In the early 1960s, two national treasures were the creative forces behind one of British cinema’s most successful franchises: the Miss Marple movies.
“Margaret Rutherford and Agatha Christie were pioneers in a world where women creatives still constantly play second fiddle, especially those of a ‘certain’ age,” says Philip Meeks, writer of Murder, Margaret and Me, currently being revived at York Theatre Royal. “Yet due to their creative brilliance, they found themselves in their 60s at the heart of the biggest franchise in the history of British cinema at that time.”
But the films were almost never made as Christie didn’t want Rutherford to bring her fabled spinster detective to life, while the acting legend and ‘funniest woman alive’ was mortified at the prospects of sullying her reputation with something as sordid as murder.
Now Meeks’s comedy-thriller sets out to tell the real story of why Rutherford was reluctant to take on the role that propelled her to global recognition and of how Christie turned detective, determined to unearth Rutherford’s tragic and shocking secret.
Well, sort of, as the show opens with a warning that “the only real truth in what you are about to see is that Miss Margaret Rutherford didn’t want anyone to know the truth”.
Although the play has an Edinburgh Fringe First award to its name, and has successfully played in New York, those versions were one-woman shows, written that way admits Meeks, to fit in with the “frustrating” restrictions of the Fringe Festival. So he is thrilled that the expanded York Theatre Royal (and touring) version boasts three such starry names as Susie Blake as Margaret Rutherford, Nichola McAuliffe as Agatha Christie and Andrina Carroll as The Spinster.
“There’s an awful lot of the original play still there but this version is about another 50 per cent longer. Not that it’s a hugely long play even now but being able to find a midway point for an interval only enhances the mystery at the heart of the play.”
Meeks adds: “A version of it was published as a three-hander a couple of years ago, and proved quite popular with amateur groups. But this one we’ve created over the last few weeks will now be the version. As a writer, I wouldn’t necessarily be anywhere near a production but for something like this play, which has had quite a strange genesis, you need the input of actors and a director to help you. If you’re invited to be part of the process and you know that will be a good experience, then that’s something to be enjoyed, not taken advantage of. But if you think there are going to be tensions, then just pretend you’re a dead playwright and stay well away.”
One of Meeks’s other current projects sees him trying to find a successful way of adapting a horror story for the stage.
“The huge success of The Woman in Black means a lot of commercial theatrical producers are constantly trying to find a way to translate the genre, which is one I love,” he enthuses. “In fact, my play Edith In The Dark, partly about the terrible tragedy in Edith Nesbit’s private life and partly adapting horror stories she wrote before her successful children’s books like The Railway Children, had an arc to it that I thought of as a tribute to those Amicus portmanteau films.
“But I really cannot understand why those producers keep trying to use books like The Turn Of The Screw, a very subtle, psychological piece of writing, although you need something where there is enough action to drag you through. Also, if you adapt something like old Vincent Price films, when you watch them you find that they are only about 17 minutes long. The one I’ve been desperate to do is Rosemary’s Baby, because there’s enough character in the book, which you need, and I have a concept for it. But you just can’t get the rights. They never say that Ira Levin doesn’t want it on stage, it’s just ‘sorry, we’re in conversations about that’ which shuts the whole thing down because you can never find who exactly these conversations are with.”
He adds: “I do think I’ve found one now which I’m really excited about, an original take on the haunted house story from a writer who was hugely influential in my childhood. But I can’t tell you who yet.”
Meanwhile, Murder, Margaret And Me will be going out on national tour after its run in York, albeit after a break until the Autumn to allow its actresses to fulfil their many other commitments.
“I see Murder, Margaret And Me as a comic entertainment with a mystery at its heart. It’s hard to define but I see it as more of a Jeeves and Wooster-type heightened reality theatrical happening. It is not a straight play by any stretch of the imagination.”
Murder, Margaret And Me is at York Theatre Royal until March 4, 2017 and will be touring later in the year.