cover of “The Secret Adversary”

Review: “Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime” : “The Secret Adversary” and Episodes 1 and 2 (1983)

with Francesca Annis (Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford nee Crowley), James Warwick (Tommy Beresford), Reece Dinsdale (Albert)

written by Pat Sandys, David Butler & Jonathan Hales

The early 1980s must have been something of a goldmine for the Christie estate: Peter Ustinov and then Albert Finney had succeeded in bringing Hercule Poirot to the big screen, and the search for a new Miss Marple would soon find Joan Hickson. Naturally enough, Christie’s third most prolific detectives, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, were definitely due for their own interpretations. With their breezy chemistry and playful personalities, the young pair of spies-turned-amateur-detectives showed a lot of promise for adaptation. To play them, Francesca Annis and James Warwick were cast. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the two had previously played the leads in an adaptation of the Tommy and Tuppence-esque Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? quite recently.) I have to say, after watching the opening film – The Secret Adversary – and the first two episodes (of ten) of the TV series proper, I’m convinced.

The Secret Adversary is exactly what I expected young Tommy and Tuppence to be like. Annis is the standout here, portraying a vivacious woman who is always on the ball, and unable to prevent herself from lying and creating false personas, yet still someone who gets in over her head quite often. Warwick is quite good too, although he won’t get his best material until the TV series. The direction and location filming looks lovely, and it actually moves along very quickly, particularly when compared to the Joan Hickson Marple series, which would begin the following year. (Adding fuel to my theory that the Marples were made for older viewers, while these were clearly intended for adults of all ages.)

There is a lot to love here, with a remarkably faithful adaptation, and great performances all around. Honor Blackman is a stand-out as Mrs. Vandermeyer, effortlessly cultured and yet also terrifying. Gavan O’Herlihy gives a knowing performance as Herscheimer, who – in spite of his claims – we can never quite trust, allowing the writers to tread a very careful line in making us believe, and then doubt, and then believe his loyalty again.

On the other side, there are some expected flaws. The action sequences leave a little to be desired (although this is equally true of the novel!) and the comedy – as is often the case with British period pieces – is a bit overdone; the bellhop and Tuppence’s inability to remember his name grates quite quickly. Even more so than the novel, the set-up feels a bit rushed. (Quite literally, the pair meet after many years and, five minutes into their reunion meal, Tuppence decides they will be spies. Seriously!)

Surprisingly, the film makes little of the general oddity of these two people becoming spies; imagine a similar series today (of which there are a few) and you’d expect half a season of wacky episodes based just around their poor suitability for the job. However, by and large, there is a wonderful subtlety about the piece. There was an endless code of social interactions in this era, which defined so much of Christie’s writing and clue-building, and it’s all played out here without the need for explanation. Even when the script throws coincidences and scenes which are rather silly, the actors carry it through admirably.

Francesca Annis as Tuppence

The TV series, Partners in Crime, followed the film, adapting all but four of the stories (four which were the culmination of a loose story arc, and thus didn’t fit into the episodic nature of the program.) The first two episodes are wonderfully faithful to their source material, and both quite good.

“How’s life, Mrs. Beresford?”

“In general, satisfactory. In particular, dull.”

The Affair of the Pink Pearl: Well, it must be said that this clearly isn’t Partners in Contracts. Annis gets a “Starring” credit, while Warwick is relegated to “Also starring”, the poor guy. Adapted from the first couple of interconnected stories, The Pink Pearl is quite a clever introduction to the series. Tommy and Tuppence are given the chance of running a detective agency for three months, and each of them attempts to find ways to drawn in interesting clients, although the downside is that they must then live up to the claims of superiority that they’ve made. We have yet more evidence – following the early Poirot episodes – that Christie’s short stories really can work in an expanded context with little fiddling, proving again that the current Marple series should work on adapting more of the spinster’s canon, rather than just adapting non-Marple books.

These episodes are, quite simply, lovely. Tommy and Tuppence – now married, and six years after the series – are a wonderful couple, who constantly shift into play-acting different roles with one another. Filmed sixty years after the release of the equivalent book, Partners in Crime could not rely on the (mostly forgotten) detective parodies of the source material, but what we get is so much better. Annis  portrays Tuppence’s quirkiness so well, and Warwick is great too, as a pinnacle of British-ness yet far from unflappable. They’re a gorgeous pair, believable as two people who are far from perfect, but have negotiated each other’s quirks to become a great love story. (Marvellously, although both episodes feature Tommy showing physical interest in someone else, we’re never reduced to a pitiful response from Tuppence – she trusts him, reasonably.) Of course, the subtlety of this depiction means that some viewers – those who aren’t familiar with the social mores of pre-War England – may at times be lost. Tommy and Tuppence shift personalities so often – deliberately – that I can imagine some people being confused.

On the downside: the interior scenes shot on video have aged unfortunately, and give a faded, live sitcom feel to the program. Albert the wacky butler, played with aplomb by Reece Dinsdale, is a bit overdrawn so far (it’s never painful, but he often feels like a cartoon character). And there are some rough American accents, particularly from Mrs. Betts, which make one feel that they’re watching a community theatre production. And one last note, is Tommy reading The Body in the Library in that opening scene?

James Warwick as Tommy

The House of Lurking Death: another surprisingly faithful adaptation (those were the days), in which an attempted poisoning leads to the downfall of a household, and the hunt is on….

Alfred Hitchcock famously spoke about how a calm scene of family discussion can become the tensest thing in the world, if the audience knows there is a bomb under the table. There’s a similar terror in the opening scene, as a family – led by the powerhouse Joan Sanderson – have breakfast. It’s surprisingly slow, and I can imagine many viewers tuning out in confusion, but, knowing it’s Agatha Christie, one is automatically scanning the room for clues and suspects.

Thankfully, Warwick gets the lion’s share of silliness in the episode, which evens the playing field with Annis, who had previously stood out. Dinsdale gets some good material as well, and the guest cast are strong without exception. (Liz Smith – who made a career out of playing slightly demented old biddies – has great fun in an over-the-top part.) It’s a simple story – and the limited number of suspects means one may guess the solution, if not the cause – but it’s quite a cleverly plotted story, with more than a trace of Sherlock Holmes. Things get a little melodramatic toward the end, in keeping with the short story, but it’s great fun.

I’d heard negative things about Partners in Crime and I now feel bad about repeating them without good cause. Warwick and Annis are very much the Tommy and Tuppence of the books, and I look forward to watching further episodes. Now if only someone had invited them back to film the other three books!