Joan Bogle Hickson(1906-1998) (married name Butler) was born on 5 August 1906 at 26 Cranford Terrace, Northampton, the only child of Alfred Harold Squire Hickson (b. 1874), shoe manufacturer, and his wife, Edith Mary Thorpe Bogle (c.1878–1958). Her mother helped, with her sisters, to run the Castle Park School in Northampton. Joan was sent away to school, to Oldfield at Swanage in Dorset, one of the first co-educational schools. At five she saw a West End pantomime, Cinderella, and knew at once that she wanted to be an actress: ‘I was utterly entranced and asked my parents to move as near to the theatre as possible. I knew immediately that the life I wanted was there’ (The Independent). During the First World War she would sing as her mother played the piano to entertain wounded soldiers at home. With no encouragement from her family, she trained for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
On leaving RADA in 1927, Hickson made her first stage appearance on a provincial tour as Lady Shoreham in His Wife's Children, and made her first London appearance in 1928 as the maidservant in a version of Henry James's The Tragic Muse at the Arts Theatre. She spent two years in a succession of light West End comedies by Ian Hay and P. G. Wodehouse, and then joined the Oxford Playhouse company, where she stayed for three seasons from 1931 to 1933. The company was run by Stanford and Thea Holme, and situated in a former museum of stuffed animals on the Woodstock Road. Hickson remained grateful for the opportunities and challenges of weekly repertory, where she learned her trade and honed her unique and impeccable sense of comic timing. After this and before the Second World War she had a steady London career in a run of thrillers and comedies, including playing the leading role in Philip King's farce See How They Run (1944), and an unlikely Emma Hamilton in Rain before Seven (1949). When Hickson played Madame Henry, a clairvoyant, in Murder Gang in 1935, James Agate had already noticed the ‘brilliance of her assumptions of gentility … she set the house deliriously rocking’ (Daily Telegraph). Perhaps she was never fully challenged: she remained dismissive of her talent and said, ‘I wasn't beautiful so there were plenty of character roles. I never did any Shakespeare, I'm far too superficial for that. I just act instinctively’ (ibid.). But however stereotypical the character, Hickson would bring wit and humanity to the part, and was held in huge esteem both within her profession and beyond. On 29 October 1932 Hickson married Eric Norman Butler (1902–1967), physician, the son of Thomas Harrison Butler (1871–1945), eye surgeon and yacht designer, and his wife, Ellen Reid (d. 1945). They had a son and a daughter.
Hickson made her screen début in Trouble in Store in 1933, a short film vehicle for the Scottish comedian James Finlayson. During the 1940s and 1950s she continued to appear in the film studios by day and the theatre at night, establishing herself as an indispensable character actress with a gallery of nosy landladies, doting or overbearing mothers or mothers-in-law, sniffy housekeepers, eccentric aunts, barmaids, and hospital sisters. In a film career that spanned sixty years she appeared in more than 100 films. They included several for the Boulting brothers, The Guinea Pig (1948) (where she repeated her stage role), as the landlady in Seven Days to Noon (1950), The Card (1952), Doctor in the House (1954) and one of its sequels, and several of the ‘Carry On’ series.
Hickson made no theatre appearances between 1956 and 1967, and then scored a huge success as Grace in Peter Nichols's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in London and New York, repeating the role in the film version in 1970. She made her National Theatre début in 1974 in Nichols's The Freeway, staying there for Blithe Spirit, and although she was perfect as Mrs Bradman she would have been a glorious Madame Arcati. Also at the National she played Delia in Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce, where her duet with Michael Gough, as an elderly couple munching pilchards on toast in bed while their family disintegrates around them, was hugely acclaimed, culminating in Tony awards for them both when they took it to Broadway in 1978.
While working in the theatre and on film she also managed to appear regularly on radio (in the late forties and early fifties as Mrs Gage, the cockney charwoman, in five series of The Bell Family) and on television (from 1963 to 1966 as the housekeeper in the series Our Man at St Mark's). Hickson was seventy-eight when she auditioned for and was chosen to play Miss Jane Marple, Agatha Christie's spinster sleuth, for the BBC. She played Miss Marple in twelve television films, finishing only when Hickson decided to retire at eighty-six. In 1946 she had appeared on stage in Christie's Appointment with Death. Christie had seen her and written to her, ‘I hope that one day you will play my dear Miss Marple’ (The Guardian). It was said that Miss Marple was loosely based on one of Christie's aunts, as a small and delicate woman, far closer to the febrile and birdlike Hickson than was the previous distinguished but overbearing occupant of the role, Margaret Rutherford (Hickson had appeared in one of Rutherford's Marple films, as yet another housekeeper). Hickson was the definitive Miss Marple; ever watchful, neat, calm, and unflappable, with a cup of tea in one hand and a crocodile-skin handbag in the other, she personified ‘justice in a hand-knitted cardigan’ (The Independent). When Hickson was made an OBE in 1987, the honour was long overdue, and came directly from one of Miss Marple's greatest fans, Elizabeth II.
Hickson and her husband lived a quiet village life, at odds with the world of theatre and film, and Hickson said that her husband ‘had no interest in the theatre. I don't think he ever came to see my work. After the show I would get on the train, go home and become Mrs Butler again. It was rather nice having two lives’. Her husband died in 1967. ‘I never really got over it, but my work was an enormous help. You simply have to go on’ (Daily Telegraph). Hickson never completely retired, recording talking books of Miss Marple mysteries almost to the end. She died in Colchester General Hospital on 17 October 1998.
Joan Hickson's grave may be found at the following link:
Joan Hickson's Grave
Interview with Joan Hickson about Miss Marple on Agatha Christie's 100th Birthday