Literary adaptations are tricky things – a good property can be so easily derailed by a piece of daft casting or a heavy hand, bringing tears before bedtime and dark mutterings about the folly of filmmakers. All quite right and justified, but once in a while something comes along which gets it joyously, brilliantly wrong... A case in point is the series of 1960s Miss Marple films, which I've just recently been watching.
Agatha Christie was famously appalled by Margaret Rutherford's powerhouse performance as the elderly sleuth. Suffice to say, her misgivings went unheeded and Rutherford happily blustered and harrumphed her way through four films before the plug was pulled. The poster for Murder Ahoy, featuring a cartoon Marple on a surfboard, pretty much sets the tone, which encompassed burlesque flights of fancy, broad slapstick and some fourth-wall-busting name-checks. The nadir is reached when Marple proudly reveals that her sleuthing skills have been honed by avidly reading Agatha Christie novels. Who knew?
Despite this, the films are utterly delightful, with their crisp black and white photography and musty Britishness exuding an air of cosy noir, albeit with a definite whiff of HP sauce. Rutherford bulldozes through her scenes with gurning indignation and hangdog frowns, ruthlessly upstaging all around her. It's an astonishing, baffling performance. Picture a transvestite version of Sherlock Holmes played by Michael Horden in a fright wig and you're more or less there.
This Miss Marple enjoys a bottle of beer, can wield a pistol with the best of them and – uniquely amongst the screen Marples – goes about her business with unashamed glee. We're never in any doubt that she's having the time of her life. Accompanying her throughout is Ron Goodwin's brilliant offbeat music. The Miss Marple theme is nothing short of a masterpiece, with its cheeky harpsichord and quivering strings conjuring up the quaintness of middle England and tongue-in-cheek derring-do.
The best of the bunch is 1964's Murder Most Foul, which sees Marple going undercover as an actress in rep theatre to unmask a murderer. Following a satisfying body count as the deaths within the company stack up, the denouement sees Marple facing certain death on opening night, eventually saving herself with some sharp shooting, sending a hanging prop crashing down onto the murderer's head with a single bullet. All it's missing is a comedy boing sound as she does.
Agatha Christie rightly hated it, but there's something undeniably winning about being presented with a Miss Marple you could happily go to the pub with. I bet she'd drink pints, too.