Sing a Song of Sixpence …

Seemingly innocuous, English nursery rhymes often have a rather sinister origin; and noone knew this better than Agatha Christie, who repeatedly used them as a motif; most famously probably in 1939’s And Then There Were None (a/k/a Ten Little Indians), where the murderer kills his victims, one by one, in the fashion of the Ten Little Indians ditty.

A Pocket Full of Rye is one of three Christie mysteries inspired by Sing a Song of Sixpence; the others are the short stories Four and Twenty Blackbirds and Sing a Song of Sixpence, contained in the collections Three Blind Mice and The Witness For the Prosecution, respectively. The nursery rhyme describes, in coded language, the modus operandi of a feared pirate known as Blackbeard, terror of the high seas between 1716 and 1718, who lured men into his services by promises of lavish pay and rations of rum (“sixpence” and “rye”), and often approached merchant ships under cover of friendly colors, only to have his concealed crewmen (“blackbirds in a pie”) emerge at the last moment and assault the other ship, which more often than not resulted in rich takings (“a dainty dish”) for Blackbeard (“the king”) and his men:

Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing.
Now wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?

In Christie‘s mystery, it is the murderer himself who uses the nursery rhyme to play his ghastly game with the Fortescue family. Soon after ill-tempered, wealthy patriarch Rex Fortescue (Timothy West) has died in his office of a rare poison – and subsequently been found with rye in his pocket – his impossibly young and, shall we say, free-spirited widow Adele (Stacy Dorning) is likewise found dead, in the house’s drawing room and after having had tea, which uncharacteristically included a serving of honey. (The nursing rhyme continues “the king was in his counting house counting out his money; the queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey.”) But while Detective Inspector Neele (Tom Wilkinson), in one of the few mysteries not featuring Milchester C.I.D.’s Inspector Slack, is still searching for clues and the press is starting to speculate about black magic, Miss Marple instantly zeroes in on the nursery rhyme, and as instantly she is worried: For the ditty ends with the lines “The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes, when down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose” … and the Fortescues’ maid is none other than one of Miss Marple’s proteges: impressionable, naïve, clumsy and not very bright Gladys Martin (Annette Badland). Unfortunately Miss Marple arrives too late to protect her; and now, of course, the matter becomes personal – and she will not rest until she has found the murderer who, she feels, must be among the surviving members of the Fortescue household; particularly given that an actual pie containing dead and decayed blackbirds has made its appearance in the house a while earlier. Indeed, there are suspects aplenty, including everyone from Rex’s unequal sons Percival (Clive Merrison) – heir to the Fortescue business – and Lance (Peter Davison) – recently returned from Africa –, their wives Jennifer (Rachel Bell) and Patricia (Frances Low), Rex’s bible-quoting sister in law from his first marriage (Fabia Drake), Adele’s shallow “golfing partner” Vivian Dubois (Martyn Stanbridge), the family’s perfect housekeeper (or is she?) Miss Dove (Selina Cadell) … and the as yet unknown heirs of Rex Fortescue’s former business partner, who quarreled with him over the rights to a certain Blackbird Mine.

Originally airing on TV between 1984 and 1992, the BBC’s adaptations of Agatha Christie‘s twelve Miss Marple novels featured Joan Hickson in the title role; quickly establishing her as the quintessential Miss Marple even in the view of the creator of the grandmother (or rather, grand-aunt) of all village sleuths and “noticing kinds of persons,” Dame Agatha herself. (In fact, after seeing Hickson in a stage production of her Appointment With Death, as early as 1946 Christie had already sent her a note expressing the hope she would one day “play my dear Miss Marple.”) Prior versions, partly involving rather high-octane casts, had seen as Miss Marple, inter alia, Angela Lansbury and Margaret Rutherford, but had been decidedly less faithful to Christie‘s books. While Lansbury holds her own fairly well when compared to the character’s literary original in 1980’s “Hollywood does Christie” version of The Mirror Crack’d (and that movie’s ageing actresses’ camp showdown featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak is a delight to watch) the four movies starring Rutherford are only loosely based on Christie‘s books: Dame Margaret’s Miss Marple, although itself likewise a splendid performance, has about as much to do with Agatha Christie‘s demure and seemingly scatterbrained village sleuth as Big Ben does with the English countryside, and of the scripts, only Murder, She Said is at least loosely based on an actual Miss Marple mystery (4:50 From Paddington), whereas two of the others – Murder at the Gallop and Murder Most Foul – are, instead, inspired by Hercule Poirot stories (After the Funeral and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, respectively), and Murder Ahoy is based on a completely independent screenplay.

Like all entries in the BBC series produced with great faithfulness to the tone and atmosphere set by Christie‘s original, A Pocket Full of Rye first aired (in three installments) in 1985, a year before the BBC’s adaptation of the first Miss Marple novel (Murder at the Vicarage, 1930 – the first BBC production featuring St. Mary Mead’s elderly spinster was 1984’s Body in the Library, based on the second Miss Marple novel, written 1942). As always, Miss Marple finds the solution while the police are still hot on the pursuit of the wrong suspect. And the murderer’s motive? “Oh, it was greed … one knows that, naturally …”


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: BBC (1985)
  • Director: Guy Slater
  • Producer: George Gallaccio
  • Screenplay: T.R. Bowen
  • Based on a novel by: Agatha Christie
Recurring Cast
  • Joan Hickson: Miss Jane Marple
  • Tom Wilkinson: Detective Inspector Neele
  • Jon Glover: Detective Sergeant Hay
  • Timothy West: Rex Fortescue
  • Peter Davison: Lance Fortescue
  • Clive Merrison: Percival Fortescue
  • Stacy Dorning: Adele Fortescue
  • Rachel Bell: Jennifer Fortescue
  • Frances Low: Patricia Fortescue
  • Fabia Drake: Miss Henderson
  • Selina Cadell: Mary Dove
  • Merelina Kendall: Mrs. Crump
  • Frank Mills: Mr. Crump
  • Annette Badland: Gladys Martin
  • Martyn Stanbridge: Vivian Dubois




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