Agatha Christie Marple, ITV1 PREVIEW

Julia McKenzie
(© ITV)

Rating ★★½

ITV1, Bank Holiday Monday, 9-11pm

Someone said to me last week that in her younger days she had read all 80 detective novels by Agatha Christie.

Talk about misspent youth.

That the Queen of Crime is popular cannot be contested. Only outsold by the Bible, she makes even JK Rowling’s success look humdrum.

But are her cosy whodunits any good? Every now and again there’s a hoo-ha when some writer disses the old Dame for her flat characters and dull prose, but having a go at her worldwide popularity is like trying to force back the sea.

Millions adore her still, and that’s why ITV has long been pumping money into productions of Marple and Poirot.

Marple’s still got all her marbles
Watching the latest Marple starring Julia McKenzie – The Pale Horse – clues to the character’s appeal can be detected. The idea of a pensioner underestimated as a silly old lady by some but who outsmarts the poisoners and shooters makes her something of a champion.

I find Julia McKenzie too unassuming in the role, and would prefer a little eccentricity, but she seems to be building a following.

The post-war setting obviously seduces some viewers too, with its steam trains, country drawing rooms and domestic servants – all a long way from rowdy, multicultural, ill-mannered contemporary Britain.

Finally, there is the parade of familiar actors doing turns as various stuffed shirts, stock sinister types and pretty maidens. Here we have Neil Pearson (Lejeune), Pauline Collins (Thyrza), Holly Valance (Kanga), Nigel Planer (Venables), Bill Paterson (Bradley) and others.

‘Wickedness’ at the Pale Horse
All these ingredients are in place at The Pale Horse Inn, where Miss Marple has come to discover who is behind the murder of her old friend, Father Gorman (Nicholas Parsons).

It gets off to a nicely menacing start on a foggy night with Gorman attending a dying lady, to the soundtrack of a radio play of the witches’ scene from Macbeth, and talk of ‘wickedness’.

The witch theme is continued at the inn, whose village is celebrating the burning of a local witch in 1664, and whose inhabitants include some women claiming to be witches. Pauline Collins’ Thyrza even claims modern witches can control victims’ minds and force them to kill themselves.

So there are bonfires and weird locals, but the Agatha Christie template is so well worn these days that it is easy to tell the red herrings from the real clues (the author’s experience working in a hospital and pharmacy means anyone using ointments or exotic drugs in her stories is nearly always connected to her killer).

Which cardboard character will fold under questioning?
‘Good Lord, Mr X must be rolling in money.’

‘Yes, and no one knows where it came from. He’s quite the mystery man.’

So it definitely ain’t Mr X. A lot of characters come under suspicion, all with as much personality as Colonel Mustard in the library, but we know whoever looks most likely is never the guilty one.

The Pale Horse is no different, being the usual contrivance, and predictable in its far-fetched conclusion – but the evidence suggests millions will love it. Perhaps someone is controlling their minds.

Best scene: the creepy, fog-bound opening moments

David Morrissey’s heavy caseload

Morrissey as
Dr Falkowski ©ITV)

Speaking of David Morrissey (Watching the new detectives this autumn – below), Sky1’s Tom Thorne dramas are not his only new outing in coming weeks.

He also gives a stand-out performance in U Be Dead on ITV1 in September, the harrowing true story of the London psychiatrist and his fiancée who were viciously stalked by Maria Marchese.

Morrissey is very good as the not-always-sympathetic Dr Jan Falkowski, while Tara Fitzgerald is moving as the fiancée, Debbie Pemberton, whom he cheats on during the dark days of their persecution.

I can’t give too much away about the drama – it’s is embargoed for a few weeks yet – but I would say the jaw-dropping horror this couple endured, along with the fine acting and writing (by Gwyneth Hughes), make U Be Dead compulsive and unforgettable. Marchese was sentenced to nine years in 2007 and the Met called it ‘one of the worst cases of stalking we have had to investigate’.

In terms of crime output, this has been a stunning year for Morrissey. We’ve already seen him as a detective in the BBC’s Five Days (also penned by Gwyneth Hughes), he squeezed in a role in Agatha Christie: Poirot for ITV (Murder on the Orient Express), and then there are the Thorne films, Sleepyhead and Scaredy Cat, looming on Sky1.

Somehow, he also put a shift in on Blitz, a movie version of Ken Bruen’s novel, starring Jason Statham, Aidan Gillen and Paddy Considine, which apparently is coming out sometime soon.

No one could accuse this guy of not being much cop.

Watching the new detectives this autumn

Two popular Brit detectives make the leap from the novel to small screen soon – Mark Billingham’s spooky cop Tom Thorne and Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks.

Sky1 has filmed David Morrissey in two Thorne mysteries, the original story in the series, Sleepyhead, and the second, Scaredy Cat.

Sleepyhead, the chilling story of a serial killer who induces in his victim a conscious state of paralysis, also has Natascha McElhone, Aidan Gillen and Eddie Marsan among the cast (Sandra Oh from Grey’s Anatomy will appear in Scaredy Cat). For Sky1, Sleepyhead is one of its marquee shows this autumn and details of its broadcast time will be out soon.

Meanwhile, ITV1 has lined up one of its favourite actors, Stephen Tompkinson, to breathe life into Banks. Whether Tompkinson, star of such family faves as Wild at Heart, has the oomph to cut it as a cop pushed to his limits by yet another serial monster in Aftermath should be interesting.

UK telly honchos are always seeking the holy grail of the next Morse, or even a Wexford. But the listings mags are filled with forgotten entries for such flops as Rebus, ITV miserably failing to capture the cussedness and self-destructiveness of Ian Rankin’s brilliant character.

We’ll soon know whether Peter Robinson, Mark Billingham and their many readers will enjoy a better result. In the meantime, for a taste of Thorne’s first outing, check the grisly trailer on Mark Billingham’s site.

Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire on Sky 2011

The Making of Boardwalk Empire

The most exciting nugget in the recent announcement that Sky is to become home to all HBO‘s gold-standard programming is the arrival next year of Martin Scorsese’s Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire.

It’s scripted by The Sopranos Emmy-winning writer Terence Winter and has Steve Buscemi in the lead as Nucky Thompson, Atlantic City’s real-life political boss and racketeer. Michael Pitt and William Hill also star, along with Brits Kelly Macdonald and Stephen Graham, who follows his Baby Face Nelson in Public Enemies with a turn here as Al Capone.

Other notorious faces of the time who crop up are Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein.

CrimeTimePreview will be following the build-up to this big hunk of event TV and preview it at the first opportunity. In the meantime, feast your eyes…

Loss of Identity

Aidan Gillen, Keeley Hawes and the stylish Identity Unit (© ITV)

I think I’ll join the police.

Look at how buff the detectives are in Identity, and how cool the offices are that they swan about in. Nice views, sleek decor, no clutter.

And I’m sure I could handle being reprimanded by Keeley Hawes. Every day, if necessary.

It’s a long way from my days as a crime reporter on the Hackney Gazette. The local nick at Stoke Newington was a cramped Victorian building, tiny windows, smelly and full of beefy blokes whose bellies stretched their shirt buttons.

All right, I realise that these days reality is out (except on reality shows) and programme makers exaggerate the glamorous side of coppering. But I was pretty impressed with Identity when it started. A fresh crime show devoid of the usual serial killers and paedophile twists, it was inspired by real and dark incidents of identity fraud. The swanky office and beautiful police were minor distractions.

But Identity reaches the end of its first series this week and sadly it’s got a fair bit more daft. Loose cannon DI Bloom – played with verve by Aidan Gillen and easily the show’s star – was always pushing the envelope with his habit of stabbing suspects and breaking and entering as he felt like it.

But keeping a corpse in his fridge? Come on.

Writer Ed Whitmore created a series that looked very promising, having researched real-life identity crimes and created episodes in which people have stolen identities, reinvented themselves as someone they’ve murdered or exacted revenge through credit fraud and ingenious frame-ups. Very contemporary, very disturbing.

However, as regular viewers know, overshadowing all this has been Bloom’s slightly deranged attempt to work for DSI Martha Lawson (Keeley Hawes) on the Identity Unit while secretly freelancing in his old job as an undercover cop who has infiltrated a drugs gang. Hence, the stiff in the icebox.


In the finale, things really get untidy for Mr Dual Identity. His office enemy, Anthony (Shaun Parkes), knows what has displaced the milk and veg from Bloom’s fridge. 

It all gets a bit implausible. Will Bloom keep his job? Will he save his gangster moll lover? Will he forget whether he’s a crook or a cop (he has looked doubtful at times)?


I won’t spoil it, but I do hope that if the series returns it calms down a bit and gets over its identity crisis.


Monday 9 August, 9pm, ITV1

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