An Enjoyable Romp Through the Swinging 1920s’ London
The Secret Adversary (1922) and the short stories eventually collected in the slender volume Partners in Crime (1929) count among Agatha Christie‘s earliest publications; early enough to have promised their quirky protagonists, Tommy and “Tuppence” (Prudence) Beresford as long and eventful a fictional career as that of their colleague Hercule Poirot, who had debuted two years prior to them with his own first case in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Alas, that wasn’t to be. Nor did Tommy and Tuppence enjoy even half as many adventures as Agatha Christie‘s almost equally well-loved (and her personal favorite) village sleuth Miss Marple, whose first adventure (Murder at the Vicarage) would not be published until 1930, and who would solve crimes in twelve novels and a total of twenty short story collections over an improbable period of 40+ years. In fact, Christie only authored three more Beresford mysteries: 1941’s N or M? (a WWII spy thriller set in a coastal guesthouse), 1968’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs (where a visit to a nursing home prompts them to track down the real-life object of a painting, only to find themselves hunting for a child murderer) and Postern of Fate (1973), the last book ever written by Christie (although not the last one published); at a time when her powers as a writer had seriously waned and thus, at best, a rather tedious postscript to the superior earlier stories.
Not as eccentric as Poirot and Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence are nevertheless immediately likeable, and perfectly cast in this 1983–1984 TV series with Francesca Annis and James Warwick, reprising their successful collaboration from the 1980 TV adaptation of Christie‘s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Taking its title from the second entry in the Beresford cycle, the TV series includes a feature film-length dramatization of The Secret Adversary and shorter, two-part episodes based on most, though not all of the short stories contained in the eponymous book collection, in which the Beresfords solve crimes in the style of the Golden Age’s other (then-)well known detectives; including, incidentally, Hercule Poirot, however in a story not included in the TV series (The Man Who Was No. 16, which parodies Poirot’s case in The Big Four).
Although The Mysterious Affair at Styles had already proved Christie to be a writer of exceptional talent, her first Tommy and Tuppence adventures – penned for financial reasons as much as out of a desire to write – still show her style as a work in progress, sometimes lacking certainty as to what exactly works in terms of characterization and storylines. While she succeeds, like in the first Poirot mystery, to immediately draw in her audience, and the Beresfords are presented in as much detail as the little Belgian with the many gray cells, the plotlines – particularly that of The Secret Adversary – sometimes stretch credibility and have a whiff of the kind of story that Arthur Conan Doyle could get away with 20 years earlier, but which Christie herself (wisely) only took up infrequently later (and even then, not always with more solidly constructed plotlines and at least halfway successfully only when also using Poirot as her main character). Thus, if the televised versions of these early Tommy and Tuppence stories appear somewhat less convincing than the more acclaimed adaptations of Christie‘s Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries starring David Suchet and Joan Hickson in the title roles, this is at least partly owing to the literary originals themselves: The creators of the TV series did, however, reproduce the mysteries’ “swinging Twenties” setting successfully and with a fine eye for detail; and Francesca Annis and James Warwick give terriffic performances as the vivacious, hat-loving Tuppence and her (almost) equally witty, only slightly more settled husband.
Tommy and Tuppence’s boisterous young assistant Alfred is portrayed by Reece Dinsdale; best known, since, as the father of Coronation Street‘s Tina McIntyre (Joe McIntyre), as well as Guildenstern in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, D.I. Scott in the mid-1990s British cop show Thief Takers, and one of the protagonists of the 1995 football/soccer movie Undercover. There are also recurrent appearances by British TV regular Arthur Cox as Detective Inspector Marriott, in the televised version chiefly responsible for establishing the couple as owners of Blunt’s International Detective Agency (in the books, the agency is a cover for the Beresfords’ spy activities), who informally continues to consult them whenever he feels that Scotland Yard’s official capacities have reached their limits.
The Secret Adversary sees Tommy and Tuppence after the end of WWI, both out of work (Tommy has been an intelligence officer, Tuppence a nurse) and looking for adventure. That opportunity presents itself when, as a result of two newspaper ads, they are sent on the hunt for a lost treaty which, if published now, would cause a general strike and throw the country into turmoil, thus playing into the hands of a mysterious criminal known only as “Mr. Brown,” and set on nothing less than the attainment of absolute power. The key to the treaty is believed to lie with a young American woman named Jane Finn, who has likewise disappeared and whose cousin Julius P. Hersheimer (or is he really?), Tommy and Tuppence learn, is “the third richest man in America.” – Further notable appearances here include those of Alec McCowen (influential barrister Sir James Peele Edgerton), Gavan O’Herlihy (Hersheimer), Peter Barkworth (intelligence chief Carter) and Honor Blackman, as well as George Baker of Inspector Wexford fame, as members of “Mr. Brown”‘s gang.
The shorter Partners in Crime mysteries have Tommy and Tuppence hunting for a vanished pink pearl and uncovering, inter alia, the mastermind behind a string of poisonings (The House of Lurking Death: drawing on Christie‘s trademark knowledge acquired when she was a nurse in WWI herself), the culprit of a murder during a masked ball (Finessing the King), and the evil spirits responsible for a series of seemingly unearthly occurrences in an old house (The Clergyman’s Daughter: again drawing on Christie‘s own experience, as the sleuthing couple’s client is compelled – like Christie‘s mother periodically – to rent out rooms in her large house as a means of survival). The common trait of these mysteries is Tommy and Tuppence’s assumption of the roles of other literary detectives; albeit, while famous in their time, not all of them still remembered today: the portrayed characters are most easily recognizable when the Beresford attend the aforementioned masked ball disguised as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, when they solve a fog-beset rural locked door mystery in the style of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown (The Man in the Mist), and when they hunt a ring of money forgers led by a shady character whom they are quick to dub “The Crackler,” and who could (ambiance and all) have stepped straight out of the pages of a thriller by Edgar Wallace. Died-in-the-wool aficionados of golden age mysteries will probably also recognize the methods of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke in the first one of the shorter episodes, The Affair of the Pink Pearl.
While not quite on the level of Christie‘s more famous mysteries and their TV adaptations starring David Suchet and Joan Hickson, this series is an enjoyable romp through the the swinging 1920s’ London; and it seems likely that it will remain the only adaptation faithful to Christie‘s original Tommy and Tuppence stories for some time to come: Although the Beresfords’ later adventures were eventually adapted for television, too, there was, alas, no continuation of the 1980s series starring Annis and Warwick. Rather, the book series’s first and third entries (The Secret Adversary and N or M?) were included in a 2015 TV series starring Jessica Raine and David Williams, which moves the underlying time frame to the 1950s (a decade in which none of Christie‘s five Tommy and Tuppence books actually takes place); and the series’s fourth novel, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, was adapted in 2005 by French director Pascal Thomas under the title Mon petit doigt m’a dit …, starring Catherine Frot and André Dussollier, and thereafter (2006) rewritten as a Miss Marple story for the series starring Geraldine McEwan, whose Miss Marple essentially usurps Tommy’s character, though both Tommy and Tuppence, portrayed by Anthony Andrews and Greta Scacchi, are still featured; however, nowhere near true to the characters created by Agatha Christie. – Pity: I’d have hoped that modern TV makers would accord the Beresfords the same kind of respect as they did to the Queen of Crime’s two greatest detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, in the series starring David Suchet and Joan Hickson respectively. Alas, it seems that wasn’t to be. All the more do I therefore treasure the incarnation that the book series’s first and most lighthearted two installments have found in this 1980s adaptation liberally sprinkled with the charm, wit and vivacity of Francesca Annis and James Warwick.
- The Secret Adversary
- The Affair of the Pink Perl
- The House of Lurking Death
- The Sunningdale Mystery
- The Clergyman’s Daughter
- Finessing the King
- The Ambassador’s Boots
- The Man in the Mist
- The Unbreakable Alibi
- The Case of the Missing Lady
- The Crackler
Production Credits /
Cast and Crew
- Studio: London Weekend Television (LWT) / ITV (1983 – 1984)
- Directors: Christopher Hodson / Paul Annett / Tony Wharmby
- Producer: Jack Williams
- Screenplays: Pat Sandys / Paul Annett / David Butler / Jonathan Hales / Gerald Savory
- Based on books by: Agatha Christie
- Music: Joseph Horovitz
- Francesca Annis: Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford née Cowley
- James Warwick: Tommy Beresford
- Reece Dinsdale: Albert
- Arthur Cox: Inspector Marriott
- Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
- Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime at the British Film Institute’s Screenonline
- Agatha Christie Ltd.
- Agatha Christie’s biography at the Kirjasto Authors’ Calendar
- Themis-Athena’s Agatha Christie author page
- Project: Little Grey Cells: St. Mary Mead & Elsewhere
- Themis-Athena’s review of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot TV series and some of its episodes:
- Themis-Athena’s review of the Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple TV series and some of its episodes:
- Themis-Athena’s review of the movie adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution