An Interview with Geraldine McEwan
Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple is a terrific mix of mischief and tenacity, shrewd and curious as a mouse...
-- The Guardian
Shortly after Geraldine McEwan completed filming the second series of the Miss Marple series, she sat down to chat about Agatha Christie, Miss Marple's secret to successful sleuthing -- and her own take on the evolution of the character...
Have you enjoyed filming this second series of Marple?
Very much indeed -- even more so than the last series because I've come to personally love Miss Marple. But also the standard of the scriptwriting, which is where it all starts, is excellent. They are all major writers, whether on television or in the theatre. We have Kevin Elyot, Stephen Churchett and Stewart Harcourt. It's interesting that they are different, so each film has very much a character of its own -- it makes it much more interesting in a way than having the same writer for all of them. Also, of course, we have a different director for each of them. Again they are major, brilliant directors. Plus, of course, we have these amazing, astounding casts which makes it just a marvelous assignment for me.
When I was asked to play Miss Marple, I was given the Kevin Elyot script for The Body in the Library. I was a fan of his theatre work anyway and I just thought it was brilliant. I was immediately taken by Miss Marple, so I read some of the novels and I knew I had to do it. I loved the individuality of her. I had the same feeling as when I was asked to play Jean Brodie. I just felt I had to do it. Both appealed to me enormously and immediately. I love to play parts which aren't like anything else you've ever read about.
Have you adapted or developed your portrayal of Miss Marple at all from the last series?
Yes, I think so. I've found out more about her. I think that comes out of her relationships with other people in a way. I have discovered more. I feel I've got her more on my pulse now, which always takes time when you do a series. I remember when I played Jean Brodie, after doing about six episodes I felt I could be put into any situation and I wouldn't have to think -- I could just react as Miss Brodie. That is happening with Miss Marple for me now. I feel I could be walking down the street and if somebody talked to me, I could just slot into Miss Marple and know how she would react.
What did you think about the reaction to your first series of Miss Marple episodes?
People do stop me a lot and what is really very rewarding is that the ages of the people who stop me vary so widely. Surprisingly there are a lot of young people -- even children. I had a couple recently aged 11 and 13. They are crazy about the character of Miss Marple and crazy about the actual productions we've made. It's very sweet because quite often when people stop me they say, "Oh, do you mind me telling you much I like your Miss Marple?" I say "No, that's why I do this!" We are all doing it to please people and make them happy. The more you get that kind of feedback, the more rewarding it is.
The screenwriters have introduced some bold new elements to their scripts which are not in Christie's original novels. This time around Miss Marple tackles The Sittaford Mystery and By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, even though she does not appear in the original novels. What are your thoughts on these changes?
I think it makes it more interesting for those people who are terrific fans of Agatha Christie, because it gives them a different story and different characters. Fortunately, the Agatha Christie estate is very happy for the writers to invent other characters in these stories. It brings to it perhaps a more contemporary flavor, which must be appealing to a modern audience. Although we are still in that post-war period and the writing is very true to that, the whole visual effect and the performance style definitely has a more contemporary flavor about it. That's been managed without damaging or being false to Agatha Christie.
Your first Marple series gave Miss Marple a depth we hadn't previously seen with the addition of flashbacks to her own love life. What are your thoughts on the true Jane Marple?
I really like that as it gave her more interest to an audience, allowing them to know something about her past. Personally, it has given me the freedom to give her certain elements which might not be in the Agatha Christie books. It makes it a much more interesting assignment for me as an actor. Consequently, it should make the character much more interesting to audiences. I feel she's got many more levels to her and many different facets to her personality, and that is developing. Quite honestly, I think that if you are making a lot of television programs with a central character then ultimately it can become boring if you know nothing about them. I personally want to know, or get to know, things about a character. It doesn't mean to say that they still can't have a certain mystery about them. I feel she has to be very individual and, in a way, a rather special human being.
What is it about Miss Marple that makes her so loved by the public?
I think Miss Marple is so interested in people and their lives. It is all to do with her immediately responding to any dramatic situation which comes along, like a murder. There is usually a central character whom she feels for or she has a compassion for. She just naturally reacts -- she has a great warmth and she empathizes with people very quickly. She's very remarkable because she never wants any kind of gratitude; she never wants any reward for what she's done. She doesn't think of herself as any sort of 'great' person. She's not aware of herself as a person at all -- she's not even aware of her age, which is very refreshing and remarkable. She just plunges in and, fortunately, people seem to like her. She has this way where her enthusiasm towards people very often makes them divulge things which they wouldn't to anyone else. She's not at all cynical or probing. It just happens for her.
Then there's her zest for life and her wit. She's so sparkly too. She seems to have endless vitality and you feel she gets out of bed and embraces the day and the world -- she just gets on with it! She lives every moment of her life for that particular moment. She doesn't waste time drifting. Personally, I find it infectious.
Why do you think TV, film and theatre companies keep coming back to Agatha Christie time and time again? What's the enduring appeal of a Christie?
One thinks of Agatha Christie books as quite harmless, but in fact some of the crimes are horrific. It's a very strange combination of ordinary British people in these little villages and then these horrific crimes. I think the combination of that gets people. It's also because they are escapist entertainment. They aren't really realistic -- it's all heightened realism. Even if people are unaware of this, it gets everyone. It's telling a story and we all like storytelling.
The casts of these four films are stellar -- it seems everyone wants to be in a Marple, many citing you as their reason! Does that make you proud?
Very much so. In a sense with those sort of things, you can't quite understand why anyone would say that. It's very flattering. I can't believe it because every day when I'm filming I go in and find I'm doing several scenes and in each one I'm coming up against more and more fantastic actors. Also it's lovely because I'm meeting up with lots of old friends and I'm making new ones. They are from so many different backgrounds. The variety of the casting is wonderfully stimulating. It's challenging, but as everyone says, "You are only as good as the people around you." Therefore, I'm very lucky.
Miss Marple has been written into a Tommy and Tuppence story in By the Pricking of My Thumbs. This is the first time two of Agatha Christie's detectives have joined forces -- what do you think fans will make of the collaboration?
I suppose ardent fans might question it because usually Tommy and Tuppence solve their crimes together but I do think that the script was brilliant. I loved doing it and I thought it was a great combination. They are such an unlikely combination of friends. I do think it is very entertaining to observe this great relationship. This is the thing with Miss Marple -- she has a lot of unusual and unexpected relationships with people. She very often becomes great friends with a young detective or a younger woman, like Gwenda in Sleeping Murder. What I've slightly missed this series though is that I haven't had quite so many delicious young detectives. Miss Marple likes them and I so do I!