stories that only Agatha Christie could have written.

Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2014 All Rights Reserved
emilymendel@gmail.com

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Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.