By Sabienna Bowman, Les Chappell, and Cameron White
Series 2, Episode 2: “Murder at the Vicarage”
Original airdate: December 25, 1986
Sabienna: Watching Miss Marple, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would play better if I was at all familiar with the source material. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Agatha Christie’s canon begins and ends with the season four Doctor Who episode, “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” so I spent the majority of “Murder at the Vicarage” trying to figure out who exactly Miss Marple was. She popped up quite infrequently for a woman whose name is in the title of the series.
From what I gathered, she was basically an older, even more grandmotherly version of Jessica Fletcher, with less personality, who specializes in sleuthing from afar. I’m all for competent female leads, but I’m just saying, the woman gathered quite a lot of information from simply standing in her garden and glancing at the Vicar’s desk for a moment before the detectives arrived. I’m going to have to concur with the randomly pregnant Mrs. Clement; Miss Marple must be a witch. To her credit, Joan Hickson did a wonderful job with the role. It can’t be easy trying to infuse life into a character that is so thinly drawn, but she managed it ably.
The biggest problem I had with “Murder at the Vicarage” wasn’t Miss Marple’s near magical powers of deduction, it was the utter lack of character work. The episode had plot to spare, what with Lettice’s parentage issues, Ann’s affair and Mary’s petulant maid routine, but it was difficult to care about any of it because the episode never bothered to establish who any of the characters were as people. This goes double for the victim, the odious-because-they-said-so Colonel Protheroe. Focusing more on the mystery than the characters is a problem that plagues many shows in the detective genre, but it can be made less glaring if the plot is engaging, and most of this episode simply wasn’t.
It only really came alive when the women of the village gathered together for a spot of tea and gossip about their neighbor’s close encounter with cannibals, or when the sweet Clements were onscreen. The vicar and his wife, along with Mary, saved the episode for me. I would have happily watched an entire episode of them being quietly charming together and debating on whether or not to chuck Mary and her literal interpretation of a rock cake. I can’t say the same for the adventures of the mostly absent Miss Marple.
Cameron: Plot-heavy, character-thin? Sounds like a mystery novel to me, and we are after all dealing with the queen of mystery herself, Agatha Christie.
The thing I came to appreciate most about the show is the attention given to the various plot threads running throughout the 95 minutes. I clocked the reveal of the murder at 25 minutes in; before that, it’s a bit of a confusing time as the show acclimates us to the characters involved and sets up the initial conditions just prior to the murder. After that, things split into two separate lines of inquiry: Miss Marple helps the police with their investigation the best way she can, while the rest of the characters try to go on with their lives, with plots dropping in and out to be progressed in order to give some sense of who might’ve done in the poor colonel and who was innocent. The two ultimately finally converge, and while it’s still a case of Scooby-Doo plotting (the artist pretended to be the one who did it to cover for the wife of the colonel, all of which was put forth not long after that 25-minute mark), there’s a stronger sense of a world within this village being bottled and observed by the nosy spinster neighbor Miss Marple.
In the end, of course, because of the Scooby-Doo plotting, it doesn’t come down to “whodunnit” per se, but how it was done. This episode isn’t as good at it as maybe it could have been, but this show puts forth the idea that local gossip can be leveraged as police legwork, and that how a murder is constructed and executed is an important piece of the great mystery of why people do bad things to other people. With that, and with Miss Marple’s outsider perspective (she isn’t a cop, in other words), she reminds me of our modern-day friend Rick Castle, who doesn’t approach mysteries from Kate Beckett’s cop procedure, but from the angle of what makes a good story. And in the end, Miss Marple is the one who collects pieces of gossip and story, along with readily acknowledged evidence gathered by the police, and stitches together the whole sordid affair in detail, filling in the pieces that are easily missed. (In that sense, one might suppose that Miss Marple is a piece of Agatha Christie herself—murder plus storytelling? That’s her, alright!)
I mean, I don’t know. I get the sense that maybe this episode wasn’t the most representative of the bunch, but I appreciated its approach to murder: not with a bang, but with a whisper. There’s only so much gore one can handle on a forensics show before one wonders whether there isn’t another way to deal with the subject matter.
Les: I’m of two minds on Miss Marple, truth be told. On one hand, this feels like one of the duller installments we’ve talked about over the course of this roundtable—the whole thing was 95 minutes long, and it was a viewing that was regularly broken up as I realized I had to do the dishes, re-shelve my book collection (which is devoid of Agatha Christie, for what that’s worth) or wrap a Secret Santa present. And yet paradoxically, for being that long it also felt oddly insubstantial at times. I had a hard time getting invested in any of the major plot threads that were presented because I found most of the performances fairly lifeless (the dynamic of the vicarage aside) and because I don’t feel like there was enough time spent on any of the relationships to form any level of engagement with the major conflicts: Mrs. Lestrange reuniting with her daughter, Mary carrying on an affair with the poacher, etc. Sabienna, you mentioned that a lack of familiarity with the source material may have kept you from enjoying it, and from my perspective I find myself wondering what was cut and what had to be modified to survive the text-to-screen adaptation, and whether or not that played a part in the thinly drawn plotting.
At the same time, I can’t convince myself that I didn’t enjoy watching it. A large part of that might be my well-documented fondness for the programming of Great Britain, as I relished the language that was being thrown around out here—Slack greeting one suspect with the stone-faced dismissal “Would you still persist in this rather dubious account of your activities?” or Marple observing that she may have missed a key moment because she was “dealing with a very nasty brute of a dandelion.” Ken Howard and John Altman on the composing side did a great job with the score, as in this episode moreso than others we’ve watched the music added a lot to the ambiance: lighter tones to set the bucolic nature of the St. Mary Mead, and a darker crescendo for the moments like Mrs. Protheroe venturing up into the attic or Redding trying to use the gas as a murder weapon. And as ludicrous as the final reveal was, it still made enough sense for things to tie up nicely in the final narration, and not come across as a left-field revelation.
Paradoxically, despite my claims about it being too long, had this been longer I would have watched it more. Going back to what Cameron said about the murder being only part of the overall story, there’s a lot of soapier elements to this mystery—affairs, questions of parentage, scandalous whispers courtesy of a seemingly endless supply of meddling spinsters—and I think that this is a story that could be supported by a three- or four-part miniseries structure that lets us see the repercussions of the crime in this sleepy village, Twin Peaks-style. Give us a full episode to see why Protheroe is such a jerk and why so many people want him dead, kill him at the end of the pilot, and then spend three to four hours ruling out suspects. (And now I just realized that after Kerensa’s proposed crossover between Angela Lansbury and Dale Cooper this makes two weeks in a row one of us has said we’d enjoy one of these shows more if it was more like Twin Peaks.)
And from a technical perspective, I enjoyed the dynamic between Miss Marple and Inspector Slack, as for the first time in our roundtable (with the possible exception of Laura Holt’s frustration at Remington’s cavalier approach to investigations) we had an example of the classic Holmes/Lestrade dynamic, the establishment detective taking umbrage at how our protagonist keeps mucking around in the investigation and making them look stupid as a result. I enjoyed the contempt the two had for each other–Slack muttering his distaste for the “grey-haired cobra” who managed to be everywhere important, while Marple has the offhand comment about his abilities “We shall have to learn to live with such things. And such people.” A detail I quite liked was the scene where the two are laying out the details of the crime and their potentially long suspect list separately, cross-cutting between the two in the vicarage and the precinct respectfully. There’s plenty of different ways to solve a crime—this discussion is proof of that—and I like the fact that we get to see two methods up against each other.
As a reminder, we’ll be doing a different detective series every week for the rest of the year. Schedule is below (and once again, if there’s a show you’d like us to cover for the last installment, we’re looking for suggestions):
12/13: Moonlighting, “The Lady in the Iron Mask” (season 2, episode 2)