Purists take warning: If you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse, this week’s Masterpiece Mystery wasn’t it. But you probably already guessed that when you saw that “The Pale Horse” was a Miss Marple episode. For, if you’ve read the book, you know that Miss Marple isn’t in it.
Normally, I’m a stickler for accuracy and I don’t approve of screenwriters taking too many liberties with the original text, especially if they’re messing with a master like Dame Agatha. But in the case of “The Pale Horse,” I was willing to go along for the ride and I suggest you do, too. Miss Marple is fun, and this mystery—even with its added characters and plot changes—is a goody. Twisty, campy, and it has witches!
Maybe it was my own relaxed state of mind when I was watching the show, but I had the sense that the cast were enjoying themselves on this one. Although I was fond of Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal, Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple is growing on me. Pauline Collins as Thryza Grey, the “proprietrix” of The Pale Horse inn looked like she could barely contain her glee each time she invaded Miss Marple’s personal space. Jonathan Cake, whom you’ll recognize as Chuck Vance from Desperate Housewives if you watch it (I don’t), looks in his element here.
And the costume Holly Willoughby wears in her brief appearance as Goody Carne makes me think that her casting is something of an in-joke. (She is normally the effervescent hostess of Dancing on Ice and This Morning.) She seems tickled to be part of the production, and even if I don’t know who she is, I think I can guess why she’s famous.
Every episode of Miss Marple (and Poirot, and Inspector Lewis and just about anything you’ll see on Masterpiece Mystery) is a great big game of “Where have we seen him/her before?”. The faces are so very familiar from British TV series and films—especially other TV mysteries—that it feels like a visit with old friends. This is delightfully different from the special guest star syndrome that plagues American episodic TV, because in Miss Marple everyone’s a special guest star and everyone’s in the frame.
“The Pale Horse” brought with it two familiar faces (well, familiar to me at any rate) that I never tire of seeing: Bill Paterson and Susan Lynch.
Paterson is someone I’m betting you’ll recognize no matter what your viewing tastes; he starred in Law & Order UK, he’s been on Dr. Who and in Little Dorrit on Masterpiece Classic. If you’re really digging deep, you’ll remember him as the beleaguered politician Jack Lithgow in the 1989 miniseries Traffik and the star of Bill Forsyth’s 1984 movie Comfort & Joy. He also was in Spice World. Truly something for everyone. In “The Pale Horse,” he’s Mr. Bradley: genial yet threatening.
As Sybil Stamfordis in “The Pale Horse,” Susan Lynch doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but I’ve loved her since the “To Say I Love You” episodes of Cracker. (The British original; not the U.S. remake.) She’s much sweeter in Waking Ned Devine, however, and she does a believable loopy psychic here.
One of the things I love about the Miss Marple mysteries is the fact that they seem to be such a guilty pleasure for actors. No one’s too big, important or “serious” an actor to have a go at portraying a suspect or even a victim; the man who’s coshed on the head early on is Nicholas Parsons OBE.
Yet being in a Miss Marple episode won’t compromise your coolness quotient if you happen to be a bright young thing like Holly Valance who plays Kanga Cottam in “The Pale Horse” (you know her from Prison Break). And like Keeley Hawes, who appeared in “A Murder is Announced” and who did the Masterpiece 40th Anniversary promo at the end of this week’s episode, everyone’s a fan.
It’s not clear whether we’ll be seeing fresh Miss Marple mysteries anytime soon. It’s also not clear (or maybe this is just me) why the powers that be chose to rewrite The Pale Horse as a Miss Marple mystery when there are other genuine Miss Marple mysteries waiting to be dramatized. Right now I’m reading The Tuesday Club Murders, aka The Thirteen Problems, a collection of thirteen short stories that would make wonderful Miss Marple TV mysteries. (One of them, The Blue Geranium, already has.)
The stories, short as they might be, are perfect reminders that no one solves a crime like Miss Marple. Here’s hoping the series continues, it’s too much fun to stop now.
Leslie Gilbert Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company.