I’ve come to realize that if I’m going to keep up my interest in writing about cinema of all kinds, I’m going to have to include what I actually spend most of my time watching, which is TV movies, or feature length TV shows. I flirted with just doing this on Tuesdays several years ago, mostly for the sake of a daily theme and because I was reaching for alliteration, but somehow I fell in love with the genre. Or is it a medium? Anyway, it’s something I thought would be corny which has become the love of my cinephile life. Affectations that become habits, as one of the characters in the 1995 Kicking and Screaming (not a TV movie) once said.
I started watching Marple, the Geraldine McEwan version, which began in 2004 right after seeing the Margaret Rutherford comedic Miss Marple films, and I liked all of those. I didn’t understand the online vitriol directed towards them and in favor of the Joan Hickson adaptations from the 1980s, because I had no basis for comparison! I just thought people were liking the older one because it’s older, and because McEwan was “too spry.” But over the past weekend, I needed comfort, started binging the Hicksons, and decided to pit some of the McEwan against the Hickson back to back. Which means that I’ve spent days studying Agatha Christie and I now know 37 ways to poison someone. And worse than that, I discovered I was Wrong On The Internet!
Seriously, there’s no comparison. The Hickson ones are far superior, because they are much more subtle in tone. I reviewed, among others, The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger. Even the color (should I say colour? no. that would make me a teaboo.) palette is muted, neutral, and pleasing in the Hickson versions, and bright and sort of ghastly in the McEwans. In the later Moving Finger there was for example a close up shot of a bloody rare cut of meat at a dinner party at which nasty gossip was going on, a party which may have existed in the earlier version, but at a different venue with a different guest list at a different time of day. All of that contributes to tone. The later one even uses Mario Bava style colored lighting to make it more spooky, which is great if you’re watching a horror movie, but these are cozy mysteries. The natural light in the 80s version evokes that coziness more effectively. It’s a gentle, reassuring murder show.
Although, interestingly, At Bertram’s Hotel was actually darker in mood with Hickson than McEwan, and I will say I enjoy the latter more, even if I have to admit it was in some ways less authentic to the cultural shift the former was highlighting. The latter, for its part, had some cultural shifts of its own that were positive.
Speaking of which, a popular criticism seems to be that the stories are changed between adaptations. I will admit that I have watched more Christie adaptations than I have read her books, so I don’t know which series is more true to the stories, but I know they are different compared to each other. Particularly of interest to me is the manner in which the latter programs included gay characters in sections where there were none in the 1980s ones. Being bisexual myself, I’m obviously in favor of inclusion, but what I kind of feel sensitive to is a gay character turning into a murderer when they weren’t before, or a whole new gay character being invented so they can commit suicide. It’s just a change in plotting that stood out to me. If I hadn’t been watching back to back and critically, I might not have noticed.
And that brings me to this: fortunately for the purposes of my easily entertained self, I’m the type of person who watches movies and then forgets almost everything. These shows are heavily dialogue driven, so I will re-experience the witticisms as if new. I might remember who did it, but not why. Or even, as in the case of the 80s The Moving Finger, misremember the red herring as the murderer. I still couldn’t tell you who did it in the 00s version, and I watched that on Sunday. So I get to rewatch things I like endlessly and unless it’s something like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure that I watched every day on HBO as a child I will get something new out of it every time. Watching these shows back to back made me able to compare them, but I’m going to be able to watch either one later and enjoy them both.
Another reason I will still watch the later ones is that at some point between Acorn and Britbox I became more familiar with British character actors of the 21st century than American ones, so I will watch something just because “that guy” guest stars anyway. I enjoy this even though some people are always villains and their very appearance in the opening credits is a spoiler. I also enjoy pointing out to my husband, who hates my compulsive watching of (compulsory for him) British murder shows, which guest star played the killer on Lewis or Morse when we’re watching a completely show. And since he loves The Sopranos and I hate it, he points out everyone who was on The Sopranos when we watch Law and Order. His head exploded when we tried to watch Law and Order UK.
So although I hate to have to agree with The Internet Film Opinion, the Hickson version wins. It helps that she has an ASMR voice.
P.S. Do you ever watch movies or TV while doing something else and then those two things are linked together in your mind? We have two big TVs in the living room so we can game and watch TV at the same time, or so two people can game on different consoles, and now the last segment of the Hickson The Moving Finger is forever associated with the field of tulips and hyacinths on one of my Animal Crossing islands.