This years Eastern Angles Christmas spoof takes a light hearted look at the work of Agatha Christie and ‘her dear Miss Marple’. As you’d expect for an Eastern Angles christmas show its not a straight forward who dunnit – featuring as it does a heroine who eats crooks for breakfast and cakes for tea! Before the anarchic mayhem begins (the show opens on 28 Nov) I thought I’d indulge in a little bit of Christie scribbling…
Agatha Christie has, it would seem, always been a presence in my life. As a child in Leeds the cheap paperbacks – though relegated to the attic rooms – would take up shelf after shelf. You could tell from their spines they were well read and not just by me. We would regularly day trip to Harrogate (which to this day hosts the Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival) and as a student I went to Dartington – a short ferry ride from her home, Greenway (now open to the public via the National Trust) and a mere bus ride from the Christie obsessed Torquay (her nominal birthplace).
I can remember one night watching one of the Joan Hickson Miss Marples – as psychologically taut and thrilling as anything as I was allowed to watch at that time. In one particular episode Joan/Jane had had a particularly gruesome case to resolve. Needless to say Inspector Slack was useless but Miss Marple was up to the task and the village of St Mary Mead could return to normal after the final denouement. I was sent to bed in a state of nervous tension!
I’d only got one third of the way up the stairs when I let out a blood curdling scream and ran back to the front room. ‘There’s a hand’ I cried ‘sticking out the toilet door’.
Somebody – I can’t remember who – went out to investigate and returned moments later with a marigold glove which had got trapped under the door, half inflated.
Thankfully Christie’s own plotting (across 66 incredibly popular detective novels and 15 short story collections if we ignore the romantic novels) was never as easily resolved as that – but I suspect I’ve not been the only one to have been so affected by Christie’s mastery of suspense, intrigue and tension.
Christie acknowledged the influenced of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in her work – calling him ‘the pioneer of detective writing, with his two great creations Sherlock Holmes and Watson.’ No surprise then that the Guiness Book of World Records recognises Sherlock Holmes as the ‘most portrayed movie character’ however fans of Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Brett or the master Basil Rathbone should look away now as Christie goes on ‘Watson is perhaps the greater creation of the two. Holmes after all has his properties, his violin, his dressing gown, his cocaine etc. – Watson has just himself – lovable, obtuse, faithful, maddening, guaranteed to be always wrong, and perpetually in a state of admiration. How badly we need a Watson in all our lives’.
In the same article she writes ‘I should call Margery Allingham one of the foremost writers of detective fiction. Not only does she write excellent English, but her drawing of character is masterly and she has wonderful power in creating atmosphere. You can feel the sinister influences behind the scenes, and her characters live on in your memory long after you have put the book away….and through the books moves ‘Mr Campion’, apparently vacuous, actually keenly acute’. I’m glad Christie approved – Allingham (who spent most of her life in Essex) and her characters are the subjects of a new Eastern Angles play, currently in development.
Born in Torquay Christie was part schooled in Paris and subsequently would became a regular world wide traveller (just like Dial M’s Georgina – that is when the Colonel allows).The romance and mystery of other cultures and of other civilizations intrigued her greatly and provided material for many of her books – and indeed a second husband in the form of archaeologist Max Mallowan (who would in many ways become – Christie’s Watson).
However we are getting ahead of ourselves. She married her first husband in 1914 the dashing young Lieutenant Archibald Christie – the polar opposite it would seem of Dial M’s Fenton.
. Egged on by her sister Madge she wrote her first novel, featuring Poirot, in 1916 (pub 1920 as The Mysterious Affair). Poirot would eventually feature in 39 further novels despite Christie saying ‘Hercule Poirot is often somewhat of an embarrassment to me’.
Despite her reservations (and she wrote that in a recently found essay from the 1930s) audiences took to her work almost immediately and soon she was publishing a book a year. But in 1926 Agatha was to star in her own mystery. Since the end of the first world war – and despite the birth of daughter Rosalind, Archibald and Agatha had grown apart. Archibald admitted to having an affair (lord only knows what Violet Lady Fitzall would have done to the Colonel if he had admitted to having one!) – Agatha was crushed.
On Friday December 3rd 1926 (four years before Miss Marple would appear) Archibald was away with his mistress. Christie kissed her daughter goodnight – and disappeared – leaving her abandoned car a few miles from her home. A huge search followed – even Dorothy L Sayers and Arthur Conan Doyle were asked to help! If only Holmes and the ever reliable Watson were available!
11 days later she was found – residing, under a pseudonym which bore a remarkable similarity to her husband’s mistress, in a hotel in Harrogate. I like to think of her taking tea and cake in Bettys (the famous Harrogate café) whilst imagining up lurid crimes for the gentile folk of this North Yorkshire town to commit
To this day it’s proved to be as mysterious a case as any of her novels – and has almost enough twists, turns and interpretations as to deserve a Christmas show of its own (although if you are so inclined you can dig out a somewhat far fetched film based on the events featuring Dustin Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave).
The Old Swan , Harrogate would not be the only hotel to play a significant part in Agatha Christie’s life and work. As a seasoned traveller they would form a strange constant in her life. Roald Dahl might have had his garden shed, Dylan Thomas his hut but Agatha had – well hotels! Her first novel was written in the Moorland Hotel, Dartmoor – the start of a pattern which would be repeated throughout her life.
Hotels also provide the East Anglian link to Christie’s life. On the same expedition to Mesopotamia where she met her second husband she also met Peter and Margaret McLeod. As strong independent women Margaret (one of the first women in the UK to qualify as a doctor) and Agatha ( a successful author, a divorcee and at that time a single mum) were destined to become life-long friends.
In 1936 the McLeods moved to Norfolk and bought the house which is now the Beechwood Hotel, North Walsham. Over the next thirty years Agatha would visit regularly, travelling by train and always on her own. By day she would write in the summer house, at night discuss plot lines with Peter and Margaret. When in and around the village she would travel incognito using the name Mrs Mallowan. In 1939 – when war broke out – and fearing an invasion on the east coast (a scenario that Eastern Angles last rural tour Private Resistance chillingly played out) Agatha collected the McLeod’s children – David and her god daughter Crystal – and took them to relative safety at Greenway.
Of course by 1939 Miss Marple had been created. Her first appearance was in a short story ‘The Tuesday Night Club’ and she would go on and appear in a further nineteen short stories and twelve novels. Her 50th novel overall, and the 4th to involve Miss Marple was ‘A Murder is Announced’ in which the following notice appears in the morning paper ‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30pm’. It’s worth noting here for the name of the final victim – killed for guessing too much (always fatal in a Christie novel ) – one Miss Murgatroyd a pleasant but giggly companion to Miss Hinchcliffe an efficient lady farmer.Miss Marple brings us to another – slightly roundabout East Anglian link. In 1946 a mid-career british actress who’d already had some notable success on stage and screen Joan Hickson appeared in one of Agatha Christie’s plays ‘An Appointment with Death’. On seeing the performance Christie sent her a note reading ‘I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple’. As we’ve already seen Joan did become Miss Marple (over the years Marple’s been played by amongst others Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury, Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie) when the BBC adapted all the original Miss Marple novels between 1984 and 1992. She started playing the role when she was a mere 78 – by which time she’d already won a Tony award (in Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce).
From 1958 (and throughout the period she played Miss Marple) until her death Joan lived in Wivenhoe, Essex under her married name of Butler! (the ! will only make sense if you go see Dial M!). Living in the shadow of the church (St Mary the Virgin) you can’t help wondering if she ever saw similarities between St Mary Mead and her home town. Whatever -as her son the historian Nicholas Butler put it she was ‘ a much-loved character in Wivenhoe, where she played herself’
Agatha Christie though would herself never have the pleasure of seeing Joan Hickson play her ‘dear Miss Marple’. On January 12, 1976 she died. She’d already been named the worlds best selling author in the English language (UNESCO 1961) and made a dame of the british empire (1971), but perhaps more accurately an American newspaper had dubbed her ‘the Duchess of Death’. But more than that she had earned her place in both the bookshelves and the hearts of a world wide public as well as scaring the life out of children like me!
And now at Eastern Angles we’re about to lampoon her life’s work (no marigolds are involved in the performance). I’ve a sneaking suspicion she’s probably saying ‘about time too’. After all – she might say – if you’ve done Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey isn’t it about time you did one of mine’
And no one says no to a duchess – especially not the duchess of death!