Just as the James Bond franchise freshened its image three years ago with actor Daniel Craig, the popular "Masterpiece Mystery!" series "Miss Marple" is breathing new life into Agatha Christie's inquisitive spinster-turned-amateur-detective Sunday with the first of four new thrillers starring the diminutive Julia McKenzie. The 68-year-old has taken over the reins from Geraldine McEwan, who retired as Jane Marple after three seasons.
In the 1970s, McKenzie was best known as a musical comedy star, appearing in the London stage in the acclaimed "Side by Side by Sondheim." And she's been a staple on British TV for decades. "Masterpiece" audiences know her as the cow-loving Mrs. Forrester on "Cranford."
McKenzie, who is currently making the sequel to "Cranford," admits it was a bit nerve-racking to don the tweeds and comfortable shoes of the famed resident of St. Mary Mead, and follow in the footsteps of such former Marples as Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury, Helen Hayes and Joan Hickson.
"Everyone has got a different idea on who Marple is and what she should be," said McKenzie over the phone during a break in the "Cranford" production.
"So many terrific actresses have played her, you can only play her with your own qualities."
McKenzie admitted she had never read any of Christie's 12 Miss Marple novels. "I read them quite a lot now," she says. "I'm quite the fan."
Two of the four episodes -- "Murder Is Easy" and "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?" -- are based on non-Marple Christie mysteries. The writers, though, have popped her into the plot.
"They are putting her into other stories because there is such an appetite for seeing her," McKenzie said.
"It's quite difficult to write for an amateur detective. Obviously, a professional can go everywhere there's a murder. But when Jane goes, she's connected to the people who are murdered or are murderers. If you were a friend of Miss Marple you wouldn't invite her anywhere because wherever she ends up there is a murder!"
"I think Julia is a very warm Miss Marple," said "Masterpiece" executive producer Rebecca Eaton.
"I think the empathy all Miss Marples have had in varying degrees is front and center with her. You feel Miss Marple's heart with Julia. She has a very expressive face."
McKenzie admitted she found it quite difficult to play a detective character. "All you can do is ask the questions and look suspicious now and again. It's quite limiting in many ways."
The U.S. is getting the "Miss Marple" series two months before they premiere in the U.K. By then, McKenzie will be back to work on four new Marple mysteries. She's been contracted to play the sleuth for three seasons.
"We shoot all around the outskirts of London," she said. "It's a very hard schedule. We shoot one in five weeks. That means six days a week and sometimes we do 12-13 hours a day."
McKenzie, who has retired from musicals, was ready to pack it in all together as an actress.
"Then this came along and 'Cranford,' " she mused. "I'm having a bit of an Indian summer, really."