It all starts on a train. A setting that’s unmistakeably Dame Agatha.
There’s the smoky whiff of The Orient Express, Le Train Bleu, and the 4:50 from Paddington as we commence the latest in BBC One’s Sunday night syllabus of bestseller adaptations.
This year more than ever, Auntie Beeb is determined to borrow everything on your bookshelf. Esio Trot, Poldark, Strange and Norrell, The Outcast, and now a series based on two of Agatha Christie’s least well known sleuths: Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.
They’re husband and wife on the express to Calais and about to become parters in(vestigating) crime. He’s the well-meaning but vaguely buffoonish husband wedged into a trilby hat. She’s the unflappable wife, stylishly protruding against mid-century anti-feminist expectations. They’re Christie’s own antidote to her country house homicides. No drawing rooms, more suburban living rooms. Housing estates rather then country estates. And not a butler in sight.
Writers Claire Wilson and Zinnie Harris have taken the middle-class couple from their native roaring Twenties and transplanted them into the transitional Fifties: a Cold War playground where the sparkling cyanide and deadly Deco of Christie’s early 20th century world has peeled away, and the optimism for the post-WW2 future is diluted by the threat of Reds under the bed rather than, say, a bachelor with a Derringer and a reputation that needs protecting.
So here we have Part 1-of-3 of the time-shifted adaptation of Christie’s 1922 novel, ‘The Secret Adversary’, which begins with a stranger on a train and rapidly becomes a mystery that involves tracking down a missing woman, infiltrating a gambling den, disguises, chases, Soviet assassins, and more than a few furrowed brows across the kitchen table. It’s Christie with a tip of the hat to Hitchcock.
And yet, having reeled off that list, it never quite feels like the story achieves full pace before the cliffhanger. It’s the big gripe in an episode which is otherwise a stylish introduction to the principal players. Just as things start getting up to speed, the credits roll and we’re left on a cliffhanger without ever fully appreciating the cliff. Whether there’s been enough accomplished in the first episode to coax you back next week is up to you. I’ll be here next week either way.
Perhaps there is enough for a second chance, especially if you’re a Jessica Raine fan. She’s terrific here; her Tuppence radiating a suburban austerity Agent Carter vibe, all smarts and cool smiles under immaculate lippy. You could see her holding up the whole show by herself if she needed to, but she doesn’t because David Walliams (also exec producer) is here, towering behind her.
It’s both a relief to see Walliams escape the dreadful gravity of whatever pseudo-camp caricature possesses him during Britain’s Got Talent, and a reminder that he’s too talented to be pushing Simon Cowell’s buttons. It is at first a little odd to reconcile a comedic face with drama (even of you remember his excellent performance as Frankie Howerd in the BBC drama Rather You Than Me), but Walliams makes good work of the character. Tommy is neither too serious nor too silly, and a jigsaw fit to Tuppence in an ‘opposites attract’ sort of way.
Much like the Beresford’s marriage, Partners in Crime isn’t flash, but then it’s not meant to be. It feels like a show perfect for Sunday nights: the sleepier end of the week when you’ve got a little tray of supper on your lap and you’re after some undemanding escapism.
It’s very well put together in the familiar ‘BBC period adaptation’ fashion, and (perhaps more importantly for Christie completists) is of the production quality that fans of televised Agatha Christie stories are used to after 30 years of gorgeous ITV adaptations.
If Tommy and Tuppence are to become as popular screen fixtures as Poirot and Marple, this is undoubtedly their best shot.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 26 July 2015 on BBC One.
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