Review: “Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime” : Episodes 3 -6 (1983)

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

written by Paul Annett, Gerald Savory and Jonathan Hales

Francesca Annis and James Warwick as Tommy and Tuppence

After opening very successfully with the film The Secret Adversary and the first two episodes, Partners in Crime continues to delight through the rest of its run.

Probably my favourite of this batch is The Sunningdale Mystery, in which Tommy and Tuppence investigate a murder (a rare example of a serious crime)  where the official solution is far too obvious. What makes this episode so marvelous is that – as in the short story on which it is based – our central pair don’t actually do any interviewing. Between them, they have all the clues, so we simply follow Francesca Annis and James Warwick, as they spend a weekend on holiday, talking to each other and figuring it out. Aside from the flashbacks we see, the entire episode is a duologue between the two veteran actors, and they are more than up to the task. The mystery itself is very intriguing – although perhaps inevitably, due to the puzzle nature of the short story, some of the clues (“they knew it was him because the body had his jacket on” or “my, this photograph is so blurry it could be anyone”) are a little obvious – but what’s important here is the fascinating interplay. As portrayed by Warwick and Annis, Tommy and Tuppence are a remarkably sensual couple. I’ll talk about it more in the next review, because the final episodes let this sexuality boil over, but it’s already in evidence here; in more than one scene, the discussion of the murder plays second fiddle to Tommy’s increasingly frustrated attempts to get Tuppence on the bed. (What a lovely change from Christie’s other, more repressed detectives: the contemporary Hickson and Ustinov adaptations certainly don’t let any eroticism get in the mix!)

(Incidentally, I do so love how the opening credits sequence changes each episode. It’s to die for.)

The Clergyman’s Daughter is a solid little puzzle, as residents of an allegedly haunted house ask for Tommy and Tuppence’s help. This mystery requires a lot more set-up and exposition than the previous, which can get tiresome, but it’s more than made up for because of the strength of all the actors (assemble a BBC cast for a lightly dramatic period piece in the 1980s and you can’t fail). And when the pieces do come together, the answer makes sense and manages to surprise. More importantly, this episode finally brings Reece Dinsdale’s Albert into the fold. Dinsdale’s bumbling Cockney performance has felt out of place with the series in the early episodes, but Albert accompanies his bosses on the cast this time, and becomes a useful third element in their playfulness, ultimately becoming a key element of the climax. As he attempts to emulate both Tommy and the detective movies he enjoys, Albert becomes a character who fits into this world, rather than a comedy sidekick who detracts from the plot. The Clergyman’s Daughter is another strong showcase for Annis, who continues to play up Tuppence’s love of disguise and (sometimes unnecessary) mischievousness. Warwick and Dinsdale have a marvelous chemistry with both Annis and each other, but it’s the lady who rules this series: she has effortless chemistry with even the most minor guest star. Brilliant stuff.

(Another aside: I don’t mention any guest cast members this week but that’s because a) everyone is quite good, and b) none of these episodes feature such pivotal ‘guest stars’, as they’re either ensemble pieces or glorified duologues.)

Less striking is Finessing the King. It’s another solid episode (they’ve all worked thus far) but it lacks the thrills of what’s come already. There isn’t a crime for the first half, as Tommy and Tuppence just investigate an odd occurrence they find intriguing. Even when something happens, there are very few suspects, and things seem quite obvious. It’s a challenge when adapting ‘puzzle’ short stories into 50 minute episodes – and all the more impressive that both this series and Poirot routinely succeed – but this is a case where, while the 50 minutes go by smoothly, you have to focus mainly on the performances and the design, because the mystery is loose. Finessing the King is one of few examples where the series mimics the book’s habit of each story being a detective parody: in this case, Tommy and Tuppence go to the dance as Holmes and Watson.

Francesca Annis: one of hundreds of sublime outfits

(Another aside: Annis’ outfits are simply stunning. They’ll reach the pinnacle in the remaining episodes, but she must have been having a blast in these scrumptious – and increasingly ludicrous – ensembles.)

The last episode for this week is The Ambassador’s Boots:  the silliest episode to date, although still thoroughly enjoyable. Of all the adapted stories, this one hews closest to the ‘thriller’ stylings of The Secret Adversary. (The few stories that weren’t adapted are those that form a loose, espionage plot arc.) Here, Tommy and Tuppence get separately involved in a trail of smuggling and murder, and we get our first real scenes not told from Tommy and Tuppence’s point-of-view (aside from opening scenes). The doomed valet gets some scenes to himself, which helpfully flesh out the story. Tommy and Albert have the more traditional espionage side of the story, which gives Dinsdale some great material with him practicing his detective skills by forcing a pretty young secretary to let him trail her. Unfortunately, while this episode is quite fun, it’s the weakest to date: not only are things a bit too talky on Tommy’s side of the storyline, but a few scenes come across as melodramatic. In one notable event, Tommy is caught in the middle of a Mexican standoff: later, we’ll figure out that the characters were playing things up for his benefit, but unfortunately they don’t play it enough, and we end up with characters laughing at each other as they exchange gunplay, all in a fashion that borders on the pantomime. As with some of the social banter in The Secret Adversary, I fear that younger viewers – those not attuned to the drier, subtler shadings of television from this era – may mistake it for plain silliness. Lord knows I almost did. The final scene – in which the cocaine ring is uncovered – is particularly amateur, with the feeling that either there wasn’t enough time to rehearse it, or the director just didn’t know what he was doing. That’s the problem: every motivation makes sense at the end, but it’s all directed a bit lazily.

Tuppence’s side of the story is delightful, although equally as uneven in its execution. She spends the first half of the episode flirting for clues, and it’s always fun to watch her in this mode, because Annis is so good at showing those layers. Gabriel Byrne has said that Dr. Paul Weston of In Treatment is the hardest role he’s ever had, because he has to play a psychiatrist – someone who can’t betray their feelings in session – yet also allow the audience to read everything he’s thinking. Annis takes up a similar challenge here: as an amateur, Tuppence is constantly treading the line between clever and overblown, and Annis is simply exquisite as she shows us Tuppence putting her foot in it, and then stepping back and attempting with all her might to appear innocent, or French, or Russian, or whatever she’s trying to be this week. (There are also some great, knowing lines, particularly when Tuppence suggests that a partygoer has “taken a little more than just… alcohol.”

In a bizarre array of characters (who I’m fairly certain were added by the screenwriter), Tuppence joins up with a team of women whom she worked with in the war, all of whom are finding their lives quite boring without espionage. They come to the rescue – naturally – in the climax, and all of them are a lot of fun, but I’m not sure why one of them is dressed as Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria. Is she a slyly-portrayed lesbian? Just an eccentric? She gets less lines than the rest, so perhaps the costume designer just wanted to have fun with a look that Annis wasn’t keen on, but we’ll never know.

In the end, I’m so glad I discovered this series. I’ll be back soon to talk about the remaining episodes, when Annis and Warwick are allowed to run absolutely wild, but so far every episode has been remarkably faithful to the source text, and a solid majority of them have been utterly delightful.