mon 20/05/2019

Julia McKenzie's Miss Marple | reviews, news & interviews

Julia McKenzie's Miss Marple

Julia McKenzie's Miss Marple

Stepping into Miss Marple's shoes

Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple

Miss Marple is frequently described as “a little old lady”, but for all that she casts a giant shadow. Just ask any new actress invited to portray this most beloved of characters. When you play the spinster sleuth, you have massive shoes to fill. That has certainly been Julia McKenzie’s experience

The 68-year-old this week appeared for the first time in the part of Agatha Christie’s much-loved amateur detective. She took over the role from Geraldine McEwan, who retired last year after starring in twelve episodes as Miss Marple. McKenzie admits to jangling nerves beforehand. She was well aware that it was a responsibility to live up to the exacting standards set by McEwan – to say nothing of the other titanic actresses who have played the role: Gracie Fields, Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury, Dulcie Gray, Helen Hayes and Joan Hickson.

To add to the pressure, everyone has their own, very set idea about what Miss Marple should be like. “It’s such an iconic role,” acknowledges McKenzie, sipping a cup of tea in impeccably Marple-esque fashion.

“So it was extremely daunting. In fact, if there is a word for ‘even more than daunting’, then that is what it was. So many terrific actresses have played Miss Marple in the past, that to be joining those echelons was truly scary.”

And then there are the fans. Miss Marple aficionados are known for their ardent devotion to the cause.  “There were so many fanatical fans who have only had short period of bereavement for Geraldine,” declares McKenzie, who has also made a splash recently as Mrs Forrester (pictured right) in BBC1’s gorgeous period drama, Cranford, which is returning this Christmas.

“I’d never quite realised there was such passion for this character. The fans feel they own her. They have huge Christie conventions, for instance, in Japan. I know it’s going to be hard for them. But I’m afraid if they want to enjoy Miss Marple, they’ll just have to stick with me.”

She discloses that her introduction to the role was greatly helped by the kindness of her predecessor.  “I’ve never met Geraldine, but she sent me a sweet note when I took over,” reveals McKenzie, who has also had memorable roles in Notes on a Scandal, Death in Holy Orders, The Old Curiosity Shop and Blott on the Landscape. “It was something along the lines of ‘so glad you got the job.’ So I wrote back saying, ‘it will be hard to fill your shoes!’ It was so thoughtful of her.”

All the same, it has not been an entirely smooth transition. The new series of ITV1’s Agatha Christie’s Marple has already hit the news pages for reasons that would surely have brought on an attack of the vapours in the hugely popular titular investigator. The unlikely-sounding combination of sex and the spinster has sent the papers into a right old lather and prompted headlines such as “No Sex Please, Miss Marple” and “Naughty, Miss Marple”.

Seismic tremors shook Miss Marple’s cosy world of tea and tweed when it emerged that A Pocket Full of Rye, broadcast last Sunday, contains scenes of an adult nature. Not involving the saintly sleuth, of course – heavens forfend! But several sequences featuring other characters are definitely rather more raunchy than the usual Miss Marple parade of genteel ladies eating neatly trimmed cucumber sandwiches in elegant drawing rooms. In one early scene, a young couple are seen frolicking in bed in a manner that leaves little to the imagination.

Yes, that sound you can hear is Christie rotating in her grave. McKenzie concedes she was equally taken aback by these scenes. “I couldn’t believe it,” she exclaims. “I thought, ‘have they put another script in here?’”

The actress is a splendid new captain of this impeccably polished ship. She endows the role with great warmth and twinkles like the lights on a Christmas tree. “I do like a bit of a twinkle,” she twinkles. To win Inspector Neele’s trust in A Pocket Full of Rye, for example, Miss Marple flirts with him like a brazen young starlet, flattering him by coooing that "you have the looks of the young Errol Flynn about you.”

McKenzie, who is married to the American actor Jerry Harte, is equally charismatic in person. When we meet in a central London office, the actress displays Marple’s winning melange of magnetism and mischievousness. She laughs self-deprecatingly when asked if she shares any qualities with her celebrated alter ego. “Am I at all like Miss Marple?” McKenzie muses. “There has to be some aspect of me in her – there is in any role I play. I was interviewed recently at the National Film Theatre and the interviewer said I had a kindliness about me. So I suppose I’m fairly simpatico, and I think Miss Marple is the same. On another occasion, one of the cast said to me ‘you’re very foxy as Miss Marple’. I don’t know what foxy means, but I like the sound of it!”

So why has Miss Marple struck such a chord with people, both on the page and on screen, since she first appeared in an issue of The Royal Magazine in 1927? McKenzie, who was in the enormously popular 1980s sitcom Fresh Fields and its sequel, French Fields, reckons that “people love Miss Marple because they really trust her. She’s the sort of person you would instantly confide in. She’s not a paragon of all virtue, but she is a very good woman. She’d never let you down.”

There is also much more to this pillar of the St Mary Mead community than meets the eye. “There are a great many layers to Miss Marple,” continues McKenzie. “She’s hugely underestimated – that’s how she gets so many things out of people that they would never tell the police. She also has an amazing attention to detail –she finds minutiae that PC Plod would never get and picks up things that no one else notices. She can be acerbic, too, and possesses a very steely quality. But above all, she takes great joy in the chase.”

All the same, McKenzie adds with a smile, bad things always seem to occur when Miss Marple is around. “If you were a friend of Miss Marple, would you invite her over? Something always seems to happen when she’s there!”

The genteel sleuth also taps into our deep-seated passion for whodunnits. “It’s incredible, isn’t it?,” observes the actress. “Look how many detective dramas there are on TV now. We love them because we’ve all got a bit of detective in us and we all adore arguing about whodunit – ‘he did it’, ‘no, she did it!’

“We love unravelling mysteries – think of the popularity of crossword puzzles in this country. ITV gets letters from people picking holes in the plot. Then those same people buy the DVDs, so they can pick holes for a second time.”

The Enfield-born McKenzie thinks that people have a particular dedication to Christie’s whodunnits. “They’re such engaging stories and they’re so well told. We can watch them again and again and still get pleasure out of them. When I see the re-runs, I can never remember whodunit, so it’s just as much fun!”

McKenzie has never been out of work since graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. An accomplished stage actress and singer, she has dazzled in musical roles such as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd and Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. She won Olivier Awards for both performances and laughs that “you could put ‘from Miss Adelaide to Miss Marple’ – there’s your headline.”

But now as Miss Marple, McKenzie is having to come to terms with an even higher profile. “I’ve never had to cope with quite so much attention before. Of course, it’s part of the business and you just have to get on with it. It’s not irksome,” the actress says, before adding with a wry grin: “but ask me again next year!”

She is clearly relishing the opportunity to get her teeth into such a gift-wrapped role as Marple. “It’s wonderful. I’d never complain – I feel lucky to be in a job. I’ve done more in my career than I ever expected. It would be very churlish to talk about unfulfilled ambitions.

“I’m contracted to play Miss Marple for four years. At my age, I’m not about to do much else. So I’ll stop at the end of the four years. I’ll have had enough by then – I hope I can still walk unaided! I’ve led a charmed life, and now Miss Marple feels like an Indian summer. It’s lovely to end one’s career with a role like this. This is the cherry on top of the cake.”

Sadly, our interview has to end.  “Goodbye,” the new Miss Marple twinkles one last time. “Now it’s off for a G and T!”

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