So did you get the clue from last time? You did? Oh well done you. But it’ll have to wait. You see, I was having this discussion on Twitter and suddenly I thought of another possible British Columbo. One that might – just – shoot straight to the top of the charts.
For those of you who haven’t read the title at the top, let me paint a picture for you. It’s London, 2014, and you decide to see a play. Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” is on, and the 88-year-old Angela Lansbury is playing Madame Arcati, maybe you’ll go and see that. And then you realise it closed last month – June 7th 2014, actually. So instead, you watch the 1950s version, starring Margaret Rutherford as Arcati.
Well, as good as that is – and trust me, it’s magnificent – there’s perhaps four other Rutherford films you ought to see as well.
Margaret Rutherford herself was a fascinating character. Regularly suffering from very serious depression – a fact that she, understandably, managed to keep hidden throughout her life – it was said of her after she died that she “never said a horrid thing about anyone”. She married her (devoted) husband (and fellow actor) Stringer Davis in 1945. After his proposal – where he lamented his perceived lack of decent accommodation – she responded by saying “my dear man, I would marry you if we had to live in a Bedouin tent.” (Genuine Bedouins reading, please note that a hot day in Balham is something you’d probably think of as a bit cool.)
Miss Marple had made her debut in Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel, The Murder At The Vicarage. But it was another thirty-plus years until the first movie version – Murder She Said, made in 1963 by the British arm of MGM. (You can watch the trailer on YouTube, but I’m not allowed to embed it, sorry.)
Christie was apparently unhappy with the film. It lightened the tone of the story, and Rutherford played the role rather as a comedic figure rather than the serious sleuth. Doubts were, apparently, kept to herself, though, as three sequels followed, and Christie dedicated The Mirror Crack’d to Rutherford.
All four films are excellent in their own way. Murder At The Gallop sees Rutherford ensconced at a hotel attached to a stables, Murder Most Foul sees her join a theatre company, and Murder Ahoy takes a more nautical flavour, including a swordfight. Watch out too, for cameos – Lionel Jefferies (familiar if you’ve seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) plays a major part in that last, but various British film and tv luminaries (Robert Morley, James Bolam, Thorley Walters pop up from time to time. Even Joan Hickson, later to be the celebrated Miss Marple of the BBC 1980s adaptations – and apparently Christie’s own choice for the role – has a cameo.)
But I know what you’re after. So here it is – the Columbo-dex.
Ahead Of The Game: If you’ve read the originals, then you’ll know that Miss Marple frequently hid behind the “old spinster lady” act to hide what she was really thinking, and Rutherford sort of does the same thing. There are slightly Columbo-style traps, too (watch the end of Murder At The Gallop, you’ll see what I mean). I’m trying not to be all spoiler-y here so I’d better stop and say Score: 6/10
Car: here’s where it gets a bit eccentric. She has a bicycle in one film, a boat in another, a horse in another… I’m going to be a little bit generous here, especially because of the horse and cart scene, so I’m going to pitch it lower than The Avengers and Lovejoy, but a soupcon ahead of The Sweeney. As, Inspector, we have most decidedly had our dinner. Score: 5/10
Catchphrases and Ambience: Catchphrases there aren’t, really – you can’t build that sort of thing up over four films, but Rutherford’s rather wonderful attitude, and the entire retro-ish atmosphere, even when filtered through the 1960s lens (and even the groovy 1960s theme rune) means I feel quite confident rating this Score: 8/10
Investigative style: Marple relishes this sort of thing, and clearly Margaret Rutherford is enjoying herself enormously making these films and it comes across. Like Columbo, Rutherford’s Marple hides an incisive mind behind an act like… well, like Columbo really. Again, this is a high score because it’s pretty much the same way of doing things Score: 8/10
Personality: indefatigable and indomitable, Rutherford’s Marple is the sort of irrepressible spinster you’d want as your aunt, even though you get the impression that despite her 70 years, she’d run rings round you. If I’m rating Frost as 10, and Morse as 10, I don’t think I have any other option here. Score: 10/10
Sidekick: In The Avengers, I’m never sure if Steed was the main character, or the perpetual sidekick (and really, in a lot of ways, he was). It’s a lot clearer here. Here it’s “Mr Stringer”, played wonderfully by Rutherford’s real-life husband, Stringer Davis. Stringer was clearly a more hard-headed character than in the film: he once carried a claw hammer to attack an alligator Rutherford was working with. But here, he’s really playing what can best be described as a human version of Dog. Yes, he’s similar to Tinker Dill, but he’s a reluctant detective – always questioning whether Miss Marple has the right idea, and is this really necessary? But it’s Marple who gets all the dangerous jobs, of course… Score: 7/10
Violence: you can show these films, uncut, on TV on a Sunday afternoon. Just like Columbo. Sure, there are a few murders, but they are offscreen, for the most part. There’s a sword fight, some guns being pointed… but nothing a 12-year-old wouldn’t find too frightening. (Although, you know… Candy Crush won’t play itself…) Score: 9/10
I’ve got to say, this series is fun, when I can motivate myself enough to get writing. But this was a fun one. I really do love these films – that should be pretty clear from the above – and I do think that this a very good candidate for the British Columbo. That said, I can imagine this being a controversial choice – it’s the first time that I’ve picked a series of movies, rather than a television series – which is why this is an intermission than otherwise. Let’s look at the leaderboard:
- Miss Marple (Margaret Rutherford) – 53 points
- A Touch Of Frost – 48.5 points
- Inspector Morse – 48 points
- The Avengers – 45 points
- Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) – 45 points
So… what do you think, dear reader? Should Miss Marple stay in the list – or not? Have a think, post what you think in the comments, and in the meantime, I’m off to listen to Radio West.