Julia McKenzie was born in 1938 in Enfield, Essex. She made her London stage debut in 1966 in “Maggie May” by Lionel Bart. Her film roles include “Hotel du Lac” and “Shirley Valentine”. She recently succeeded Joan Hickson and geraldine McEwan as the new Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s genteel sleuth on television. She is married to actor Jerry Harte.
“MailOnline” article on Julia McKenzie from 2008:
From the olde worlde tea rooms to the chintzy front parlours in Miss Marple’s picturesque village of St Mary Mead, there is talk of little else.
It’s not about the latest body found in the library, nor the grim discovery of a blonde in the bushes, nor even the scandal of the jealous lover who poisoned his rival.
No, this time the gossip is about Miss Marple herself. And, as usual, it’s a mystery only she can solve.
Why has she stepped back even further in time with a retro makeover? Whatever has happened to the slightly dotty Aunt Jane that we had grown to know and love over the last five years?
And whatever would Agatha Christie have to say about it?
Miss Marple would, of course, put down her knitting, purse her lips, peer over her spectacles and answer all these questions with perception and logic to achieve a clear-up rate that would put Scotland Yard’s finest sleuths to shame.
You can almost hear her saying: ‘Well, of course, I’m only an old lady, but it seems to me that one or two important clues have been missed.’
Julia McKenzie laughs as she imagines what the shocked residents of Christie’s fictitious village deep in Middle England would think of her portrayal of Miss Marple.
When ITV1 screens the first of a new big-budget Marple series, beginning on Sunday, she has the unenviable task of following both Geraldine McEwan and the late Joan Hickson in the role.
‘I fully expect a rough ride,’ she admits. ‘There is a special ownership of these iconic figures. People will have formed their own idea of which one was best, and now I come along and they have to get used to a different interpretation.
‘You will either like me or loathe me.’
When Christie wrote her first Miss Marple novel 78 years ago, she envisaged her as tall, delicate and thin, with a pink wrinkled face, twinkling blue eyes and white hair piled high.
She modelled her on her grandmother, of whom she said: ‘She expected the worst of everyone and everything and, with almost frightening accuracy, was usually proved right.’
That was the way Geraldine McEwan played her in the last three series until she decided it was time to hand over to someone else.
Christie took a ten-year break from writing Marple stories, but when she picked up her pen again, depicted her as a small, tweedy, robust, taciturn old maid – which is how Joan Hickson played her between 1984 and 1994.
Now, the mantle has been passed to McKenzie, who admits that picking up Miss Marple’s ever-present knitting and voluminous leather handbag has been ‘beyond daunting and scary.’
She says: ‘I am the seventh actress to take on Miss Marple, and although Joan and Geraldine were the best known, I felt as if everyone was looking to me to be different – even though I’d be crucified if I changed her too much.
‘I took the decision to go for the middle course. I’m wearing lots of tweed suits, my hair has been dyed grey and is tied in a bun with a wave, going back to the Thirties and beyond, and it’s a very traditional look.
‘My Miss Marple can be flirty, and there’s a good sense of humour below the surface. I see her as a shy, reserved woman with an analytical brain and an astute sense of justice.
‘I love that whole era, when people kept their distance from each other and everyone was so polite and genteel.
‘If I lean towards anyone, it is to Joan, whom I regard as the definitive Miss Marple.’
Her debut as Miss Marple will be in the thriller A Pocket Full Of Rye, in which businessman Rex Fortescue (Ken Cranham) dies after his breakfast is poisoned.
Miss Marple is called in, but not before Rex’s widow Adele (Anna Madeley) is also poisoned and the housemaid Gladys is found strangled with a peg on her nose.
Christie’s spinster sleuth heads off a clash with the investigating officer, Inspector Neele, played by Matthew Macfadyen, with flattery, comparing him to a great screen lover of the time.
‘You remind me of a young Errol Flynn,’ she tells him archly.
Between murders, there are two steamy sex scenes. Julia admits that she was surprised at how much sex there is in the story. ‘I thought they’d slipped another script into it,’ she says, with a twinkle in her large blue eyes as she smiles.
‘My reaction? I said: “What?! What is this?!” I was more than surprised! I suppose as long as it doesn’t involve Marple, it’s all right. I only hope it won’t upset true Christie fans, because she would never have written anything like that.
‘I like her relationships with the detectives. She does what she feels she has to do to get information and to make sure that information is passed on. This guy, Inspector Neele, she probably thinks is a bit of all right, so she flirts with him.
Miss Marple enjoys the fact that she is able to put the clues together. But she knows she can’t do anything without the police.
‘I don’t think there were any women police at that time. So she’s got to wrap that up some way, the male ego. That’s what’s interesting and different.’
A veteran star of TV sitcoms – Fresh Fields and French Fields – and of the West End musical stage, she had begun to feel the demands of theatre too tiring.
‘I was doing eight shows a week, then collapsing into bed for the whole of Sunday in order to get ready for the Monday. It was no life, even though I loved it.’
She was already toying with the idea of giving up her musical career when she landed the Miss Marple role. She and her husband, actor/director Jerry Harte, were on holiday in New Zealand when the phone rang to tell her she had landed the part.
‘My agent said: “You are the next Miss Marple.” My legs went hollow and all I could do was to repeat what he said. I had to hand the phone to Jerry.
‘I had ten days to read myself into the role, meet producers, costume designers and a make-up team. I wanted to make most of the decisions, so that as much of my own personality as possible was in the part.
‘I felt she should be dressed the same as when she was in school. Like she had a blazer and skirt. I wanted this in tweed. I’ve only got two or three suits, but quite a lot of blouses. I quite like that look.’
At the costumier’s, she tried on Dame Peggy Ashcroft’s jacket from The Jewel In The Crown, and felt it was perfect for Miss Marple. So she ordered several copies in light tweeds.
Her hair colour was changed to blue-grey and part of it was dressed up with a wig.
She then chose a dark blue brimless hat which she felt Miss Marple would wear.
‘I like that hat but the producers don’t,’ she says. Although she wears it in A Pocket Full Of Rye, she lost the battle on that and is given different headwear – a severe brimmed hat – in later productions.
Swept up in the excitement of a new challenge, she discussed her future with Jerry – they have no children – and decided to give up her musical career. ‘It is time to move on,’ she says. ‘I am 68 and I don’t want the stress of eight shows a week.’
Even so, each Miss Marple episode takes five weeks of 12-hour days to film. Then there is the public interest that a major TV role brings.
‘It will seem strange not being able to go anywhere without being recognised. Someone once stopped me and said: “We did enjoy you on the telly – they made you up to look like a right old hag, didn’t they?”
I said: “No – that was me.” I’ve never been booked for my looks. But the ageing process is hard. I practically need psychiatric help to get my picture taken.’
The first day of filming was an ordeal. ‘I was feeling unsure. When it was my turn in front of the cameras, I was very nervous.’
Producer Karen Thrussell says in spite of Julia’s modest self-doubt, she has given Miss Marple her own distinctive edge.
‘Joan Hickson was very schoolteacherly. Geraldine was more fun and eccentric. She liked to dance around the edge of every story, but Julia’s much more traditional Miss Marple is right there in the centre. I think Agatha Christie would have approved because she is so close to the way she envisaged her character.’
Did Julia imagine she could make a good sleuth?
‘I’d be useless – I lose my glasses all the time. You wouldn’t catch Miss Marple being so disorganised. I can be a bit nosey. I like a bit of gossip.’
Julia has one big fan. David Suchet, the well-loved detective Hercule Poirot, said he couldn’t think of anybody he would like more than Julia McKenzie to play Miss Marple.
Julia is thrilled. Everything is falling into place for her, like the denouement in Miss Marple’s story.
‘I’m having the most marvellous Indian summer,’ she says.
The above “MailOnline” article can be accessed online here.