Well that wasn’t as completely terrible as it might have been.
Seriously, I came into this BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime very much fearing the worst and almost didn’t bother watching at all, so sure was I that I would hate every aspect of it. My hackles had been principally raised by the casting of Little Britain star David Walliams in the lead role of Tommy Beresford which seemed to suggest that the new show would continue the approach of recent productions which have tended to lampoon Christie, the genre and the period. Among the worst such recent offenders were early episodes of ITV’s Marple, then starring the late Geraldine McEwan, which played out more like a cartoon that invited us to laugh derisively at the story rather than appreciatively with it. Indeed, Walliams had been a minor guest star in one of those episodes, 2004’s “The Body in the Library”.
Not that I have anything personally against Walliams, I assure you. I liked him well enough on Little Britain and have admired his high profile fundraising work for charities. I’m sure I’d like him just fine as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent if I ever watched such shows as he seems like a perfectly nice guy. However, while many other comedy actors have been able to move into serious dramatic roles later in their careers with huge success – look at what all three of The League of Gentleman have been getting up to in recent years, for example – Walliams has never shown any indication toward the interest, aptitude or frankly ability required to broaden his scope or depth over the intervening years. Unsurprisingly therefore he still seems stuck in that very narrow range of Little Britain-style light comedy performance.
As a result the BBC’s Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime doesn’t get off to the best start, with a strictly-for-laughs scene introducing Walliams character prissily fussing over a small package while leaving his wife Tuppence (Jessica Raine) comedically struggling with the entirety of the rest of the couple’s bulky luggage. It’s even accompanied by wearily chipper vaudeville music on the soundtrack from series composer Tim Phillips. Tommy is left in a similar rote comedy mode for most of the rest of the first episode, providing the physical laughs by knocking over vases, gagging over artificial sweeteners and generally being something of a klutz, while Tuppence is mercifully quickly transformed into more of a verbal source of wit as well as the earnest driver of the early stages of the plot.
What stops the show immediately sliding into the kind of cartoon pastiche that I’d feared was that from the start it knows to treat the serious parts of the plot seriously. There’s an early shoot-out and a chase on a train that is genuinely exciting, while a subsequent sequence following Tuppence undercover at an illegal gambling den is shot full of menace and tension as it seems she is very much at risk of physical harm from the sneering, knife-wielding proprietor Whittingdon (Jonny Phillips). Towards the end, Tommy and Tuppence are once again split up on undercover assignments and face separate predicaments where it seems both are to be exposed and killed, and the nice build-up and intercutting between their situations is very effective and results in a proper cliffhanger that makes you want to come back for more next time.
And I might end up doing that, quite against my initial expectations where it seemed I would be lucky to make it through the first 20 minutes before turning off. Yes, Walliams (who is also an executive producer on the show and one of its main instigators) is still painfully miscast and out of place, and the humour is still too big a part of the proceedings, but at least it’s all a generally light hearted and harmless general fun rather than the sort of acidic self-hating satire aimed at the soul of the production itself so it is entirely possible to live with it. You can even make a decent argument that the lightness of the levity makes for an effective contrast bringing the more exciting menace of the darker moments of the story to life. Honestly, I really don’t have a problem with humour in general being inserted into crime and thrillers – I’m honestly not as terribly po-faced about such things as I probably sound. Indeed one of the things that makes Alfred Hitchcock my all-time favourite director is the dark humour and wit that he laces through all his films: now there was a man who knew how to contrast light and dark to maximum effect.
Nor am I a Christie purist objecting on principle to anyone daring to make fun of any of the Queen of Crime’s novels. True, I genuinely love her best known-characters Poirot and Marple as well as some of her most famous one-off stories such as And The There Were None, currently being filmed by the BBC with Poldark’s Aidan Turner in the lead role for a Christmas 2015 airing. But I certainly have no particular regard for her Tommy and Tuppence series, of which there were only five novels and 16 short stories over the course of five decades from 1922 to 1973. I’ve not read any of them and didn’t even watch the previous television take on the tales by ITV in 1983 starring James Warwick and Francesca Annis. The six hour-long episodes of this brand new BBC series cover just the first two Christie novels, “The Secret Adversary” and “N or M?”, in what are surprisingly leisurely three-part adaptations each given that these days the tendency is to crush even long novels down into 90 minutes of broadcast time.
The fact that I’m not a devoted reader of the originals probably helps make it easier to swallow all the changes that have been made to the story. While character names and the essential gist of the plot have been retained, the rest of the BBC version has as much fidelity to the source as Roger Moore’s Bond films owed to Ian Fleming’s novels – which is to say, virtually none. For one thing the period setting has been changed from post-World War 1 to the Cold War of the mid-1950s. For another, Tommy and Tuppence are no longer youngsters just getting to know one another but are instead already married, jaded and prematurely middle-aged with a son at boarding school but with all the excitement and energy in their lives having ebbed away. It takes the possibility of danger and murder to add that all-important spark of frisson back into their lives and in turn help revive their comfortable but moribund and now passionless relationship. Maybe that explains why the first episode is so painfully devoid of any natural chemistry between the leads, if the plan is in fact to show them finding their way back to true partnership and intimacy over the course of/as a result of their adventures.
The original novel of “The Secret Adversary” starts with the disappearance of a young American woman named Jane Finn who had been on the RMS Lusitania when it was sunk by a U-boat in May 1915. Given the change in period setting, obviously that has to be relocated and now the inciting incident takes place in a train bound from Paris to London on which Tommy and Tuppence are themselves passengers. Tuppence’s insistence on following clues found in a notebook left behind by the missing woman ends up in tea at the Ritz with Jane’s rich uncle Julius Hersheimmer (The Wire’s Clarke Peters) while a crumpled bill on the floor of the aforementioned gambling den and some additional help from their very own version of ‘Q’ (Matthew Steer) indirectly result in Tuppence getting a short-lived job as typist to renowned former opera singer Rita Vandemeyer (Alice Krige). While Tuppence is busy blowing her cover, Tommy trails another suspect to a brothel in Soho where he walks in on a bunch of dangerous-looking Communist conspirators who immediately realise that the gormless oaf isn’t actually one of their number and needs to be dealt with in a somewhat permanent fashion.
To be fair, with all these changes to the original story, adaptor Zinnie Harris is simply trying to unkink a plot which was never one of Christie’s best to begin with. There’s a reason why Christie is renowned for her crime classics rather than her spy and espionage thrillers, as she was always more adept at the first than she ever was at the second where she never matches the likes of John Buchan, Alfred Hitchcock and Ian Fleming. The convoluted tales of Soviet spy rings planning political assassinations in London just simply isn’t quite her thing, and certainly for readers the guessable simplicity of her whodunnits is far more satisfying than a story in which the challenge is just keeping up with the plot and figuring out ‘whatsgoingon’ rather than who’s behind it.
In the meantime there’s plenty of top quality visuals to keep the audience cheerfully distracted if spy plots are not particularly to their liking. As ever, the BBC does an immaculate and glossy job at evoking the era through gorgeous costumes and highly desirable interior décor, although I have a sneaking sense that the 1950s has been chosen simply because it is a more economical period to reproduce these days than the 1920s or 1930s. The production does particularly well with scenes staged on impeccably redressed London streets which means that the show should certainly be a hit in the overseas export markets that lap up this sort of chintzy view of long-gone Great Britain. However the execution can also be rather uneven, as it will then cut straight to another scene supposedly set just around the corner but which is clearly not shot within 40 miles of the same city. Presumably that’s a necessary result of cutting costs to stay within budget, which might also account for some very clunking bits of ADR dubbing during the first episode where other linking scenes or shots were planned but never completed either because of the cost or maybe a late excision when the episode started to overrun.
A similar sense of unevenness permeates throughout the episode, right back to the contrast between light entertainment humour and the genuine sense of danger and tension mentioned earlier. While you can argue that it provides contrast and variety, it can also make watching the first episode feel something like watching an inebriated driver veering wildly from one side of the road to another. There’s a certain fascination in that, but of course nine times out of ten it will all end in an almighty crash and tears before jail time. Even in the case of experienced and very capable performers like Raine, Peters, Krige and James Fleet (playing Tommy’s uncle Major Carter, their link to the intelligence services) the actors seem oddly all over the place with their portrayals, lurching from quite exaggerated comedy to subtle drama even within a single scene. It’s as through no one has got around to telling them what style director Edward Hall is quite going for as a whole, leaving them eager to offer him a full set of disparate options to select between in the editing suite.
Even so, as I said at the start of this review, the first episode works much better than I had been expecting and arguably more than it should have done given its flaws. It’s reasonably safe and cosy fare to put on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday evenings and should retain a much bigger audience than the vastly more ambitious but ultimately difficult to love Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell did in the same slot just a few weeks ago. However, it’s no Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge or even Call The Midwife.
In fact, overall I do find it puzzling that Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime is deemed good enough to warrant one of the tentpole spots in the BBC’s weekly schedule while the significantly superior, good-natured and much more reliable Father Brown is still sadly consigned to being stripped through the daytime afternoon schedules where it’s all too easily overlooked in the post-Christmas torpor. If there’s room for Tommy and Tuppence at peak time then there should be just as good and prominent a spot for GK Chesterton’s capable crimebusting cleric too.
Rating: ★ ★ 1/2
Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 9pm. The series will be released on DVD in the UK on August 31 2015. The two books on which the series is based, “The Secret Adversary” and “N or M?” have been reissued with TV tie-in covers and are in bookstores now.