Joan Hickson OBE (1906-1998)
Actress Joan Hickson lived in Wivenhoe for a great many years where she was known as Joan Butler rather than by the name known by those people who enjoyed her 64 year career on the stage, plus over 100 films (not counting films made for television). And of course to millions of television viewers, she had simply become known as Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s famous detective, in which she starred in the series of 12 films.
She starred in 12 Miss Marple mysteries, rather at the end of her career, filmed by BBC television, which were seen in more than 30 countries including China and the former Soviet Union.
Joan’s passion for the theatre began at the age of five when she saw Cinderella and was so overwhelmed she didn’t speak for days. She then told her startled family that she must go to live next to the theatre so that she could act whenever the mood took her.
The play of the Guinea Pig, which ran at the Criterion Theatre for eighteen months just after the War, was a turning point in my mother’s career, as was the subsequent film and the role that she landed in Seven Days To Noon, a character part she thoroughly enjoyed.
Parts in other films followed, including Carry on Constable, and the television series The Bell Family and Our Man at St Marks. The Bell Family was originally a series for Children’s Hour, one of the most successful productions they ever did, and it ran to five series. Joan loved working for Children’s Hour.
But she didn’t forget the stage: in the ’60s and ’70s, she had leading parts in The Freeway and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. One of her biggest successes was in Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce at the National Theatre in 1977, for which she won a Tony award when it moved to Broadway.
My mother made two trips to New York, firstly with A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and then with Bedroom Farce, and both plays were put on at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. The latter toured a bit and even reached Canada. The cast of Joe Egg was headed by Albert Finney.
Joan was destined to play Miss Marple, however. In 1946, Agatha Christie, having seen Joan in her Appointment With Death in the West End, sent a note of congratulations backstage with the footnote: "I hope one day you will play Miss Marple."
In 1983, Christie’s wish came true when the BBC secured the dramatisation rights.
And Joan went on to achieve worldwide fame as the quietly-spoken but quick-witted Miss Marple of St Mary Mead.
Joan died on October 17, 1998, a much-loved character in Wivenhoe, where she played herself.
Joan Hickson at her home in Rose Lane, Wivenhoe, Essex
(all photographs by Sue Murray ARPS)