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Hickson's definitive Marple
Now that the campy ITV Marple series is well into its stride it is time to reflect on whether the BBC Miss Marple programmes were as good as we thought. Judged by this outing there is no contest.
Alan Plater's witty script, while faithful to Christie's convoluted plotting, adds colour and shading to the proceedings and clips along at a nice pace. The actors certainly rise to the occasion; Joan Hickson is on top form, her interpretation of an inquisitive old lady from a 1950s country village is totally believable; Renee Asherson's character is rather irritating and the actress reflects this in her performance; Ursula Howells is quite brilliant, making a complex personality convincing; and there is good support from Samantha Bond, Joan Sims, Ralph Michael and a somewhat underused Sylvia Syms.
Innocents in Paris (1953)
Sim & Rutherford shine in otherwise dull comedy
Unconvincing portmanteau comedy. Sim & Rutherford once again spin gold out of garbage, while the rest of the cast, notably Jimmy Edwards & Ronald Shiner, are defeated by a badly written screenplay. The Scotsman section, with James Copeland, is a good example of a poor performance meeting an inadequate script to produce unmistakable rubbish. Watching these innocents is not bliss!
The Blue Lamp (1950)
The way we (never) were
This film must have seemed a breakthrough in realism in its time, but over fifty years later it has become quaint. It points to a police force that is kindly and compassionate, but more knowledgeable modern audiences may challenge that position. It is certainly a cosy view of the world, with the constables rehearsing their male voice choir in between shifts, and a sympathetic Jack Warner - the bobby on the beat - handing out sage advice to the public at large. Thankfully Dirk Bogarde is on hand to shatter this urban paradise, with an edgy performance as a young criminal.
This is the sort of film that becomes propaganda for the good old days which actually never did exist.
Miss Marple: Nemesis (1987)
Worthy, if dull, addition to the series
Miss Marple rounds up the usual suspects, allowing a lot of aged actors to come out of semi-retirement. However, it's mostly acting by numbers, although Margaret Tyzack does manage to conjure up the spirit of the post-war era in which the story is set, by making a meagre role go a long way.
Mad, bad and wonderful to know!
Wild Gainsborough melodrama adapted from the purple pen of Lady Eleanor Smith with marvellous camp performances from Dennis Price and Robert Helpmann. There is also an athletic performance from Stewart Granger, while Anne Crawford follows in the distinguished footsteps of Phyllis Calvert & Patricia Roc by offering us the blandest of leading ladies. Jean Kent, however, is on hand as a spirited travelling woman. Kent can't sing and she can't dance, but she certainly is a lot of fun, even if she does lay on the sex appeal with a trowel. Almost sixty years on it is easy to see why this series of melodramas were so popular. If you can leave your critical faculties to one side, this is one to enjoy.
The Amorous Milkman (1975)
Dreadful script, disastrous direction, dire Dors
Awful sex comedies like this were home to a great many character actors before the soaps' domination of UK television offered them a better alternative. However, Arnold Ridley was old enough to know better. He surely must have amassed enough royalties from his play "The Ghost Train", and had enough exposure from his continuing role in BBC TV's "Dad's Army", to be able to turn down a cough and a spit role as a usher in a porno cinema. Julie Ege does add some class, easily outshining the other women in the cast, which sadly includes Diana Dors giving one of the worst performances of her career. Lead actor Brendan Price does his best, but he's defeated by the script and the direction, both in the incapable hands of of 'b' actor Darren Nesbit. It is a film with nothing to recommend it, even the sex is a turn-off.
The Running Man (1963)
Sun, sea and bulls win over Harvey & co.
A rather stupid plot and uninteresting leads are not helped by pedestrian direction and an uninspired script. The supporting cast is underused, and no amount of sun, sea and Spanish bulls can turn this film into worthwhile entertainment. Laurence Harvey continues to prove that acting is not a skill he acquired; Alan Bates is altogether too convincing as a dull insurance man who decides to better himself by going into paint; and lovely Lee Remick just looks pretty as her chances of being The Next Best Thing finally slips away from her.
The Iron Petticoat (1956)
Chemistry of Hepburn and Hope boosts dated cold-war comedy
The late Hepburn and Hope were an odd coupling, but they did manage to generate a certain amount of chemistry.
Hepburn's interpretation of a Russian aviatrix is nothing more than a caricature, and the script presents a view of Russia and its people in line with the anti-Soviet sentiments of the McCarthy fifties. However, Kate does look great in her military uniform, and she is also woman enough to make you believe that Hope would fall for her. There was always something about the way Hepburn looked at a man that led you to believe he was in for a truly joyous experience.
This isn't a great film, but it passes the time.
Waterloo Road (1945)
A witty script helps make this propaganda palatable
An agreeably told story of the domestic upheavals on the home front during the second world war. The cast is a good one: Stewart Granger, as the war dodging Romeo who makes a play for a neglected soldier's wife (Joy Shelton); Alastair Sim as the local g.p. on hand to offer his sage advice; George Carney as the lodger, trying to dodge the warring females in the household and happiest when he's with his pigeons; Beatrice Varley as the worried mother trying desperately to make ends meet and do right by her family; Alison Leggatt as the interfering sister-in-law and Vera Francis as the nosey sister. John Mills and Shelton hold the piece together as Mr and Mrs Ordinary Man and Woman, and there is a nice comic turn from Wylie Watson as a Tattooist. Best of all we have Jean Kent, wisecracking her way through the war as Toni, the discarded girlfriend of Granger, who's done very nicely thank you, having been set up in her own hairdressing business.
The Ghost Train (1941)
A bumpy ride
Arthur Askey's great skill as a comic was in the way he communicated with his public. His juvenile jokes, silly songs and daft dances went down well because he was able to engage folk and draw them into his off the wall world. A lack of a live audience was a distinct disadvantage to him, and he was never completely comfortable in films. He has his moments in The Ghost Train, and his character, Tommy Gander, has been tailored to make the most of his talents, but Askey the performer needed to be seen to be appreciated.
Askey's support in the film is not strong, it includes regular co-star Richard Murdoch; Betty Jardine and Stuart Latham as a dopey honeymoon couple; Linden Travers going over the top as a 'mad woman'. Also on board are Peter Murray-Hill, who off-screen married Phyllis Calvert, as the nominal leading man, giving a totally bland reading of the part, and leading lady Carol Lynne, who turns in an equally insipid performance. It is left to character actress Kathleen Harrison to effortlessly steal the film as a parrot loving single woman who gets smashed on Dr Morland Graham's brandy.
Miss Marple: Sleeping Murder (1987)
A slow ponderous tale, the last full-length Miss Marple to be published. It had in fact been written during the forties and Christie had intended it to be published after her death. It has the usual surprise twists and turns that we have come to expect from Dame Agatha, but this substandard television production lacks pace and the invasive music ruins any sense of atmosphere. The acting is equally uninspiring, however, John Moulder-Brown appears to be perfectly cast as the vacuous male lead.
Time Lock (1957)
Avoid this carry-on
An out of the ordinary plot by Arthur Hailey is turned into a tedious 'b' film by the Carry on team of Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas. The actors are second rate, apart from Sean Connery in an early role, and can only offer below standard histrionics. The scenario is a small boy is locked in a bank safe, will he be rescued before he suffocates? The problem is that child actor Vincent Winter is such an unappealing performer that you don't care about him, thus ruining any suspense that the film attempts to create. Even if you are stuck in Warrington on a wet weekend, this is one to steer clear of.
Inferior book, second-rate film
One of the later Marple mysteries, it was first published in the swinging sixties, but has wisely been reset in the far gentler 1950s. It is one of Christie's lesser works and unfortunately this television production does not improve on it. Caroline Blakiston's central performance as the irrepressible Bess Sedgewick, is a master class in scenery chewing, and the plot borders on the ridiculous - a criminal mastermind uses an exclusive London hotel as a front for an assortment of nefarious activities. The supporting cast includes Joan Greenwood, in a nothing role, but still mesmerising us with her honeyed voice, radio stalwart Preston Lockwood, charmingly dippy as the absent minded Canon, and Irene Sutcliffe, suitably prim and proper as the hotel receptionist. George Baker is also around with his uninteresting interpretation of a dull policeman. This, alas, is one for die-hard Christie fans only.
One of the many second features churned out by Butchers. It has a brainless plot by A.R. Rawlinson about a mother (Avice Landone) and her two criminal sons (Peter Reynolds & David Gregory) who use a newsagents as a front for their nefarious deeds. The gang plan to crack open a safe, unfortunately Gregory, who is the expert in this field, is behind bars. Thus Landone makes plans to break him out. Carol White turns up as the pregnant girlfriend of David Kernan, who has reluctantly became involved in the shenanigans. At this early point in her career White shows none of the promise that was later to win her acclaim in Cathy Comes Home and Poor Cow. In fact after this hysterical performance it is a wonder she was ever employed again. At one stage of the film the actress playing her mother says "Oh Carol, stop acting", to which White's character replies "I'm not acting!". Such insight in an actor is rare.
It is difficult to understand ITV's decision to remake the Miss Marple series, because in Joan Hickson we have the definitive interpretation of Agatha Christie's amateur sleuth. This particular story, Miss Marple's first fictional outing,dates from 1930, but the writer, T.R. Bowen has skilfully updated it to the 1950s. The script is witty and the cast is endowed with such acting stalwarts as Paul Eddington and Rosalie Crutchley. If the plot does not seem so original now it is because Christie's work was so often copied, and what must have seemed innovative in 1930 now appears to be hackneyed. All that said it is a story well told and worth a couple of hours of anyone's time.