Agatha Christie’s famous fictional heroine has moved from page to screen many times, but this series bears the distinction of the author’s seal of approval on the lead actress, Joan Hickson. All of 78 years young at the time of her casting, Hickson continued portraying Miss Marple in this series for the next eight years before finally stepping down. Hickson brings gravitas and wisdom to the role, getting more mileage out of questioning glances than younger actresses could achieve with pages of dialogue.
Miss Marple is the quintessential nosy old lady, a simple civilian who somehow finds herself involved in murder cases through her keen powers of observation, perseverance, and abundance of free time. The local cops are alternately bemused and frustrated by her meddling in their active cases, although they can’t belittle her impressive acumen in identifying killers. Over the course of four cases presented here, Marple is an understated force of nature, doggedly inserting herself into active crime scenes and independently pursuing leads in pursuit of murderers rather than whiling away her golden years in a rocker.
Rather than a strict length format, the four mysteries included here vary from the feature-length premiere to stories that stretch over either two or three 45-minute episodes. The 3-part shows suffer a bit from the prolonged format, dragging in places rather than operating in the efficient manner of the shorter stories. As opposed to the approach of most mystery series, the plots here take their sweet time getting to the murders, taking up to a half hour of screen time to set up all of the players before any crime is committed. Frankly, all of the mysteries are a bit slow for modern sensibilities, by very nature of the elderly protagonist, but your mom will likely enjoy the leisurely pace.
The series has been restored for this release, which is of most benefit on the 1080p hi-def Blu-ray release but is also welcome here on DVD. The show doesn’t suffer from the dodgy production qualities one would expect of a 30-year-old British series, largely thanks to its origin on film rather than video. I noticed a couple of scenes slightly out of focus, but otherwise the images are crisp and clean with no noticeable artifacting or debris/scratches, and the color palette is only slightly subdued rather than the washed-out spectrum I expected. Sound quality is also rock-solid albeit lacking native surround, with no perceptible wavering or hiss.
The DVD set includes one bonus feature: a recently-produced hour-long BBC special about the public fascination with both real and fictional murder cases dating back to the earliest British mystery literature. It contains some interesting discussion about how upstanding citizens can become so obsessed with grisly crime, but also delves into the details of centuries-old UK cases that aren’t well-known here, hence becoming a bit tedious for US viewing.