“She saw blood, she saw gore, she saw death, and she wasn’t afraid to use it.”
I confess… I haven’t cracked open an Agatha Christie novel in decades. Although I never miss film or TV adaptations of her work, especially those featuring eccentric super sleuths Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple. But after previewing two beguiling British TV imports that explore Christie’s mindset and milieu, I’m more than anxious to revisit Agatha Christie’s work on the printed page.
It turns out that the “Queen of Crime”–deemed the best-selling novelist of all time, whose book sales are only surpassed by Shakespeare and the Bible–was a fascinating woman in her own right. Her life story is flush with clues that fueled her self-described “sideline” as the prolific author of 66 novels, numerous short stories and plays that dissected the flawed art and heart of murder and murderers.
Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie premieres on PBS tonight, Sunday, January 17, 2021, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Agatha Christie’s England premieres on PBS, Sunday, January 24, 2021, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region (more details below).
Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie follows Christie from her isolated “chocolate box” childhood in bucolic Devon, England, through her pivotal nursing career during two World Wars; her mysterious 11-day disappearance triggered by one bad marriage and the wanderlust that precipitated her happy second marriage; her Middle Eastern adventures on archaeological digs and the Orient Express; her discomfort in the media spotlight and her twilight years as a beloved family matriarch.
Nothing, not even advancing age, slowed Agatha Christie down. She was 62 when her murder mystery, The Mousetrap, opened in London’s West End in October 1952. The play would run continuously until March 16, 2020, when stage performances were sidelined by COVID, holding the record as longest running play ever to grace the boards.
From 1961 until 1973, three years before her death, she published one book a year. Although she passed away in 1976, at the age of 85, Christie’s voice and visage are ever present throughout the film in absolutely glorious clips from rare audiotapes, as well as her letters, family photos, the film footage that she shot in the Middle East, and through revelations from her 73 secret notebooks. Her notebooks are crammed with scribbled daily musings, to-do lists, and plot and character fragments that she wove into subsequent novels.
Christie biographer Laura Thompson, archivist Dr. John Curran, and Sarah Phelps, who has adapted five Christie novels into screenplays, decry the myth that Christie peddled “cozy” fiction. They point to her lifelong obsession with subtle, complex details, a facility she fine-tuned in her youth and incorporated into her crime novels. Christie’s knowledge of poisons, wounds and weaponry is neatly tied to her wartime experiences as a nurse and certified medicinal dispensor and her fascination with forensic science.
Warm anecdotes from Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard and great grandson James Prichard provide insight into her strengths as an avid listener and observer, her life as a shy homebody and loving grandmother holding court in stately family homes.
“Married woman was my occupation,” asserts Agatha Christie firmly, in voice over. The Prichards clearly enjoy the irony of her self-proclaimed “occupation” as it flourished comfortably side-by-side with her prolific writing career that spanned the darkest periods of the 20th century and focused on the grizzly topic of how best to commit a murder.
Clips from several recent film and TV adaptations of Christie’s work and a stage performance of Witness for the Prosecution round out filmmaker Matt Cottingham’s delightful Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie.
In contrast, Agatha Christie’s England is a literary travelogue of sorts, produced and directed by Toby Roebuck. The film specifically examines the impact of class and tradition on Christie’s writing. Roebuck retraces her roots in the beautiful land and seascapes of Devon and the favorite homes and communities she tapped for artistic inspiration throughout her career.
Highlighted by vintage footage, photos and home movies of exquisitely manicured and appointed manor houses, turn-of-the-century beach resorts, and posh hotels frequented by privileged society reminiscent of the denizens of Downtown Abbey, Agatha Christie’s England explores Christie’s privileged childhood that notably bridged the Victorian and Edwardian eras and details the surprising origins of her beloved sleuths, Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot.
Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie premieres on PBS tonight, Sunday, January 17, 2021, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Agatha Christie’s England premieres on PBS, Sunday, January 24, 2021, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region, http://pbs.org and the PBS Video app for streaming info, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.
Whether viewed back-to-back or individually, Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie and Agatha Christie’s England provide a welcome introduction to Agatha Christie’s life and work. –Judith Trojan