Page last updated at 08:12 GMT, Friday, 28 August 2009 09:12 UK

The fresh face of Miss Marple

By Michael Osborn
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

The many Miss Marples
Julia McKenzie (l) with predecessors Angela Lansbury, Geraldine McEwen (top right) and Joan Hickson

She is genteel, polite and reassuringly old-fashioned - but with a razor-sharp mind capable of solving the most puzzling crime.

Miss Marple, Agatha Christie's much-loved creation, has been portrayed by a long line of renowned screen actresses since the 1950s.

A roll call including Margaret Rutherford, Joan Hickson and Helen Hayes is about to be joined by Julia McKenzie, who has the onerous task of perpetuating Marple's popularity in a new series of murder mysteries.

Wendy Richard and Julia McKenzie in Marple
The late Wendy Richard starred with McKenzie in A Pocketful of Rye

"It's extremely difficult as everyone has their own image of what Marple should be and holds that very dear," says the 68-year-old star, best known on TV for 1980s sitcom Fresh Fields.

"I think it would be very difficult to slip a new Marple in front of someone, particularly following in the footsteps of so many distinguished actresses."

McKenzie fills the void created by Geraldine McEwan, who portrayed the village spinster as more outgoing and with a glint in her eye.

"Agatha Christie wrote Marple in two ways when she first invented the character. The first was very much what Geraldine was playing - small, Victorian, and sparkly," explains McKenzie.

'There she is'

"Ten years later she became tweedy and sturdier. So following on from Geraldine I've gone in the opposite direction.

"When my make-up is done and my hat is put on, I feel more complete. My make-up girl says, 'There she is.'"

Julia McKenzie in Cranford
With these period dramas it's like stepping into a warm bath
Julia McKenzie, pictured as Mrs Forrester in Cranford

McKenzie, though appearing much younger, is reminiscent of Hickson's carefully studied, quiet and enduring portrayal - regarded by many Christie aficionados as the definitive Marple.

The actress, who also stars in period favourite Cranford, says that she has watched most of her predecessors, including Rutherford's "real comic creation".

"The only one I haven't seen is Gracie Fields. Gracie Fields?! That's really amazing. I wonder if she did it with a Lancashire accent?!" she jokes.

With a gruelling filming schedule to produce the lavish Sunday night dramas, McKenzie admits it has been hard work and has mislaid two pairs of glasses as a result.

"But I'm not into picking up details like Marple, though my husband says I've been spotting things in the house that haven't been done in my absence - an extension of her," she smiles.

The actress recently finished filming the next series of Cranford in which she plays ditzy Mrs Forrester - a far cry from the sharp-minded crime solver.

While the more recent Marple dramas tinker with Christie's original stories and have their fair share of racy material, McKenzie thinks they fall into a long tradition of cosy Sunday night fare.

"With these period dramas, Marple, Poirot and Cranford, it's like stepping into a warm bath.

Gracie Fields (1956)
Margaret Rutherford (1962-4)
Angela Lansbury (1980)
Helen Hayes (1982/4)
Joan Hickson (1984-92)
Geraldine McEwan (2004-8)
Julia McKenzie (2009 onwards)

"We like them because we'd like to live there and be with those people."

McKenzie, who has had a distinguished stage career, maintains that becoming the latest Marple is a "daunting" task, but hopes to make her mark on the role.

"When it comes out I'd be very happy if I could leave the country!" she laughs. "It would be awful if the ratings dropped.

"I hope that people will accept it like others who have played her have been memorable in their own way," adds the actress.

The first Marple mystery starring Julia McKenzie, A Pocketful of Rye, is on ITV1 on Sunday 6 September at 2000 BST.

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