Prunella Scales. What more do I have to say? The stage name alone offers up a certain oddity and eccentricity that her physical appearance continues to suggest. I fell in love with her portrayal of Sybil Fawlty, the off color and regal proprietress of the most ill-managed guest house in the history of England. Her economy of manner, so precise and suggestive, was a wonderful foil to the physical stammerings and mishaps of Basil Fawlty.
Sunday night I watched Prunella in a remarkably un-Sybil role in a new Masterpiece Mystery: Miss Marple. The Jane Marple stories have a fair dose of stereotypes, quite purposely placed by Agatha Christie to illustrate her views on the universalness of evil. Prunella Scales played a widow, Mrs Mackenzie, whose husband was purportedly killed by the rival family patriarch, many years ago. Now in a sanatorium, Mrs. Mackenzie recounts how she had schooled her children in a nightly prayer to seek revenge on this robber baron, and pledge their filial devotion to this adult quest.
The first Miss Marple story was written in 1930 England, where conventional villages dotted the green landscape, city life offering a sharp contrast to these country ways. A small town aging spinster was invisible and powerless, a stereotype that Agatha Christie used as an asset to the stealth-like powers that amateur sleuth Jane Marple possessed. Like Hercule Poirot, her fantastically odd Belgian detective, Jane Marple was an outsider whose abilities to observe without seeming important gave almost philosophical weight to her crime solving puzzles. Unlike legendary minds like Poirot or Sherlock Holmes who constantly remind you of their inner crime solving genius, Miss Marple does not proselytize from the book of Jane. She offers up idiosyncratic stories from the day to day life of her local villagers in St Mary Mead as proof of the inevitability of wrong doing. Decades before a shift in feminist sensibilities would demand scrutiny of the multiple unpaid roles that women perform, the zing of an old lady solving a dastardly crime before the local constable could fathom its' dark belly was quite the satisfying finale. Agatha Christie would go on to write 12 Miss Marple novels, making her one of the most beloved detectives.
Masterpiece Mystery is running four new productions of Miss Marple stories this summer. And of course the many fabulous Joan Hickson versions are available on DVD. Caution: there will be graphic scenes of knitting.