Queering Agatha Christie – Future research plans

** This blog is a plan for a project that I have recently completed. You can view the finished article here! https://headmasterrituals.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/queering-agatha-christie-2/ **

I’ve been a rather closeted Christie fiend for most of my life, and also a rather selective consumer. Marple was my limit for many years, although Poirot has found a very secure monopoly of my leisure time of late. The discourses that question the literary merit of Christie don’t concern me as a reader and viewer. I like the trashy ones the best, especially the coke-filled Tommy and Tuppence 1920’s early shit. Something about them (that should probably worry me) does it for me. You can thank my Nan. I cannot help but think that, as a country boy, there is something attractive about the relationship between the differing characters and locations within which Christie sets her murders. Poriot is a Belgian ex policeman-come-detective whose knowledge of municipal lifestyles, combined with those possessed by his devoted Hastings and Miss Lemon,  are the key to his success in solving crime in the inter-war era. In this sense, he mirrors Doyle’s Holmes, who relied heavily upon municipal knowledge and myriad ‘underclass’ contacts to solve crime. Marple, however, is located within the seclusion of provincial post-war Britain. Her key to solving crime is the ability to transpose the behavioural observations of her close-knit village onto other people or communities, often city based, to solve her crimes. This relationship between provincial and municipal  difference is possibly why I have consumed her work as I have. Class and gender tensions are vividly displayed by tracing how shifting ideas of ‘home’ become almost complicit in the murders, especially when council housing appears in the 1960s.

As an Obsessive  Comparative Consumer, by which I mean that once I get hooked I have to consume every incarnation of the topic, I have been acutely aware of how homosexuality has been addressed, revised or inserted into the narratives of Christie’s books when adapted for the screen. I am, of course, not alone in this. The ITV series Marple not only outraged avid Christie fans by removing the much coveted Miss from the title, but a furore ensued because of the plot and character changes and the addition of key homosexual criminals into them. Dennis Altman and Johaan Hari have also discussed this topic at length (see below).

[Joan Simms (Left, BBC 1985) and Claire Skinner (Right, ITV 2005) in A Murder is Announced ]

What is less explored is, however, that a number of these more contemporary homosexual manifestations do so alongside suggestions of paedophilia. There is no doubting that Christie penned Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyed as lesbians in A Murder is Announced (1950), nor that  Cassetti, who kidnapped a three-year-old American heiress Daisy Armstrong and murdered her for pleasure after receiving his ransom money, was killed for his ‘paedophilic’ crime in Murder on the Orient Express (1934). ‘Simple’ Lesbian Murgatroyed’s murder is avenged through the courts, but Cassetti’s ”twelve-jury executioners” were allowed to remain unpunished in her novel.

[Rachel Roberts and Wendy Hillier (Left, EMI, 1974) and Eileen Atkins and Susanne Lothar (Right, ITV, 2010) in Murder on the Orient Express]

One example of how homosexuality has been inserted into an adaptation can be found in ITV’s The Body in the Library (2004). Christie’s plot saw Josie Turner killing her ‘common’ great-cousin and dance partner Ruby for the inheritance left to her. Turner had done so to share with  Mark Gaskill with whom she is engaged. A second murder, that of a 15 year-old girl guide Pamela Reeves, who is dressed up by Turner to resemble Ruby, is committed by Tuner to provide an elaborate alibi. It is along this narrative that the three part 1984 BBC television series follows. One significant alteration was the age of Reeves, who is 16 in this adaptation.

[Murdered Pamala Reeves dressed as Ruby Keen in Body in the Library, BBC, 1984]

The ITV adaptation portrays Turner as a lesbian, murdering for her lover Adelaide. Turner is responsible for Ruby’s murder, and both were complicit in the murder of 15 year-old Pamela. The blonde Adelaide befriends the girl guide, in a Hindley-esque manor, and takes her to Josie on the premise that Turner is a director and will make her a film star. They give her a makeover together, undressing her and bleaching her hair. The scene is highly stylised, with close shots of the child’s limbs and lips as they painted them scarlet. Both are convicted for the two murders, and are seen screaming love for each-other in separate cells, awaiting execution. It is significant that the only times in which ITV chose to write in images pertaining to execution (Christie rarely did so) they are of women.

[Tara Fitzgerald, Mary Stockley & Florence Hoath in Body in the Library, ITV, 2004]

Nancy Banks-Smith commented in her Guardian column of 13th December 2004 that  “..the solution of a murder mystery is supposed to take your breath away and this certainly does that. I have to say, through slightly gritted teeth, that it actually strengthens the story.” Geraldine McEwan, who reprised the much played Marple, stated in The Scotsman on 10th December 2004 that “…it might be controversial for the devotees, but hopefully, they will keep an open mind.”  InterestinglyMatthew Pritchard, Christie’s Grandson, stated in the Telegraph on 22nd October 2004 that viewers should not be worried by the forthcoming episode of The Body in the Library’s ‘sexualisation’ and stated: “If you think my grandmother was not aware of different sexual preferences, of course she was. If you read the books carefully, it’s all there. This is just more overt.”  However carefully read or not, Christie’s plot clearly did not include lesbianism into the episode, it was written in. Just as Ruby’s age had been altered in the BBC version 2o years earlier.

[Above and below: John Sessions in The Moving Finger, ITV, 2006]

In 2006 another homosexual character was written into Marple’s The Moving Finger. Interestingly called a ‘screaming Queen’ both by The Sun and The Daily Mail, John Sessions’ character Cardew Pye is a dandified homosexual, frequently speaking in an imagined ‘upper-class’ polari alternative, and who is ‘suspiciously’ tactile with Richard Symmington’s two young boys. The suggestion that he is responsible for an onslaught of ‘Poison Pen’ letters smacks of the ‘other’ queens portrayed in Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961)

Is it possible to discern why producers made these changes, and if they did so with appealing to a defined audience in mind? Why are lesbian child killers sexual, and why are homosexual men only portrayed as being suspiciously paedophilic? Is this a fair representation of homosexuality or is it attempting to project a steriotype onto characters that are worthy of Christies’ overt racism and anti-Semitism? Does any of this matter if this was only plot line that this audience had seen, or is it just the 100s of Christie fans whose complaints made this at all newsworthy?

I hope to be able to explore further the relationship between adaption, adoption and sexuality within my studies into corporal punishment, even if it just results in watching and shouting at loads of shit TV.

http://marxistupdate.blogspot.co.uk/2009_10_25_archive.html

http://johannhari.com/2003/10/04/agatha-christie-radical-conservative-thinker/

Owen Emmerson

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4 responses to “Queering Agatha Christie – Future research plans

  1. This is a really interesting dissection of Christie’s works and adaptations thereof. I think the “intended audiences” question is what really pulls at me, here, because it calls in to further examination cultural ideals at the times of these productions. Are these representations and written-in aspects a reflection of popular culture, the production team’s morals, ideals, etc. or a combination? The question can similarly be put to Christie’s works, as the racism and antisemitism (as you noted) are held up to similar stereotyping as the write-ins of homosexuality and child predators. Maybe, in their own way, the rewrites are managing to modernize Christie’s works, not through setting but through social taboos and prejudices?

    • Thanks for your comment! It is indeed very hard to measure if the written-in characters and narratives are supposed to be or are suspected of being a reflection of popular culture. I think this suggestion that Banks Smith shares, that the plot is more exiting because of them, certainly would suggest that addressing these topics as ‘taboo’ has made them more exciting and perhaps ‘modern.’ I think it is very telling that adaptations have edited much of Christie’s overt racism out, and written homosexuality and paedophilia in. I think this is even more acute somehow because they are ‘historic’ characters. ITV don’t seem to keen on historic gay characters at present…. Look at Downton Abbey!

  2. An interesting take on the matter. I’m not really sure where I stand on the issue. I’m much more familiar with the Poirot TV series than with either of the Miss Marple series, so can only really comment on that. Certainly in Poirot it’s a mixed bag. The gay subplot in Five Little Pigs works really, really well – but the one in Cards on the Table is hilariously silly.

    I found your point about female executions in the ITV versions fascinating. I’d never noticed that before. You’re also right that they tend to add these controversial subplots in a way that maintains their ‘taboo’ status (sometimes, but not always, adding paedophilic elements to the homosexual characters). Food for thought!

  3. No mention of Christopher Wren? 🙂 He is most non-closeted gay Christie character, i believe. He acts the part the whole time, and outs himself even more obviously by proclaiming his admiration of stern, handsome police officers.

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