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Mathew Prichard tells of grandmother Agatha Christie

OF all the publishing genres, crime is the one that seems to pay.

OF all the publishing genres, crime is the one that seems to pay. Every author worthy of the name, it seems, has a grisly murder to be solved over 300-or-so pages and a fictional crime-buster to do the job.

Arguably, though, all are following in the footsteps of a select few who continue to thrill even after their own obituaries have been published. Prominent among these is Dame Agatha Christie.

She was a phenomenon, writing 66 detective novels and creating Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, two of the most famous crime-solvers ever to pursue a criminal across the printed page.

More to the point here, she wrote The Mousetrap, the longest-running play in the world. It opened in London in 1952 and its 25,000th performance took place in November.

To mark its diamond anniversary it is taking to the road, coming to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle next month. Once again the question arises: what was Agatha Christie, who died at her home in Oxfordshire in 1976, really like?

One who knows is her grandson Mathew Prichard, whose first memories of his famous relative date to when he was at prep school near to where she lived and they would enjoy Sunday outings.

Her talent and fame dawned on him slowly and in small ways.

“Not that it made a great deal of difference to me,” he recalls. “She was just a marvellous grandmother and someone nice to have around.”

There were four things in particular that endeared her to him.

“The first was her modesty. To the outside world, I suppose, this appeared as shyness, but to us she was always infinitely more interested in what we were thinking and doing than in herself.

“She could manage to write a book almost without one noticing and sometimes she used to read the new one to us in the summer down in Devonshire.

“She did so partly, I suspect, to test audience reaction, but partly to entertain us on the inevitable wet afternoons when, no doubt, I was rather difficult to amuse!

“We all tried to guess, and my mother was the only one who was ever right.

“I think most of my friends who met her during those years were quite astonished that such a mild, gentle grandmother could really be the authoress of all those stories of intrigue, murder and jealousy.”

Mathew remembers also her generosity.

“It is by now well-known that she gave me The Mousetrap for my ninth birthday. I do not, I’m afraid, remember much about the actual presentation (if there was one) and probably nobody realised until much later what a marvellous present it was, but it is perhaps worth remembering that my grandmother had been through many times in her life when money was not so plentiful.

“It was therefore incredibly generous of her to give away such a play to her grandson, as in 1952 her books were only approaching the enormous success they have now become.”

Mathew says her generosity was not only financial. She loved to enjoy herself and to give pleasure to others with good food, a holiday, a present or even a birthday ode.

Enthusiasm was another facet of her personality that Mathew appreciated.

Her relationship with the theatre was of the “love/fright” variety, he says. While she probably found the experience of theatre-going wearing, she enjoyed other people’s enthusiasm for her plays.

Mathew went to see The Mousetrap with her several times in different company and once with the Eton cricket team when he was captain in 1962. All enjoyed the play and the playwright’s company in equal measure.

But she also enjoyed other people’s plays and was enthusiastic about opera, archaeology and, “perhaps above all”, food.

She was “an exciting person to be with because she always tried to look on the good side of things and people; she always found something to enthuse about,” says Mathew.

He took his own children to see The Mousetrap when they were aged 12 and 11 and they loved it, crossing off in their programmes those characters whom they thought couldn’t have been the culprit – including the real one.

It tells us something about the success of the play, he suggests, that it contains so much for everybody – “humour, drama, suspense and a jigsaw puzzle” – whatever their age or taste.

Mathew’s celebrated grand- mother died on January 12, 1976.

He recalls: “My family received hundreds of letters from all different walks of life and every part of the world, and I have never seen such a uniform expression of devotion and admiration.

“No doubt that was because she was a kind, generous and devout person, and preferred always to believe the best of people.

“She never had an unkind word to say about anybody. We were all left with many happy memories and, of course, all her books and plays, which I am sure will be enjoyed for many generations to come.”

Mathew also remembers Peter Saunders, producer of The Mousetrap – adapted from her novel Three Bind Mice – who promoted it and found actors to play parts in it from its premiere in 1952 until his retirement in 1994 (he died in 2003).

“I am sure it is no exaggeration to say many Agatha Christie plays would never have been written at all but for his judicious mixture of persuasion, encouragement, confidence and pleading,” he says.

“She adored it all, and certainly we all recognise what The Mousetrap owed to Peter in its earlier days. His confidence in it never wavered and its longevity is as much a tribute to his great partnership with my grandmother to anything else.”

The Mousetrap, on its first ever UK tour, is at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, from February 11-16. Tickets: 08448 112 121 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk

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