I cheerfully admit a weakness for cosy whodunnit crime books, and this Angela Lansbury series was surely the cosiest and one of the longest running of the genre on television. It’s my idea of comfort viewing – the televisual equivalent of apple pie and custard, which works thanks to its familiarly formulaic structure and the warm presence of Lansbury at the centre. The series is endlessly repeated on BBC Daytime and on UK Alibi, but curiously the feature-length first/pilot episode is rarely aired these days so I was keen to go back and see “where it all began.”
In many ways this was Lansbury’s ‘retirement plan’ after a lifetime of film and stage success in much higher quality but less well paying roles. But she certainly works for it: for the vast majority of the series’ 12 years she’s the only recurring character and in virtually every scene. Compare that to the way modern stars complain about the work they have in an ensemble drama where the work load is shared by up to a dozen regulars and you’ll have some appreciation of Lansbury’s work ethic despite being almost 60 even when the series began. Her star power certainly gave the producers access to big Hollywood names they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and the pilot duly features Brian Keith, Arthur Hill, Anne Francis and Ned Beatty – and Anne Ramsey in a cameo as a bus bag lady on the eve of her late-life movie stardom in The Goonies and Throw Momma From The Train.
Created by William Link and Richard Levinson who had previously devised the Colombo series, the pilot hits the ground running with Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher suddenly finding her book published and a bestseller, throwing her into a trip to the Big City on a publicity junket, and so it’s very much the story of how she copes being out of her depth – by melting even hardened New Yorkers with her small town charm and homemade recipes for curing corns. As the series went on the character would become more assured (as her literary fame grew) but here Lansbury plays a good many scenes for laughs with a lot of scuttling around and gurning for the camera revealing her old fashioned stage roots at this point, making it interesting to see how much even an old pro has to learn in a new medium. At one point she seems to be intentionally channelling Magaret Rutherford’s version of Miss Marple (Lansbury had just ‘aged up’ to play Marple in a recent big screen version of The Mirror Crack’d before creating this original American version of Christie’s sleuth.)
As a result you catch her ‘acting’ more in this pilot than in most of the series where she became so natural and at ease many viewers felt she wasn’t even acting but just being herself (the curse of many a star of a long-running show.) The pilot actually gives her more to do than the typical series instalment, with a romantic interest touchingly played by her and Hill, and an outcome that is presented as truly heart-breaking for the character despite the preceding light comedy. The pilot doesn’t quite play fair with the whodunnit aspect, relying on a literary reference that only makes sense when some background facts are introduced right at the denouement; the series when it got underway would learn how to put all the facts in evidence during the show, rather as Agatha Christie was always scrupulously careful to do in her novels. It doesn’t hurt the pilot but it’s a little annoying and means it’s all but impossible to guess who the murderer is, with most of the running time given over to a red herring theft plot.
It’s not world-changing TV, it’s not edgy or different. But Murder, She Wrote is the ultimate in professional, well-put together and thoroughly enjoyable light drama entertainment which is easy to watch and to appreciate, and Angela Lansbury shines as one of the true stars of her generation.