Monday, March 27, 2006

Nostalgia, Marxism and Miss Marple

I have found a short article by Alan McKee discussing the appeal of the BBC adaptations of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple books. These are the ones starring Joan Hickson, which I have discussed here before.

He suggests three reasons why this series was so appealing. I have no quarrel with the second and third of them, which are the quality of Joan Hickson's performance and the way the programmes offer a "pleasantly female-oriented version of detective mythology".

But the first worries me a little. McKee argues that it is because the Miss Marple adaptations are "prime examples of 'heritage' television":
The term "heritage television" sums up a certain attitude towards the past which developed in Britain during the 1980s, when a mixture of a new Victorianism in moral standards and an increasingly frenetic late-capitalistic commodification led to two tendencies. The first was an attraction to a particularly sanitised version of England's past. The second capitalized on the first with various moves towards rendering that past easily consumable - in television programs, films, bed sheets, jams and preserves, and so on.
I wonder. I always distrust this sort of Marxist analysis, if only because of the unexplained use of the term "late capitalism". Presumably we are now living through "even later capitalism", but there is still no sign of the Revolution.

It also assumes that an interest in the past is somehow excaptional and a sign that there is something wrong with present-day society. Presumably the idea is that in a socialist economy people would spend all their time working bare-chested in fields and factories and looking to the future, like the heroes of early Soviet propaganda films.

I suspect nostalgia is more central to the human condition than that. For it is not accurate to date the nostalgia boom to the Thatcherite 1980s.

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady -which gave rise to lots of associated merchandise - was no.1 in the Sunday Times bestseller list for 64 weeks in the more collectivist years of 1977 and 1978. And I am sure it would be possible to find examples going back much further than that.

Besides, is Miss Marple as nostalgic as all that? Yes, there is great pleasure to be had from the period cars, clothes and so on. But the Joan Hickson programmes were precisely set in the years around 1950, and we do see social change taking place. Where an institution - Bertram's Hotel - has resisted all change, it turns out to be sinister.

Perhaps significantly, the series looked both forward and back in its casting too. It looked forward in that it featured George Baker as a police inspector and Kevin Whatley as a sergeant before either Wexford or Lewis came to the screen.

And it looked back in its use of actors and actresses familiar from films made decades before.

The most remarkable example of this was the cameo appearance by Joyce Carey in A Murder is Announced, made in 1985. She had appeared as an elderly landlady (Alastair Sim, as a fake medium, schemes to marry her) in London Belongs to Me, as early as 1948.

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