After Geraldine McEwan’s recent departure, Fresh Fields and Cranford actress Julia McKenzie steps into Miss Marple’s sensible shoes and gives Agatha’s Christie’s spinster sleuth a fresh spring in her step. Her first mystery, A Pocket Full of Rye, follows her investigations after the fatal poisoning of a bullying businessman. Here Julia tells What’s On TV about her famous new role…
How did you come to get the part of Miss Marple?
“I said to my agent, I’d love to do a Poirot or a Marple as a guest – can you get me in an Agatha Christie? I just never expected to actually be Miss Marple! Of course it’s a dream job, a job that any actress of my age would be thrilled to get.”
Had you thought about playing Miss Marple before?
“No! I’ll be honest – I hadn’t even read much Agatha Christie. And I think I’d only seen one episode with my predecessor Geraldine McEwan. No, it just didn’t enter my world. So it has been a shock.”
Have you spoken to Geraldine McEwan about taking over her role?
“She wrote to me and I wrote back. But we haven’t actually met, and we’ve never worked together, which is a strange thing. She said she was pleased it was me and I wrote back and said it would be hard to replace her, and all the things you would expect. But I think it must have been very hard for her to give the part up. But it is tremendously hard work. If you’re not feeling quite up to scratch – I think she had a little hip problem, I’m not sure, or something like that. If you see Marple walking up a hill once, you’ve done that 12 times in filming. It’s quite wearing when you’re older. Stairs in particular – the old knees go.”
Your first mystery, A Pocketful of Rye, sees the last TV performances of the late Ken Campbell and Wendy Richard. That must have been quite poignant?
“Both were absolutely amazing. Wendy obviously knew she was suffering from cancer when we worked together. You wouldn’t have known that at all, though. She was thoroughly professional, and very pleasant company to be with all the time. And with Ken – he was amazing because I’ve never known anyone quite so dynamic in my whole life. He seemed very fit and well. In fact I think there’s a scene in there where he started to rather fancy Marple and get out of the bed towards her. Well that was Ken, that wasn’t in the script. And I think that really defines Ken, in that he always did the unexpected.”
How hard was it to get in character?
“I love a bit of gossip and chat, but I’ve always been an actress who plays what’s on the page. I do think she’s quite a reserved person – a little shy and very much a product of her own generation, having lived through two World Wars. I think the only excitement she gets is when she gets on these cases. And she finds that she’s well ahead of everybody else – and I think that’s a bit of a turn-on. That’s how I see her.”
Will your Miss Marple still be in tweed?
“Yes, well I’m getting a new tweed suit made because I wanted her to look as though she hasn’t changed much from when she was at school, with the school blazer and the shirt and the sensible shoes. People then weren’t like we are now; you know, going out to Top Shop, getting something and then chucking it away. They had things for years!”
Who’s your favourite ever Marple actress?
“Everybody asks me this. I’m thrilled to follow Geraldine, who’s a very fine actress, but I think we all bow the knee to Joan Hickson. I think she’s considered the definitive Marple, and I have to say I think she probably was.”
So when you got the part did you start reading the books furiously?
“I didn’t have much time to be honest. I was actually on set 10 days after I came back from New Zealand, having learned I‘d got the part a week before. They sent the script out to me and I had to learn a fair bit of it on the flight to Kuala Lumpur and Heathrow. I’ve read up quite a bit since. But at that time I was completely parachuted into it. So this was the first one – and I think I’m going to get a bit better as I go on! It’s a big thing. I mean, it’s seen in every country in the world.”
Would it be wrong for Miss Marple and Poirot to share the screen at some point?
“Well people keep saying it, but you want to put that question to David Suchet – he goes up like a rocket. He’s a complete purist. His view is that they never met, so there’s no reason. And of course she’s an amateur. She has no business in this at all. Unless she makes a connection with an inspector, there’s nothing she can actually do. Nothing. It all relies on that relationship.”
Did you talk to David Suchet before taking the role?
“Yes well I’ve known David for a long while, and he was very helpful. I phoned him a couple of times about various things. He’s meticulous. He keeps everything – and he watches, he told me, 20 hours of his material every time he starts a new series. I couldn’t do that! I don’t like watching myself, it’s too painful.”
Marple: A Pocketful Of Rye will be shown on ITV1 on Sunday 6 September