By Thomas Myler
When Agatha Christie attended the first night of her play Appointment with Death in a London theatre in the spring of 1940, the role of Miss Pryce was played by the English actress Joan Hickson.
At the finish, Agatha made her way backstage and meeting the cast, she said to Hickson, “You know, Joan, I was impressed with your performance tonight, and someday I hope you will have the lead and play my dear Miss Marple.”
It took no less than 38 years for it to happen, as other actresses starred in the role, notably the magnificent Margaret Rutherford. Also, television producers felt that the character was out of fashion with audiences of the time. Happily, it returned on St Stephen’s Day, 1984, on BBC 1, with Hickson as the spinster busybody sleuth from the quaint English village of St. Mary Mead. It was an instant success.
It ran for eight seasons on BBC and established Joan as the undisputed queen of whodunits. US television dramas concentrated in the main on male sleuths in shows like the Rockford Files, Columbo, Perry Mason and Kojak but here was a gentle English lady showing that she could handle tough cases and trap the murderer like the best of them.
Hickson established herself on stage in the 1930s before breaking into movies with supporting roles including several Carry On comedies such as Carry On Nurse and Carry On Constable.
“It was such good fun playing in those Carry On films,” she recalled. “Everybody seemed to be having such a good time on the set, people like Sydney James, Kenneth Williams, Joan Simms and dear Charles Hawtrey. Some of them were serious individuals in real life but put them together on a movie set and they were a riot.”