After recently watching and enjoying another episode of the television crime drama “Vera”, I switched off the telly, sat back, and put my feet up. I let the mind wander back to the fictional female detectives I’d seen over the years on the flat screen in the corner.
Some of them had been great; some of them had been “oncers” — a single sampling being more than enough. A disappointing proportion of them had been like Nembutal for the eyes: good night, sayonara, sin a bhfuil.
What I enjoy about “Vera”, the nearly retired Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, is her permanently dishevelled appearance — that awful hat, the swinging-open long coat, her irascible personality, and the wonderful naturalness that Brenda Blethyn brings to the part. Her believability as the detective is something of a small miracle.
Hard to believe that in real life she is 76. The youngest of nine children in a poor family, she was in her late 20s before she gave up working in a bank, and studied professional acting.
Hard to believe, too, that the show’s first appearance on television was as long ago as 2011. Where have all those years gone?
ANN CLEEVES, who wrote the novels from which the series is adapted, said the character of Vera was based on a neighbour of her grandmother’s.
I suppose there was an inevitability about my plumping for Agatha Christie’s doughty Miss Marple as my all time favourite fictional female telly detective. Why? Because of the amazing Margaret Rutherford.
Miss Marple has been around so long now in books, on radio and television, and in short stories and films, that it’s a tough challenge trying to recall all the actresses who have played her. The following is as complete a list as I’ve been able to compile. They’re in no particular order. You’ll find a few surprises among the names:
Julia McKenzie, Gracie Fields, Joan Hickson, Helen Hayes, Geraldine McEwan, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Mullen, Dulcie Gray, Margaret Rutherford, and June Whitfield.
MY OWN favourite from among them remains jowly, hilarious Dame Margaret Rutherford, the Oscar-winning British actress. She was never offered any romantic roles because of her bulky frame, and those pronounced “spaniel jowls.” Kenneth Tynan, the renowned and often cruel critic, said, “The unique thing about Margaret Rutherford is that she can act with her chin alone.”
She insisted, “I never intended to play for laughs; I am always surprised that the audience thinks me funny at all.”
She was far from being Agatha Christie’s favourite Miss Marple. Christie wasn’t a fan of the of the bold and eccentric manner in which Rutherford played the amateur female detective who, as conceived, “has spent her life in the small village of St Mary Mead… As she often points out, ‘There is a great deal of wickedness in village life.’”
One of the views about what made Miss Marple so effective as a detective was “her ability to blend into the background, and for her shrewd intelligence to be hidden behind her love of knitting, gardening, and gossip; unassuming and often overlooked, she has the freedom to pursue the truth.”
ALL OF which hardly adds up to a picture of the way Margaret Rutherford played Miss Marple. Ms Christie’s reservations about Margaret Rutherford’s quirky, energetic and comic depiction of Miss Marple didn’t prevent the actress being cast in the part in four MGM loosely based film adaptations of Miss Marple novels — “Murder She Said”, “Murder at the Gallop”, “Murder Ahoy”, and “Murder Most Foul”.
She was in her 70s by this stage, insisted on wearing her own clothes for the part, and having her husband (character actor Stringer Davis) alongside her.
Ms Christie eventually warmed in her attitude, and later dedicated her novel “Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side” — “To Margaret Rutherford in admiration.”
At the end of her life Margaret was afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, and was cared for by her husband Stringer until she died in 1972 at the age of 80 in their Buckinghamshire home. When a memorial service was held in Covent Garden a couple of months after she passed away, some of the biggest names in the acting profession attended — people like Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Joyce Grenfell, Dame Flora Robson, and 90-year-old Dame Sybil Thorndike.
Dame Sybil talked about her friend Margaret’s “enormous talent”, and said that she had “never said anything horrid about anyone.” ÷