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Agatha Christie on Television

Marple, Poirot and other creations of the 'Queen of Crime'

Main image of Agatha Christie on Television

The Mysterious Affair at Styles; The Murder at the Vicarage; Lord Edgware Dies; The Body in the Library; Sparkling Cyanide; A Murder is Announced; Murder in Three Acts...

The very titles of Agatha Christie's novels and stories say all that needs to be said about the orderly world of murder as perpetrated by the well-to-do classes that sustains her work from beginning to end. Possibly the world's best-known and most widely-read mystery writer, Christie is notable for ushering in the era during which the detective story came to be regarded as a puzzle pure and complex (as Julian Symons noted in his 1972 critical survey Bloody Murder), and interest in the fates of its characters was increasingly felt to be not only unnecessary but also undesirable.

Another crime novelist, Colin Watson, summed it up nicely, if cynically, in his Snobbery With Violence (1971): the picture was of familiar homeliness populated with stock characters observing approved rules of behaviour according to station; one or more would get murdered; the rest would be suspected for a while; one of them would ultimately be trussed for the gallows. And then, the air cleared, everything would be set to continue as before, right, tight, and reliable.

Given television's programme-time limitations (and the often restless attention span of its audience), the Christie formula, with interest focussed not on character or plausibility but on the mechanics and turns of the plot, was perfectly suited to the transitory nature of the medium.

Christie arrived in 1920 with her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (and the first appearance of her Belgian enquiry agent Hercule Poirot), and continued as a prolific writer of mysteries almost until her death in 1976 at the age of 85. Her novels have become an English institution. She wrote some 66 crime novels, 154 short stories and 20 plays, with Poirot appearing in 37 novels and short story collections, and Miss Jane Marple, her second most popular character, appearing in 12 novels and 20 short stories.

Though several of her books have been filmed, beginning with The Passing of Mr Quin (d. Leslie Hiscott) in 1928 (based on a magazine short story), only a handful of cinema titles would be familiar to most people (René Clair's And Then There Were None, US, 1945; Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution, US, 1957; Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express, 1974).

It was BBC Television, in 1937, that was the first to present a Christie mystery for the small screen with the hitherto unpublished and unperformed play, The Wasp's Nest (tx. 28/6/1937), featuring Francis L. Sullivan as a portly Poirot. Other BBC adaptations, including Love from a Stranger (tx. 23/11/1938 and 25/5/1947), Three Blind Mice (tx. 21/10/1947), from a short radio play (which in 1952 evolved into the world's longest-running stage play, The Mousetrap), Witness for the Prosecution (tx. 10/6/1949) and Ten Little Niggers (tx. 20/8/1949) were also produced in these early TV decades.

During the 1950s, there was a flurry of Christie-related television activity in America. It was the heyday of the television anthology series, and the various network showcases presented, among others, adaptations of Three Blind Mice (CBS, tx. 17/6/1950, 31/10/1950), Witness for the Prosecution (CBS, tx. 7/11/1950, 17/9/1953), and the intriguing A Murder is Announced (NBC, tx. 30/12/1956), featuring an unlikely Gracie Fields in the television debut of Miss Marple. Also, in 1962, General Electric Theatre (CBS, 1953-62) made a (thankfully) failed attempt to launch a New York-based mystery/detective series starring the Runyonesque Martin Gabel as 'Hercule Poirot' (tx. 1/4/1962).

It wasn't until 1980 that Christie returned to British television. Always a remarkably astute author/proprietress, she guarded her works with a vigilant eye and would not permit the slightest deviation from her characters or stories (as MGM discovered in the 1960s when they changed the story on one of their Margaret Rutherford films, and in another substituted Miss Marple for Poirot). After her passing, the responsibility of approval fell to the family-run Agatha Christie Ltd (founded in 1955).

For London Weekend Television to bring about their production of Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (ITV, tx. 30/3/1980), it took some 18 months of negotiations with the ever-cautious Christie estate. The popular success of the mammoth two-and-a-half hour presentation (taking up an entire Sunday evening) created an unprecedented Agatha Christie boom. Despite a rather lukewarm critical reception, Why Didn't They Ask Evans? was followed on the wings of lavish long-range publicity (and the generous sponsorship of Mobil Oil) by the somewhat Wodehousian The Seven Dials Mystery (ITV, tx. 8/3/1981), featuring a frightfully bouncy Cheryl Campbell as adventurous heroine 'Bundle' Brent.

Thames Television entered the Christie carnival with a well meaning and quite enjoyable collection of ten plays under the banner of The Agatha Christie Hour (ITV, 1982), drawing on the author's spirit of period romance and adventure, rather than Agatha as queen of crime. Standing out as especially diverting episodes were the ones featuring Maurice Denham's benevolently crusty Parker Pyne, who investigates 'cases of vexation' ('The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife', tx. 7/9/1982 and 'The Case of the Discontented Soldier', tx. 5/10/1982).

The self-consciously twittish introductory drama, Agatha Christie's The Secret Adversary (ITV, tx. 9/10/1983), from LWT, set the silly format and kooky characters for the series Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (ITV, 1983-84). Francesca Annis and James Warwick, as the sprightly young detectives Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, involved themselves in cases where people were either 'perfectly ripping' or 'absolute rotters'.

In due course, the image and character of Miss Jane Marple became firmly cemented in the minds of TV viewers with the appearance of Joan Hickson as the spinster detective in the BBC's stately Miss Marple (1984-92). For a finely tuned performance that was so unobtrusive and understated, Hickson's Marple has yet to be displaced by Geraldine McEwan's curiously bird-like portrayal in the recently revived series Agatha Christie Marple (ITV, 2004- ).

The diminutive, foppish Poirot began his unexpectedly long run on British television in 1989 with the Carnival Films production (for LWT) of Agatha Christie's Poirot (ITV, 1989-2002). The dazzling performance by David Suchet, despite all the character's fussy embellishments, soon established the role as his own (much like Jeremy Brett's highly regarded association with Sherlock Holmes).

As a controlling company (copyright and intellectual rights), Agatha Christie Ltd was reorganised in 1968, when Booker McConnell (the corporation which sponsors the literary Booker Prize) bought a 51 per cent stake in the company. In 1998, Chorion plc acquired the intellectual property rights to all of Christie's works (for a reported £10 million).

The new productions of Agatha Christie Poirot (ITV, 2003- ) and Agatha Christie Marple (ITV, 2004- ), in association with US companies A&E Networks and WGBH Boston, respectively, for the network Granada Television company have involved not only a rebranding of Christie with a fresh new identity - the title designs incorporating the Christie signature, hence not Christie's - but have supported a 21st century relaunch (and modernisation) for today's TV consumer.

Tise Vahimagi

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Agatha Christie Hour, The (1982)

Agatha Christie Hour, The (1982)

Ten short stories from the Queen of Crime

Thumbnail image of Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1983-84)

Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1983-84)

Further adventures of young sleuths Tommy and Tuppence

Thumbnail image of Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989-)

Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989-)

The casebook of Belgium's finest detective

Thumbnail image of Agatha Christie's Seven Dials Mystery (1981)

Agatha Christie's Seven Dials Mystery (1981)

Amateur detective Lady 'Bundle' Brent sets out to solve a mystery.

Thumbnail image of Agatha Christie's The Last Seance (1986)

Agatha Christie's The Last Seance (1986)

Jeanne Moreau stars in an atmospheric supernatural tale

Thumbnail image of Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse (1997)

Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse (1997)

Unusual Christie adaptation set in 1960s England

Thumbnail image of Agatha Christie's The Secret Adversary (1983)

Agatha Christie's The Secret Adversary (1983)

Intrepid sleuths Tommy and Tuppence solve their first mystery

Thumbnail image of Miss Marple (1984-92)

Miss Marple (1984-92)

BBC series of adaptations of twelve Agatha Christie novels.

Thumbnail image of Sparkling Cyanide (2003)

Sparkling Cyanide (2003)

Enjoyable Agatha Christie update with Pauline Collins

Thumbnail image of Spider's Web, The (1982)

Spider's Web, The (1982)

Penelope Keith stars in the play by Agatha Christie

Thumbnail image of Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1980)

Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1980)

Starry mystery that launched a spate of 1980s Agatha Christie adaptations

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