In her 85 years on this earth, celebrated novelist Agatha Christie published just about as many books, and even today, more than three decades after her death, she remains the best-selling novelist of all time. Over the years, Christie presented readers with two of the most indelible crime-solving characters in all of literature: the brilliant and painfully exact Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and the intelligent and observant British spinster Miss Jane Marple. The various adventures of Poirot and Marple have been brought to the screen several times in the past, most notably in the four Marple films starring Margaret Rutherford in the 1960s, and the star-studded 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, starring Albert Finney as Poirot. But the two characters have found their greatest success by far on the small screen--Miss Marple in a 1980s series for the BBC and an updated 2000s version for ITV, and Poirot in ITV's long-running eponymous series (on the air since 1989).
Now, eleven of the fan-voted favorites from the Poirot and Marple ITV series are available in a new six-disc DVD collection from Acorn. While each of these series has been previously released on DVD (in one form or another), this set functions as a sort of grand introduction to these characters by highlighting some of their most popular and beloved mysteries. Featuring six Poirot specials and five from Miss Marple, the Fan Favorites Collection provides hours of pure entertainment as these super sleuths take down the bad guys in their respectively charming ways.
The ITV series, Agatha Christie's Poirot, is unique not only for its lengthy existence, but for the fact that by the time the series concludes later this year, it will have presented all but one of Hercule Poirot's many adventures in some form or another (whether filmed alone or combined into the storyline of other episodes). Star David Suchet has played the detective since the first series premiered in 1989, and over the years, he has made the role his own. It is safe to say that Suchet's Poirot has become the definitive version of the character--amiable and clever, determined and precise, with a sly wit, an overly punctilious manner, and the moustache to end all moustaches.
The six episodes included in this collection tend toward the earlier years of the series, with only one (2010's Murder on the Orient Express) having premiered in the past 15 years. The others, in chronological order, include Four and Twenty Blackbirds (1989); 1990's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (an adaptation of the book that marked Poirot's literary debut in 1920); The ABC Murders (1992); The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993); and Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1995). While all six mysteries have their strong points, I would particularly recommend Styles and Christmas as being especially noteworthy episodes (though I will mention that Orient Express features a dream supporting cast including Toby Jones, Barbara Hershey, David Morrissey, and current awards-season darling Jessica Chastain).
ITV's Marple, on the air since 2004, has featured two actresses in the leading role during its relatively short lifespan. The first three series starred Geraldine McEwan as the titular spinster, while Julia McKenzie took over the role at the beginning of the fourth series in 2008. While both actresses do a wonderful job of translating Miss Marple to the screen, for my money, McEwan simply matches the character I've always pictured in my head much more closely than does McKenzie--she's prim but slightly feisty, incredibly ingenious, and (appropriately) deceptively frail in appearance.
If the composition of this collection is any indication, it seems that other fans prefer McEwan's portrayal, too, by at least a slight margin. Of the five included specials, three of them feature McEwan: 2004's The Murder at the Vicarage (an excellent adaptation of Christie's first Miss Marple novel); 2005's A Murder is Announced; and 2007's At Bertram's Hotel. The other two episodes, starring McKenzie, are 2008's A Pocket Full of Rye (McKenzie's first appearance in the role) and 2010's The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (one of the best latter-day episodes, in my opinion). Like Poirot, the Marple series has also had its fair share of big-name guest stars over the years, including Joanna Lumley, Matthew Macfadyen, Derek Jacobi, and Helen Baxendale. However, unlike than the Poirot adaptations, which are generally closer to their original storylines, the Marple specials tend to change many details from the source materials, slightly updating the themes or eliminating characters in order to streamline the mystery.
Still, while these selected episodes may not be entirely faithful to Christie's plots, the liberties that have been taken do not detract from the sheer enjoyment of either series. These are genuinely suspenseful, well-constructed mysteries that stand quite strongly on their own merits. Whether you're watching Poirot deftly put the pieces of various puzzles together, or marveling at Miss Marple's skillful manipulation of the characters around her as she searches for the truth, one thing is for certain--you will be thoroughly entertained.
Regarding the collection itself, you won't find any special features here--just the shows (which are available with English subtitles) and a small booklet in the Marple case featuring a fancy cake recipe inspired by the "Delicious Death" dessert name-checked in A Murder is Announced. Reading over the recipe, I'm sure the "death" part comes from the exhaustive process of constructing such a cake, with its fruit-and-booze filled center and the "optional" crystallized violet and rose petals and gold leaf for "decoration." Perhaps those who don't mind a labor-intensive dessert will find this curious special inclusion to be somewhat worthwhile ...
The Poirot and Marple Fan Favorites Collection will be available on Tuesday, January 29th.