"To all those who lead monotonous lives in the hope that they experience at second hand the delights and dangers of adventure." Agatha Christie.
Francesca Annis had me at, "Dear old bean." Acorn and ITV Studios Home Entertainment have released Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime: The Tommy & Tuppence Mysteries, a three-disc, 11-episode collection of the fondly-remembered one-off U.K. comedy mystery series, originally broadcast in 1983. Starring Francesca Annis (I'm feeling faint...) and James Warwick as Christie's "bright young things" masquerading as private detectives in 1920s England, Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime apparently found little favor with critics when it first premiered, but seen today, it's a spiffing good show, what? No extras, and no new remastering, so no need to double dip for those who already have these on disc. Christie and mystery fans―as well as lovers of airy, frothy romantic comedy―who aren't yet acquainted with Tommy & Tuppence, however, would do well to pick up this attractively-priced set.
Genteelly-broke Tommy Beresford (James Warwick), demobilized from the post-WWI British Army, quite unexpectedly spots equally well-bred-but-busted Prudence "Tuppence" Crowley (Francesca Annis), a childhood friend with whom he had lost track, despite a brief reunion during the war when Tuppence nursed a wounded Tommy in a veteran's hospital. Splitting lunch and lamenting their chronic lack of funds, Tuppence suggests to Tommy they put an ad in the paper: "Two adventurers for hire, willing to do anything, go anywhere. No unreasonable offer refused." Nearby, attorney Whittington (George Baker) overhears the couple and later offers Tuppence a chance to pose as his ward for his trip to Paris. However, when Tuppence gives her name as "Jane Finn," a name Tommy mentioned he overheard by chance the previous day, Tuppence sets into motion a most elaborate sequence of thrilling events, which eventually lead to Tommy and Tuppence working for Mr. Carter (Peter Barkworth), the head of a shadowy British Intelligence agency. Fast-forward six years later. Tommy and Tuppence, after successfully solving Carter's case of "The Secret Adversary," have since married, and while Tommy is quite content with his leisurely lot in life, Tuppence is gorgeously bored and in need of extra-marital excitement (no, not that kind...). Enter the Blunt Detective Agency, a defunct concern―Mr. Blunt being a guest of Scotland Yard for the foreseeable future―that Tommy, through the help of Detective Inspector Marriott of the Yard (Arthur Cox), has purchased for Tuppence. Delighted at the prospect of amateur sleuthing again, Tuppence and Tommy soon find themselves embroiled in numerous, spine-tingling mysteries.
To be fair (for the sake of comparison), I haven't read a Tommy & Tuppence story in ages, and I'm certainly no expert on Christie; however, I can't for the life of me understand why the British TV critics of the day didn't enjoy this light, clever, frequently amusing mystery comedy series. I remember watching it when it premiered here in the States a few years after its U.K. bow, and its genial, mildly flippant tone stayed with me, even if the details of the actual stories did not (and certainly the delightful charms of Francesca Annis made a lasting impression on me, as well). From everything I've read over the years on Christie and her fans, there seems to be a distinct demarcation between a large portion of her followers who view these Tommy & Tuppence mysteries as somehow "lesser" compared to Christie's more serious efforts involving Poirot and Marple, and a smaller contingent who view them as welcome "breathers" inbetween the sometimes dyspeptic, depressing, and always coldly murderous worlds Christie created for her two most famous sleuths. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford made their first appearance in Christie's 1922 novel, The Secret Adversary (her second novel-length mystery), and she would revisit them throughout her lifetime, publishing a collection of short stories entitled Partners in Crime, ten of which are adapted for this television series (Christie wrote them as spoofs of other famous fictional detectives), along with three more T & T novels: N or M?, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, and Christie's last written novel, Postern of Fate. While Christie's Marple and Poirot have had numerous filmic adaptations, with as many interpretations by different actors, Tommy & Tuppence's cinematic adventures have been noticeably sparse, at best, with this particular TV incarnation probably the best known.
Having reviewed quite a few Marple and Poirot mysteries (while being more familiar with their source materials), and having seen how some Christie experts and hard-core fans get quite upset at the liberties taken with those subsequent filmed adaptations, I would only be guessing as to why critics didn't enjoy Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime when it debuted in 1983. If it's a matter of fidelity to the published source material, that's a bone of contention that's always brought out when any book is made into a movie of TV show. For the most part, I try to avoid those kinds of comparisons; as long as the filmed adaptation entertains or amuses me, that's no threat to the original, no matter how different it is in content or execution. And Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime did amuse and entertain me.
If I had one major criticism of Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime, it would be a certain wavering of tone, ironically brought about, it would seem, by the writers (Pat Sandys, David Butler, Jonathan Hales, Paul Annett, and Gerald Savory) sticking fairly close to Christie's plotlines. In the original Partners in Crime anthology, Tommy & Tuppence are actively working for a British Intelligence department, posing as the owners of the defunct Blunt Detective Agency, with any free time left over for their own crime-solving pursuits. In the TV series, they own the Agency, so there's a small but nagging lapse in the central logic of a mystery-solving couple who continually crack so many major, newsworthy cases...sitting around an empty office, waiting in vain for clients to arrive. The series' writers also largely drop the spoof elements of those Christie short stories (which I certainly wouldn't have a reference to―when's the last time you read Herbert George Jenkins, R. Austin Freeman, or Isabel Ostrander?), with some brief spoofy leftovers, though, dropped in without explanation for the puzzled viewer (in The House of Lurking Death, Tommy inexplicably speaks some French phrases which, I've read, are references to Christie's take-off on A. E. W. Mason's Inspector Hanaud). Most notably, sticking close to Christie's stories here can sometimes create a somewhat jarring schism between the producers' obvious intent to create a fun, light entertainment, and Christie's own murderous world (in Lurking Death, the episode concludes with the murderer dying of fright after almost burning alive―not exactly a hilarious ending to send the viewer laughing off to bed). Had Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime committed to total comedy (such as the delightfully slapstick The Case of the Missing Lady), it might have further raised the ire of loyal Christie fans...while securing a more uniform, more easily recognizable form for the viewers to grasp.
Still...that's a relatively minor carp, because most of Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime is so much fun. There's a deliberately arch, theatrical tone to the performances and the writing that work well in a Coward-esque rep company manner. Funny colloquialisms like "old bean," "old thing," and "ripping," are put over by the talented performers with knowing, self-amused energy, while amusing lines crop up with regularity (when Tuppence sighs for the fifth time about being bored in The Affair of the Pink Pearl, Tommy bemusedly warns, "This craving for vulgar sensation alarms me,"). In the pilot film, The Secret Adversary, when long-lost Tommy pops up and surprises Tuppence, Tuppence peals with obvious love, "Tommy!" and Tommy responds with a brightly impassioned, understated gee-whiz "Hello!" It almost plays like the end of a Monty Python skit, but it's so winningly put over here by the actors that it winds up a completely charming, self-consciously amusing moment.
The performers, of course, are largely responsible for that charm. Handsome, nimble, smooth James Warwick (Broadway's An Ideal Husband, Howard's Way, Jason King!), who at times unwittingly reinforces the Monty Python parody connection with his resemblance to Michael Palin, is a perfect straightman to Francesca Annis' sensation-seeking Tuppence. Whether napping on his office couch ("Good grief," he moans when annoying Albert calls out, waking him), or prodding same Albert into a semblance of competency around the office ("What a wretched boy," he deadpans), or when he suddenly realizes yet again what a stunner he's married to, Warwick meshes well with Annis' more flamboyant turn, mirroring quite nicely Christie's original intent for the characters. As for Annis...what can I say except she's a completely bewitching, enchanting creature here, with a delightful, teasing quality to her comedic timing that can easily switch from subtle to broad (her Russian ballerina in The Case of the Missing Lady had me on the floor when she exclaimed, "Oh gosh, no!"). Bringing out a wonderfully kittenish sexuality in the character, Annis makes it plain that Tuppence, unlike so many of those stereotypical middle-and-upper class English screen heroines we've been inundated with over the decades, actively seeks out and enjoys sex with her husband. In The Unbreakable Alibi, Tuppence and Tommy play secretary and boss, using their aliases for a little office fun as she sits on his knee (at his suggestion), kissing him. Obviously enjoying themselves, Annis tells Warwick, "If I was really the perfect secretary, do you know what I'd do next?" right before Albert breaks in―try and find that kind of moment in the next Marple you watch....
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.