Top Ten Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1950s

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Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1950s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1950s

1 - A Nero Wolfe Mystery

1. “A Nero Wolfe Mystery” (2000-2002) – Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin starred in this adaptation of novels and short stories about the New York City based private detective from Montenegro, Nero Wolfe.

 

2 - The Company

2. “The Company” (2007) – Robert Littell produced this three-part miniseries adaptation of his 2002 novel about the Cold War during the mid and late 20th century. Half of the series is set during the 1950s. Chris O’Donnell, Rory Cochrane, Alessandro Nivola, Alfred Molina and Michael Keaton starred.

 

3 - Agatha Christie Miss Marple

3. “Miss Marple” (1984-1992) – Joan Hickson starred in this adaptation of Agatha Christie murder mysteries featuring the elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. The series was produced by George Gallaccio.

 

4 - MASH

4. “M*A*S*H” (1972-1983) – Larry Gelbert developed this Award winning adaptation of the 1970 movie and Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel, “M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors” about a U.S. Army field hospital during the Korean War. Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers and Mike Farrell starred.

 

5 - Agatha Christie Marple

5. “Agatha Christie’s Marple” (2004-2013) – Both Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie portrayed Miss Jane Marple in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novels about the elderly sleuth.

 

6 - The Hour

6. “The Hour” (2011-2012) – Romola Garai, Dominic West and Ben Whishaw starred in this series about a BBC news show set in the mid-to-late 1950s. The series was created by Abi Morgan.

 

7 - Magic City

7. “Magic City” (2012-2013) – Mitch Glazer created this STARZ series about a Miami hotel owner during the late 1950s. The series starred Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Olga Kurylenko.

 

9 - Ill Fly Away

8. “I’ll Fly Away” (1991-1993) – Regina Taylor and Sam Waterston starred in this series about a Southern black housekeeper and her complicated relationship with her employer, a white attorney in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The series was created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey.

 

10 - Grantchester

9. “Grantchester” (2014-Present) – James Norton and Robson Greene starred in this adaptation of “The Grantchester Mysteries”, James Runcie’s series of mystery stories that feature an unlikely partnership between a Church of England vicar and a police detective during the 1950s.

 

8 - Ordeal By Innocence

10. “Ordeal of Innocence” (2018) – Sarah Phelps wrote and produced this third adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1958 novel. The three-part miniseries starred Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor and Anthony Boyle.

 

 

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“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (2004) Review

“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (2004) Review

I have another of my many confessions to make . . . I have never been a big fan of Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel, “The Murder at the Vicarage”. Never mind that it featured the first appearance of elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, in a feature-length novel. I am just not a big fan. 

One could assume that the novel’s setting – in the small village of St. Mary Mead – could be the reason why this particular tale has never rocked my boat. Not particularly. I can think of numerous Christie tales set in a small village – including St. Mary Mead – that really impressed me. The problem with “The Murder in the Vicarage” is that I never found it to be a particularly thought provoking tale. Nor did it include any special circumstances that made it unique. And my borderline apathy toward the 1930 novel even extended to the television movie adaptation that aired in 1986. Some eighteen years later, another adaptation of the novel aired on television. This particular version starred Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. And its running time was at least eight minutes shorter.

In “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE”, the citizens of St. Mary Mead are rocked by the murder of Colonel Protheroe, the local churchwarden and magistrate, whose body was found inside the study of the vicar, Reverend Len Clement. The man was disliked by many; including the vicar, the vicarage’s curate, Protheroe’s second wife Anne, her lover Lawrence Redding, Protheroe’s daughter from his first marriage Lettice, the vicar’s wife Grieselda Clement, and a mysterious new resident named Mrs. Lester who seemed to have produced a strange reaction from Protheroe. Not long after the vicar discovers the body, Lawrence Redding, who is a painter, confesses to the murder. Although he has been clashing with Colonel Protheroe over his painting of Lettice, it turns out that he has been Anne Protheroe’s lover for quite some time. Upon learning about his confession, Anne confesses as well. Miss Marple eventually points out to Inspector Slack that it was impossible for either to commit the murder and suggests that the latter search for the killer among other St. Mary’s Mead citizens.

As I had pointed earlier, I am not a big fan of Christie’s novel or its 1986 adaptation. But for some reason, I enjoyed this adaptation. For example, it is a bit more colorful than the previous version. I am aware that all of the Miss Marple television adaptations of the 1980s and early 1990s tend to look rather faded. But there are more reasons why I find this 2004 version more colorful. I realize that many tend to demand that a movie or television adaptation is faithful to its source novel. But I thought the changes made by Stephen Churchett made the production somewhat more lively for me. One, Churchett changed two characters (one of them an archeologist) by giving them a World War II connection to Protheroe and a reason to want him dead. And two, Churchett included World War I flashbacks of a brief love affair between Miss Marple and a married Army officer. At first glance, these flashback seemed irrelevant to the main story. In the end, they served as a tool in which Miss Marple managed to ascertain the murderer’s identity. But the best thing I can say about “THE MURDER IN THE VICARAGE” is its pacing. This is a well-paced film, thanks to Charlie Palmer’s direction. For me, this is an important element for a low-key mystery like “THE MURDER IN THE VICARAGE”.

But there are other aspects of the movie that I enjoyed. I was really impressed by Nigel Walters’ cinematography. It was sharp, colorful and perfect for the movie’s setting. The photography also enhanced Jeff Tessler’s production designs, which struck me as a perfect reflection of an English village in 1951. He also had the task of re-creating a London railway station circa 1915-1917. And he did a pretty good job. But I really enjoyed Phoebe De Gaye’s costume designs. I found them colorful and very spot-on for each particular character, based upon age, class, personality, etc. By the way, Ms. De Gaye had also served one of the two costume designers for the BBC’s “THE MUSKETEERS” and the 2002-2003 miniseries, “THE FORSYTE SAGA”.

The performances were first-class. I tried to think of one that seemed somewhat off. But . . . I thought they were all well-done. “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” marked Geraldine McEwan’s second time at the bat as Miss Jane Marple. I feel this particular performance might be one of her better ones. I found her performance intelligent, sharp and particularly poignant. Other performances that impressed me came from Janet McTeer and Jason Flemyng, the adulterous couple, who found themselves at the center of village gossip and police inquiries following Protheroe’s murder. On paper, television viewers should have been outraged at their infidelity. But both McTeer and Flemyng gave such poignant and passionate performances that they managed to allow viewers to care about their fate.

Rachael Stirling gave an exuberant performance as the vicar’s outgoing wife, Grisielda Clements. At first glance, it seemed as if Derek Jacobi’s portrayal of the victim, Colonel Protheroe, would come off as a one-note blustering idiot. Thankfully, there were moments when Jacobi infused a good deal of humanity into his performance – especially in scenes involving the mysterious Mrs. Lester. Mark Gatiss’ portrayal of the vicarage’s curate Ronald Hawes, who seemed torn over his past actions involving the embezzling of funds at his previous assignment struck me as rather emotional and a bit sad. I also have to commend Stephen Tompkinson for his complex performance as the irascible Detective Inspector Slack. I enjoyed how he slowly allowed Slack’s character to develop an admiration for Miss Marple’s detective skills. The television movie also featured solid performances from Tim McInnerny, Herbert Lom, Christina Cole, Jane Asher, Robert Powell, Angela Pleasance, Miriam Margolyes and especially, Julie Cox and Marc Warren, who gave affecting performances as the younger Jane Marple and her World War I lover.

I may not be a fan of Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel. But I cannot deny that I rather enjoyed its 2004 television adaptation. Thanks to director Charlie Palmer and screenwriter Stephen Churchett, “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” proved to be a colorful, yet emotional tale about love, passion and ghosts from the past. The production was also enhanced by some eye-catching behind-the-scenes artistry and excellent performances from a cast led by the incomparable Geraldine McEwan.

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

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“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1931 novel, “The Sittaford Mystery”. And I have read a lot of her novels. But since the novel did not feature Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford; I never took the trouble to read it. Well, that is not fair. I can think of at least two or three Christie novels that did not feature any of these sleuths that I have read. But I have never read “The Sittaford Mystery”.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the ITV channel had aired an adaptation of the novel in which Geraldine McEwan appeared as Jane Marple. Okay. This is not the first time this has happened, considering that Christie did not write that many Miss Marple novels. “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” revolved around the murder of a politician who is viewed as a potential Prime Minister in the 1950s. The story begins in the 1920s Egypt, where Clive Trevelyan and a few companions stumble across an important archaeological discovery. Then the story jumps nearly thirty years later when Trevelyan, now a politician, returns to his home Sittaford House in Dartmoor with his aide John Enderby, while Parliament decides on whether he will become Britain’s new Prime Minister, following the retirement of Sir Winston Churchill. Due to his friendship with the novelist Raymond West, Trevelyan finds himself forced to accept the latter’s elderly aunt, Miss Jane Marple, as a house guest.

Much to Miss Marple and Enderby’s surprise, Treveylan decides to chance the snowy weather outside and stay at a local hotel six miles away. The hotel include guests who seemed to be very familiar with Treveylan or familiar with an escapee from the local Dartmoore prison. One of the guests conduct a séance using a Ouiji board, which predicts Treveylan’s death. Hours later, the politician is found stabbed to death in his room. With Miss Marple stuck at Sittaford House (temporarily); Enderby; a young journalist named Charles Burnaby; and Emily Trefusis, the fiancee of Treveylan’s wastrel ward James Pearson; set out to find the murderer. However, it is not long before the trio find themselves seeking Miss Marple’s help.

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” strikes me as a rather confusing tale. I have a deep suspicion that in his effort to somewhat change the plot from Christie’s original novel, screenwriter Stephen Churchett ended up creating a very convoluted story . . . right up to the last reel. I have seen this movie twice and for the likes of me, I still have no real idea of what was going on . . . aside from the first fifteen minutes and the movie’s denouement. I was aware that the hotel featured guests that had connections with or knew Treveylan, including a former lover, her wallflower daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed to be a fan of Treveylan, and an American businessman and his aide.

Churchett created a script filled with so many red herrings – unnecessary, as far as I am concerned – that I simply gave up in trying to guess the murderer’s identity and waited for Miss Marple to expose him or her. Upon my first viewing. Upon my second viewing, I tried to examine the plot for any hints or clues that would lead to the killer’s identity. Unfortunately, that did not happen until at least fifteen minutes before Miss Marple revealed the killer. I was also disappointed with how the movie resolved the romantic entanglements of Emily Trefusis, Charles Burnaby, James Pearson and a fourth character. I found it so contrived, for it came out of left field with no set up or hint whatsoever. What I found even more unconvincing was the last shot of the murderer staring at the camera with an evil grin. This struck me as an idiotic attempt by director Paul Unwin to channel or copy Alfred Hitchcock’s last shot of Anthony Perkins in the 1960 movie, “PYSCHO”. I found that moment so ridiculous.

I will give kudos to Rob Harris, the movie’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in creating the movie’s setting – a snowbound English community in the early-to-mid 1950s. But do to the majority of the film being limited to either Treveylan’s home and the hotel, Harris really did not have much to work with. Frances Tempest certainly did with her costume designs. I found nothing outstanding about them. But I must admit that I found them rather attractive, especially the costumes that actress Zoe Telford wore. On the other hand, I found Nicholas D. Knowland’s cinematography rather odd . . . and not in a positive way. I did not like his photography, if I must be brutally honest. His unnecessary close-ups and odd angles struck me as an amateurish attempt by him and Unwin to transform “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” into an independent film or Hammer-style horror flick.

The performances in “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” proved to be a mixed bag. I have usually been a fan of Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Jane Marple. But I feel that she took the whole “verbose elderly lady” act a bit too far . . . especially in her scenes with Timothy Dalton during the first fifteen to twenty minutes. If I must be honest, most of the performances in the film seemed to be either over-the-top or close to being over-the-top. This was especially the case for Michael Brandon, Zoe Telford, Laurence Fox and Patricia Hodge. James Murray managed to refrain himself during most of the film. But even he managed to get into the act during the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. Carey Mulligan’s performance seemed competent. She did not blow my mind, but at least she did not annoy me. Robert Hardy made a cameo appearance as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This marked the eighth or ninth time the actor portrayed the politician and honestly, I could see this appearance was nothing more than a walk in the park for him. There were only four performances I truly enjoyed. One came from Mel Smith, who gave a very competent performance as Treveylan’s right-hand man, John Enderby. I could say the same about Rita Tushingham, who gave a nuanced performance as a mysterious woman with knowledge of an ugly part in Treveylan’s past. The role proved to be his last, for he passed away not long after the film’s production. James Wilby was satisfyingly subtle as the town’s local hotel owner, who had a secret to maintain. For me, the best performance came from Timothy Dalton, who was dazzling at the story’s main victim, Clive Trevelyan. Considering that he was portraying a somewhat theatrical character, it is amazing that he managed to keep his performance under control, and struck a tight balance between theatricality and subtlety.

It is obvious to anyone reading this review that I did not like “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY”. I could complain about the changes made to Agatha Christie’s novel. But I have never read it, so I saw no point in making any comparisons. But I still cared very little for the movie. I found the direction and photography rather amateurish. And aside from a few first-rate performances, I was not that impressed by the majority of the cast’s acting – including, unfortunately, Geraldine McEwan’s.

Favorite Films Set in the 1810s and 1820s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the 1810s and 1820s:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1810s AND 1820s

1 - Sense and Sensibility

1. “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) – Ang Lee directed this superb adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel about two sisters in love and financial straits. Adapted by Emma Thompson, the movie starred both her and Kate Winslet.

 

 

2 - Persuasion 1995

2. “Persuasion” (1995) – Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds starred in this entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel about the reunion between two former lovers. Roger Michell directed. – Tie

 

 

2 - Persuasion 2007

2. “Persuasion” (2007) – I am also a big fan of this equally entertaining adaptation of Austen’s 1818 novel about the two former lovers, Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth. Adrian Shergold directed. – Tie

 

 

3 - Vanity Fair 2004

3. “Vanity Fair” (2004) – I rather enjoyed this surprisingly first-rate adaptation of William Thackery Makepeace’s 1848 novel about the rise, fall and rise of an ambitious early 19th century Englishwoman. Directed by Mira Nair, the movie starred Reese Witherspoon.

 

 

4 - The Deceivers

4. “The Deceivers” (1988) – Pierce Brosnan starred in this exciting adaptation of John Masters’ 1952 novel about a British Army officer’s discovery of the Thugee cult. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, the movie co-starred Saeed Jaffrey and Helena Michell.

 

 

5 - The Journey of August King

5. “The Journey of August King” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this first-rate adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about a North Carolina farmer, who unexpectedly finds himself helping a young slave escape from her master.

 

 

6 - Northanger Abbey

6. “Northanger Abbey” (2007) – Felicity Jones and J.J. Feild starred in this delightful adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1817 novel about a young girl’s misadventures during a visit to the resort town of Bath and at a family’s mysterious estate. Jon Jones directed.

 

 

7 - Davy Crockett and the River Pirates

7. “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (1956) – Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen starred in this superior sequel to the first Davy Crockett television movie about the adventures of the frontiersman and his friend George Russel along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

 

 

8 - Emma 1997

8. “Emma” (1996-97) – Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong starred in this solid adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about the matchmaking efforts of a wealthy young woman in early 19th century England. The movie was adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence.

 

 

9 - Brother Future

9. “Brother Future” (1991) – Phil Lewis starred in this entertaining historical/science-fiction movie about a Detroit teen who is hit by a car and wakes up to find himself a slave in 1822 Charleston. Directed by Roy Campanella II, the movie co-starred Carl Lumbly and Moses Gunn.

 

 

10 - Hawaii

10. “Hawaii” (1966) – George Roy Hill directed this energetic adaptation of James A. Michener’s 1959 novel about the experiences of a missionary couple from New England in the early 19th century Hawaiian Islands. Julie Andrews, Max Von Sydow and Richard Harris starred.

“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (2004) Review

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“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (2004) Review

I have been a major fan of Agatha Christie’s 1957 novel, “4.50 From Paddington”, ever since I was in my teens. In fact, I consider it one of my top ten favorite Christie novels of all time. So, it is not surprising that I would approach any movie or television adaptation of this story with great anticipation.

As far as I know, there have been at least two adaptations of Christie’s 1957 novel. Both were television movies that starred Joan Hickson as Jane Marple in 1987 and Geraldine McEwan in 2004. Just recently, I watched the McEwan version and all I can say is . . . hmmmmm. “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (also known as “WHAT MRS. McGILLICUDDY SAW”) begins with Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy leaving London by train, following a Christmas shopping trip. She is on her way to St. Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Miss Jane Marple in St. Mary Mead. Sometime during the journey, Mrs. McGillicuddy looks out of her window and spots a man with his back to her strangling a woman in a train traveling parallel to hers. Upon reaching St. Mary Mead, Mrs. McGillicuddy reports the murder to Miss Marple, before the pair reports it to an unbelieving railway official.

While Mrs. McGillicuddy travels on to visit relatives in Ceylon for the holidays, Miss Marple takes matters into her own hands. She comes to the conclusion that the murderer had dumped the body off the train before it could be discovered at an estate owned by the Crackenthorpe family called Rutherford Hall, near Brackhampton. Miss Marple recruits a professional housekeeper named Lucy Eylesbarrow to hire herself out to the Crackenthorpes with the pretense that she wants to be near her “aunt” – namely Miss Marple – and hunt for the missing body. Eventually, Lucy does find the body . . . and more mayhem ensues.

I was not particularly fond of the 1987 Joan Hickson adaptation. And if I must be brutally honest, I do not have a high opinion of this 2004 version. Both versions seemed to be marred by two major problems – too many changes and the love triangle involving the Lucy Eylesbarrow character. And if I must be honest, Lucy proved to be a problem all on her own. Stephen Churchett made changes that I found particularly unnecessary. The movie began with a World War II flashback that featured the death of the Crackenthorpe family matriarch, which seemed to have an impact on the family patriarch, Luther Crackenthorpe. Although poignant, this scene struck me as a complete waste of time that did not seem to have anything to do with the main narrative. And once again, this version ended with a resolution to the love triangle that surrounded Lucy Eylesbarrow. Apparently, no one seemed to care how Christie deliberately left the matter opened in regard to Lucy’s choice. I have always regarded the Lucy Eylesbarow character as something of a “Mary Sue”. The 1987 version of the character was transformed into a humorless prig. Although the 2004 version of the character managed to regain some wit, she also came off as an even bigger “Mary Sue” than the literary version. The television movie introduced Lucy singing with Noel Coward (of all people) to his guests at a dinner party. She was dressed to the nines . . . and still serving as a housekeeper. What the hell? When I saw this, I could not believe my eyes. And why on earth did Churchett and director Andy Wilson allowed Miss Marple to reveal the murderer to an audience . . . aboard a moving train? This struck me as incredibly contrived and rather uncomfortable.

The movie also featured some severe character changes. Harold Crackenthorpe was transformed into a serial rapist, who has targeted Lucy as his latest victim. Alfred Crackenthorpe remained a minor crook, who seemed to be constantly weeping over a former girlfriend who had dumped him. Instead of being the oldest living brother, Cedric Crackenthorpe became the youngest sibling in the family and a failed painter. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. And Churchett completely jettisoned him from the love triangle concerning Lucy Eylesbarrow. This version featured a love triangle between Lucy, Bryan Eastley (Luther’s son-in-law), and Inspector Tom Campbell, the investigating detective for the case. Yes, that is correct. Once again, the Dermot Craddock character (who was the investigating detective in the novel) was eliminated from another adaptation. In his place was another detective with close ties to Miss Marple. Which is ironic, considering that he had appeared in the 2004 version of“A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”. Speaking of Bryan Eastley, he was transformed into an American war veteran. Only the Luther Crackenthorpe, Emma Crackenthorpe and Dr. Quimper characters remained intact.

However, “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” did have its share of virtues. I have to give kudos to Jeff Tessler for his excellent production designs. His work made it very easy for television audiences to find themselves transported back to 1951. Also adding to the movie’s setting were Pilar Foy’s art direction and Phoebe De Gaye’s costume designs. I also enjoyed the production’s cinematography, thanks to Martin Fuhrer’s sharp and colorful work. And Jeremy Gibbs’s editing greatly enhanced the sequence in which Elspeth McGillicuddy first witnessed the murder. Despite my dissatisfaction with the overall adaptation of Christie’s 1957 novel, I must admit that Andy Wilson did a solid job as director. This was evident in the movie’s pacing and performances.

Speaking of performances, I tried to think of one or two performance that seemed out of step to me. But if I must be honest, I could not find one. “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” provided some pretty good, solid performances. Geraldine McEwan was in fine form, as usual, as Miss Jane Marple. And she clicked very well with three particular cast members – Pam Ferris, who did an excellent job in portraying the pragmatic Elspeth McGillicuddy; John Hannah, who gave a nice performance as the rather quiet and intelligent Tom Campbell; and Amanda Holden, who seemed to be a bundle of charm as the talented and dependable Lucy Eylesbarrow. Jenny Agutter gave a very poignant performance in her brief appearance as the dying Agnes Crackenthorpe. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Niamh Cusack, Griff Rhys Jones, Charlie Creed-Miles, Kurtis O’Brien, Ciarán McMenamin, and Celia Imrie, who was rather funny as a Russian dancing mistress being interviewed by Tom Campbell and Miss Marple.

But there were four performances that proved to be my favorite. One came from Rose Keegan, who was even more funny as Lady Alice Crackenthorpe, Harold’s aristocratic wife. My second favorite performance came from David Warner was at times, poignant, rather funny and very sardonic (depending on the scene) as family patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe. Ben Daniels was equally funny and sardonic as the despairing Alfred Crackenthorpe, who seemed to have more regard for the woman who had dumped him, than his family. And perhaps I should be grateful that screenwriter Stephen Churchett transformed the Bryan Eastley character to an American. This gave American-born Michael Landes a chance to make the character more than bearable. Landes did something that Christie’s novel and actor David Beames failed to do in the 1987 version . . . make Bryan Eastley sexy and charismatic.

I will not deny that “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” had its virtues. The movie can boast fine performances from a cast led by Geraldine McEwan. I really had no problem with Andy Wilson’s direction. And the movie’s 1951 was beautiful to look at, thanks to the production staff. But I still had problems with the movie’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1957 novel. There were too many unnecessary changes to a story that had become one of my favorites penned by the author. Pity.

“SLEEPING MURDER” (2006) Review

 

“SLEEPING MURDER” (2006) Review

I might as well say it. The 1976 novel, “Sleeping Murder” is one of my favorites written by mystery writer, Agatha Christie. In fact, it is such a big favorite of mine that when I learned about the recent 2006 adaptation that aired on Britain’s ITV network, I made a great effort to find it on DVD.

Although the 1976 novel proved to be the last Christie novel featuring elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, the author wrote it during the early years of World War II. In fact, she did the same for the 1975 Hercule Poirot novel, “Curtain”. Christie wrote both novels and placed them in a bank vault, in case she failed to survive the Blitz. During the early 1970s, the author authorized the publication of “Curtain” for 1975 and “Sleeping Murder” for 1976. I never warmed up to the 1975 novel, but I became a fan of the latter one. The novel produced two television adaptations and a radio version. Just recently, I watched a DVD copy of the 2006 television movie that featured Geraldine McEwan as Miss Jane Marple.

“SLEEPING MURDER” begins in 1933 India, where British diplomat Kelvin Halliday receives news that his wife Claire had just been killed in a traffic accident. The widower returns home to England with his three year-old daughter Gwenda and meets one Helen Marsden, a singer with a troupe of music performers known as “The Funnybones”. Nineteen years later, a recently engaged Gwenda Halliday returns to England in order to find a home where she and her future husband Giles, who is a wealthy businessman living in India, can live. Accompanied by Giles’ assistant, Hugh Hornbeam, Gwenda finds a house in Dillmouth, a town on the south coast of England. While workmen set about repairing the house, Gwenda realizes that it seems familiar to her. Hugh suggests she speak to an old acquaintance of his, Miss Jane Marple of St. Mary Mead. Gwenda and Hugh meet with Miss Marple at a local theater showing the John Webster play, “The Duchess of Malfi”. During one of the play’s climatic scenes, Gwenda screams in terror , as she remembers witnessing a pair of hands strangling a woman. Along with Miss Marple and Hugh, Gwenda realizes she may have witnessed a murder when she was a child living in Dillmouth. All three also discover that the murdered woman may have been Gwenda’s stepmother, Helen Marsden Halliday.

I . . . did not dislike “SLEEPING MURDER”. I thought this adaptation featured fine performances from a cast led by the always superb Geraldine McEwan. The television movie also featured memorable performances from Sophia Myles and Aidan McArdle as Gwenda Halliday and Hugh Hornbeam. I was also impressed by Julian Wadham as Kelvin Halliday; Martin Kemp, Dawn French and Paul McGann as three of Helen’s Funnybones colleagues; and Phil Davis as Dr. James Kennedy, Kelvin’s original brother-in-law. It was nice to see Harriet Walter give a cameo as an actress portraying the lead role in “The Duchess of Malfi” production. The rest of the cast gave solid performances, aside from two struck me as slightly problematic. Sarah Parish’s portrayal of Funnybones wallflower-turned successful singer Evie Ballatine seemed to be an exercise in character extremism . . . and a bit over-the-top. I could say the same about Geraldine Chapln’s portrayal of the gloomy Mrs. Fane, mother of Walter Fane, a mild-mannered lawyer who knew Gwenda’s mother.

“SLEEPING MURDER” also benefited from colorful and sharp photography, thanks to Alan Almond’s cinematography. I also found Frances Tempest’s costume designs for the early 1950s sequences rather gorgeous to look at. However, her designs for the 1930s scenes seemed to be something of a mixed bag. Overall, I had no complaints about the movie’s production designs and the performances. But I did not love this movie. In fact, I barely liked it.

The problem – at least for me – is that the positive aspects of “SLEEPING MURDER” failed to hide or compensate what proved to be the movie’s real problem . . . namely the screenplay written by Stephen Churchett. I do not completely blame him. The producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” and director Edward Hall were willing to use it. I have no problems with a screenwriter changing certain aspects of a source novel or play for a screen adaptation. Especially if said change manages to improve the story or make it more effective for a screen adaptation. But the changes Churchett made to Christie’s story did not improve it in the end or made it effective for the television screen. Personally, I found Churchett’s changes more convoluted than a novel written by James Ellroy.

First of all, Churchett, Hall or both allowed the Gwenda Reed character from the novel to become the unmarried Gwenda Halliday, engaged to be married. The Giles Reed character was reduced to Gwenda’s unseen and wealthy fiancé, who turned out to be a jerk. Churchett and Hall decided to create a new love interest for Gwenda, the quiet and faithful Hugh Hornbam, who works for her fiancé. Why did Hall and Churchett give Gwenda a new love interest? What was wrong with using the original Giles Reed character from the novel? Was it really that important to inject a new romance, which seemed to be the hallmark of many “MARPLE” productions? Also, a musical troupe known as the Funnybones was introduced to this story. Three of the original suspects – Richard “Dickie” and Janet Erskine, and Jackie Afflick – became members of the Funnybones, along with Helen. The addition of the Funnybones also produced another suspect for the story – a singer named Evie Ballatine. Why did Churchett create the Funnybones in the first place? Perhaps he and Hall thought the musical troupe would make Helen’s character more “colorful”. On the other hand, I found the addition of the musical troupe UNNECESSARY . . . like other changes and additions to this story.

The above changes seemed nothing to me compared to the changes made to the Helen Halliday character. It is bad enough that Churchett transformed her from a nice, young woman who became a stepmother and wife to a professional singer. Go figure. Worse . . . Helen Marsden Halliday was eventually revealed to be Kelvin Halliday’s first wife, Claire. In other words, Gwenda’s mother and stepmother proved to be one and the same. How did this happen? Well, when Claire Kennedy went to India to get married, she changed her mind and became a thief. She met Kelvin Halliday, married him and gave birth to their only child Gwenda. However, when the police in British India became suspicious of her, Claire and Kelvin plotted her fake death, she returned to England and joined the Funnybones, and “married” Kelvin as Helen Marsden, following his and Gwenda’s return to India. Confused? I was when Miss Marple revealed all of this to Gwenda, Hugh and the suspects. When this whole scenario regarding Claire/Helen’s background was revealed, I could only shake my head in disbelief. What on earth was Churchett thinking when he created this confusing background for her? What were the producers and Hall thinking for accepting it? In fact, all of the changes made for this adaptation proved to be unnecessary, but also transformed “SLEEPING MURDER” into one convoluted mess.

What else can I say about “SLEEPING MURDER”? It featured some pretty good performances from a cast led by Geraldine McEwan. I liked its production values very much, especially Alan Almond’s photography and Frances Tempest’s costume designs for the 1950s sequences. But . . . I feel that screenwriter Stephen Churchett made a lot of unnecessary changes to Christie’s original story that left the movie into a big, narrative mess. And I cannot help but wonder what director Edward Hall and the producers were thinking to allow these changes to happen.

“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” (2007) Review

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“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” (2007) Review

Not long ago, I had written a review of an Agatha Christie television movie called “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL”. It was a 1987 adaptation of the writer’s 1965 novel. Twenty years later, ITV aired its own version that starred Geraldin McEwan as Miss Jane Marple. 

But I am not interested in comparing the two adaptations. Instead, I want to discuss only one of them – the recent 2007 televised film. The movie began with a flashback to the early 1890s in which a young Jane Marple stayed at the fashionable London hotel, Bertram’s, with a relative. Sixty years later, the elderly resident of St. Mary Mead’s pay another visit to the hotel and discovers that its interior has not really changed over the years. Miss Marple is there She is there to meet an old friend named Lady Selina Hazy, who is visiting for the reading of a will of her millionaire second cousin, who had been declared dead after being missing for seven years and owned Bertram’s. Also there for the reading of the hotel owner’s will are his ex-wife Bess, Lady Sedgwick; and daughter Elvira Blake. Bertram’s Hotel also seemed to be used as a center to smuggle Nazi war criminals and their stolen treasure; and for jewel thieves.

Christie’s 1965 novel is not considered one of her stronger ones and I can see why. The story’s murder mystery is rather weak and easy to solve. They mystery behind the hotel proved to be more interesting. The 1987 television movie with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple closely followed the novel. Despite a sluggish pacing, it still proved to be entertaining. Screenwriter Tom McRae decided to “solve” the matter of Christie’s narration by “improving” it with major changes. And you know what? It sucked. Big time. Without a doubt, “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” – at least this 2007 version – is one of the worst Christie adaptations I have ever seen. Period.

One of the first sentences that Miss Marple observes when she arrives at Bertam’s after many years is that the hotel had not changed . . . even after sixty years. And yet that was NOT the impression I encountered. In Christie’s novel and the 1987 film, the elderly sleuth noticed that the hotel’s quiet and elegant atmosphere had remained intact after many years. I NEVER got that impression in this 2007 film . . . certainly not with the noisy bustling going on upon her arrival. To make matters worse, McRae’s script had Louis Armstrong and his band break out into a jam session in one of the hotel’s ballroom. He is joined by one of the writer’s fictional characters, an American-born black jazz singer Amelia Walker. WTF????? I cannot image Louis Armstrong staying at some quaint little London hotel like Bertram’s. The screenplay also had the Lady Sedgwick character receiving clumsily written death threats, Nazi war criminals and their hunters disguised as hotel guests. The screenplay even featured an extra murder victim – a hotel maid named Tilly Rice. It also made the actual murder of Bertram’s commissionaire a lot more complicated than necessary. And to make matters even more worse, McRae added another maid character named Jane Cooper, who becomes a younger version of Miss Marple – another talented amateur sleuth. And she acquired a love interest of her own – an Inspector Larry Byrd, a World War II veteran with post-traumatic stress. He also replaced the much older Chief Inspector Fred Davy character, as the story’s main police investigator. The screenplay allowed the young Miss Cooper to reveal most of the hotel’s mysteries before Miss Marple exposed the actual killer.

I do not mind if changes were made to Christie’s story. I can think of a good number of Christie adaptations in which changes were made to her original novels and ended up being well-made movies. But I feel that those changes needed to be well-written or be necessary as an improvement to the author’s original tale. “At Bertram’s Hotel” was not a perfect or near-perfect novel. But the changes made for this particular adaptation did not improve the story. On the contrary, the changes made for “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” transformed Christie’s rather eccentric tale into one big convoluted mess. The only positive change that emerged in this adaptation was a shorter running time of ninety-three (93) minutes. Thanks to this shorter running time, “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” managed to avoid the occasionally sluggish pacing of the 1987 movie.

The performances in “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” proved to be a mixed bag. I had nothing against Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of the quiet, yet intelligent Miss Jane Marple. She was her usual more than competent self. I enjoyed her performance so much that I wish that the screenplay had not seen fit to saddle her with the Jane Cooper character. Yes, I hated the idea of another amateur sleuth in this tale. But I must admit that Martine McCutcheon gave a very good performance as Jane. But the producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” want another amateur sleuth that badly, create another series for her . . . or him. Francesca Annis managed to rise above the material given to her and gave a very funny and entertaining performance as Miss Marple’s old friend, Lady Selina Hazy. However, why do most or all of Miss Marple friends tend to look more glamorous . . . and older than her? Stephen Mangan gave a solid and intense performance as Inspector Larry Byrd. More importantly, he managed to portray a post-traumatic stress victim without engaging in excessive acting. I was not particularly thrilled by McRae and director Dan Zeff’s changes to the Lady Sedgwick character. They replaced Christie’s vivacious and elegant socialite/adventuress into a hard-nosed and somewhat cold businesswoman. However, I cannot deny that actress Polly Walker gave a more than competent performance as Lady Sedgwick, despite the changes to the character.

Naturally, there were the performances that either failed to impress me, or I found troubling. I was not that impressed by Emily Beecham’s portrayal of the young Elvira Blake. I simply found it unmemorable. I can say the same for Mary Nighy’s portrayal of Elvira’s friend, Brigit Milford; Vincent Regan’s performance as hotel commissionaire Mickey Gorman; Nicholas Burns’ portrayal of twin brothers Jack and Joel Britten; and Charles Kay as one Canon Pennyfather, who struck me as a dull and stuffy character. Ed Stoppard portrays a Polish race car driver named Malinowski, who is suspected by many of being a former Nazi. He gave a pretty good performance, although there were a few moments when he dangerously veered into hammy acting. The role of Amelia Walker proved to be singer Mica Paris’ second and (so far) last dramatic role. Mind you, she gave a pretty good performance, but the moment she opened her mouth, I immediately knew she was not an American. I found her accent rather exaggerated at times. I have always been impressed by Peter Davidson in the past. But I must admit that I did not care much for his portrayal of hotel employee Hubert Curtain. I found it unnecessarily exaggerated . . . especially in one scene.

What else can I say? “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” does featured a good deal of atmosphere. Unfortunately, it struck me as the wrong kind of atmosphere for this particular story. And some of the good performances featured in this movie – especially by Geraldine McEwan, Francesca Annis and Polly Walker – could not save the movie from the shabby screenplay written by Tom MacRae. Honestly, I found the whole thing a mess. I only hope that there will be a better written adaptation some time in the future.