A presentation I made at an Agatha Christie conference last year:
Tommy and Tuppence: How can TV get them so wrong?
I only have to think ABC and I shudder. What were they thinking? Poirot needs a makeover let’s make him a priest responsible for the death of dozens of his parishioners. Forget that this makes no sense to have the world’s most consummate detective a naive blunderer, let’s just do it. Why would you? What possessed them?
Unfortunately, this seems to be the modern way.
I go back to 1977 and the best piece of advice any Christie adapter could be given, by that well known literary critic Bert Lance. He filled the office of Director of the Office of Management and Budget for US President Jimmy Carter.
His wise measured words were and I quote:
“If it aint broke don’t fix it.”
The Tommy and Tuppence characters are by far my favourite Christie sleuths. Shame was there are so few stories involving them.
Four novels and one collection of rather silly short stories written in the style of the detective writers of the day for a jape.
It is fair to say that Agatha Christie played with her characters Tommy and Tuppence through their five book series through 1922 to 1973.
The characters aged with time as did the stories, but it will be the TV adaptations that I will interrogate.
What would Christie have thought of the Partners in Crime series on ITV from 1983 and the recent BBC version of 2015.
Whilst ITV performances seemed simply overacted at times, the BBC series was a travesty of the duo’s abilities. Getting everything wrong from character to place. In the ITV version James Warwick was pompous and Francesca Annis conceited. Was that what Christie wanted?
For the BBC, David Walliams seems to have been a fish out of water and though Jessica Raine as Tuppence almost got it, was that enough?
In this talk, I will compare the two series. How did the adaptations go? Was there too much poetic licence from the scriptwriters, did they miss the point of Christie’s characters?
Indeed how should we view Tommy and Tuppence? As characters of their time, who did move on from youthful exuberance to old age, were they realistic or anachronistic?
How do they fit into the Golden Age and then to later crime eras of wartime, 1968 and 1973? Did they adapt through Christie to their time or were they left behind?
What influence did they have on crime-fighting duos? Indeed who influenced Christie. Why did she write so few Tommy and Tuppence stories, did they bore her or were they just a chance to turn something out to keep her publishers happy?
But most importantly I will look at how the TV writers seemed to have missed the point and undervalued two really strong characters who could have brought so much more to our TV screens.
Following on from the ABC Murders I will briefly look at the ITV version of “Pricking of my Thumb” Again, for some reason, it was not enough to have Tommy and Tuppence, we had to have Marple as well. We apparently didn’t need the vivacious Tuppence in this reworking, we had to have a functioning alcoholic and as far as poor Tommy was concerned, no longer was he the foil to Tuppences joie de vivre he was the pompous MI5 man with no time or thought for his embittered wife. Really is this what Christie wrote? Is this what her readers wanted? The television viewers? What Christie did write on this project was:
“Mr. and Mrs. Beresford from their own point of view were just past the prime of life. They liked themselves and liked each other and day succeeded day in a quiet but enjoyable fashion.”
This is so far removed from the irritating Andrews version and the drunken Scacchi interpretation. Again in the novel, we see that Tuppence longs for her beloved husband:
“Naturally she had known she would miss Tommy, but she had no idea how much she was going to miss him. During the long course of their married life they had hardly ever been separated for any length of time.”
Greta Scacchi and Anthony Andrews could have been the perfect Tommy and Tuppence, perhaps from “N or M?” onwards, but not in the roles cast for them here. Christie tells us in the final book of the series “Postern of Fate” written in 1973 that we still saw them being a little frivolous in their ways, still up for a lark. No heavy drinking there or in any of the stories, just that they are still as much in love as ever, there was very little evidence of that here until the denouement when of course there was a sickly sweet reconciliation as Miss Marple in the background smiled approvingly. Yuck!.
I will introduce our crime-fighting duo It is a couple of years after the Armistice that ended The Great War. A pair of old childhood friends who haven’t seen each other in years meet by chance outside the Dover Street Tube Exit. The girl, Miss Prudence Cowley, known to her friends as Tuppence, daughter of an archdeacon:
“wore a small bright green toque over her black bobbed hair, and her extremely short and rather shabby skirt revealed a pair of uncommonly dainty ankles. Her appearance presented a valiant attempt at smartness.”
The young man, Lieutenant Thomas Beresford, had a face that
“was pleasantly ugly—nondescript, yet unmistakably the face of a gentleman and a sportsman. His brown suit was well cut, but perilously near the end of its tether.”
The BBC version of their story was called “Partners in Crime” taking the title from the second book of the series, written in 1929 which was a series of short stories with knowing nods to fictional detectives through the ages. It then adapted for the series two of her novels, “Secret Adversary” from 1922 but now set in the 50s and “N or M?” written by Christie in 1941. Why change the setting? It makes no sense. Tommy and Tuppence were made for the Twenties.
The BBC version is a bit of a museum piece where the props department could show off the wealth of 1950s artefacts they have available. The on screen home is perfect for 1950, but not for the 1920s gadabouts.
In the novel they meet in town and short of cash they yearn for adventure and are thrown into a case looking for Jane Finn. There is none of this in the BBC series. They are the perfect cozy crime home counties couple.
What I loved in the original novels was the equality. They were in it together. When Carter is worried that they may be in danger chasing the mysterious Mr Brown.
“I’ll look after her sir,” said Tommy.
“And I’ll look after you,” retorted Tuppence, resenting the manly assertion.
In truth they do need each other as they fall into unimaginable scrapes and scenes, being kidnapped, blackmailing, chasing, spying and finally rescuing Jane Finn and bringing down Mr Brown.
Their partnership is clear, apart they are missing something. The word play is integral to their relationship. As Tuppence says towards the end of the novel:
“Somehow without Tommy the savour went out of the adventure…”
In Christie’s “Secret Adversary” Tommy has been demobbed and is looking for work. It is 1922 a time of scarcities and unemployment.
In the BBC version Tommy is characterised as a man of clumsy ineptitude. We find it difficult I am sure to separate Walliams from his comedy moments and ”proper “ acting, a bit like Maigret and Rowan Atkinson. They both seemed reined in, trying desperately not to make us laugh so that their actual performances lack nuance and risk. Here he did not fight in the now second world war because he was run over by a catering truck. We see him tip tea all over Tuppence, and early in the episode he almost knocks her over with a train door. Granted in the ITV version he steps into a pond as he sees Tuppence for the first time since 1916, but this is the only time he is given this frailty. In Christie’s novels we accepted that Tommy wasn’t as clever as Tuppence but he was still an ex-intelligence officer with more than enough skills to call on when chasing down villains. On the BBC screen he is the butt of every joke and is constantly unnerved by Tuppence’s thirst for adventure, and unwilling to leave their cozy home. This is not the Tommy of Christie. He may be slow and rigid, but he has a keen, if slow brain and is no coward. Also he is her equal as I said earlier and should not be dragged down into the status of straight man to Tuppences wise guy. There is no chemistry here, unlike with Annis and Warwick where we can imagine them devouring each other at night. The best Jessica Raine can hope for is a cup of cocoa in her jim jams as Walliams puffs on his pipe and reads a newspaper. As characters neither convince. Neither has you rooting for them. Which is a shame as Christie loved these characters and welcomed adventure. As she wrote in her foreword:
“To all those who lead monotonous lives in the hope that they may experience at second hand the delights and dangers of adventure.”
In “The Secret Adversary”, Christie takes us through various stages of Tommy and Tuppence’s life together. By the end of the first book, after having matched wits with a criminal mastermind with Bolshevist sympathies who was scheming to cause unrest in Britain and possibly another war, Tommy and Tuppence resolve to marry one another. They don’t appear again until 1929 in “Partners in Crime” where we find them happily settled into married life, with Albert the elevator boy—whose help they enlisted in The Secret Adversary—now serving them as a butler of sorts. Tuppence, however, is yearning for a little excitement. She leaves us at the end of “Partners in Crime,” the book with the news:
“I’ve got something better to do . . . Something ever so much more exciting. Something I’ve never done before.”
She is pregnant!
ITV meanwhile staged their piece in the time it was written, we had a frolicsome Francesca Annis playing Tuppence to type and James Warwick as the almost perfect Tommy. They don’t try to explain things with a constant back story. They fly through adventures as to the manner born, we never think to ask why have they turned detective? The taciturn David Walliams is on the other hand miscast almost as if he has no clue about the wiles of the world, whilst given another Tommy Jessica Raines could well have been perfect.
James Warwick is casual and elegant, bringing the right qualities of self-mockery that Walliams lacks and brings an accurate but offhand comedy timing to parts which demand nothing more but could get by with nothing less. He is everything that Walliams isn’t. Handsome, suave, brave, intelligent. He dresses like a gentleman, easier of course in the vibrant 1920s as opposed to the austere 1950s. He has a real sparkle in his eyes, the antithesis of the drab, morose dull eyed BBC incarnation of Tommy. He is Tuppences equal. He can verbally prod her as she seems beguiled by Herscheimer with
“… money has charms.”
I can’t remember Walliams Tommy having the temerity to question his wife. Walliams does wring out some suspense from his character’s buffoonery and slow-wittedness that would more than likely got him killed on almost every occasion he faced a threat if for some reason his villainous enemies did not suddenly and conveniently become even slower-witted than Tommy or some other interested character could come up with an excuse or explanation.
Late in “The Secret Adversary” Walliams as Tommy moans
“I am just a man, a very ordinary man.”
And indeed he is. But he was also an exceptionally talented man in his way, but this never really comes to the surface. He did not discover things by accident or intuition like his wife, but he was methodical and careful and we don’t see this in the Walliams characterisation.
I hark back to equality. It has been said that the series of novels reflected Christies own life. Or the life she wanted. She was all about equality in marriage and in life, so the scenes in the BBC adaption where Tuppence turns shrew and orders Tommy from taxi to taxi would never have happened. Why the script has to ape other toxic televisual marriages is beyond me. Walliams is a prissy, bumbling clown for much of the episodes. Tuppence is exasperated, as we, the viewer are exasperated. Why does she put up with him? What do they actually have in common? Tuppence wants adventure, excitement. Tuppence or Jessica Raine would never have married him. Agatha Christie was never that cruel. He would long ago been put out of his misery. Tommy wants to keep bees to add to a series of failed enterprises. How amusingly Sherlockian. Christie wrote the stories with Tuppence as a strong female character but one who enjoyed life to the full even when they were short of money. The BBC portray her as a well off middle class woman with a stooge for a husband. Christie did not write this.
The main assets of “Secret Adversary” have always been its tireless sense of fun and charming simplicity. That the 1920s world of Tommy and Tuppence is so unashamedly divorced from reality, and the plotlines allowing the actors to cavort from one ridiculous event to another without waiting for an explanation, is of little consequence as the series fully embraces its good-humoured silliness. Compared to this the BBC incarnation is a doleful study of austere Britain and austere characters.
Annis and Warwick were already steeped in Christiania having appeared in a TV production of “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” They knew how to play the roles of bright young things. Perhaps Walliams and Raine were just too old. In the ITV version there is a lot of love. In the BBC none. How long does it take Walliams to actually kiss Raine? Hug her? Say something sweet?
The 1920s were a delightful time for some. There were codes of behaviour and attitudes were very different. Britain had just fought the war to end all wars and was then plunged into recession and poverty. Money mattered as did status. Annis and Warwick recognised this with rather an ambivalent air, a devil may care way whereas Walliams and Raine seemed to carry the weight of the 1950s on their shoulders.
I think Tommy and Tuppence are very much characters of their time and the fact that Christie spread the stories over a 52 year arc and aged her characters appropriately shows that she did as well. I find it difficult to agree with her grandson, Matthew Pritchard’s opinion and feel perhaps he doth protest too much when he states in a BBC interview that
“I’d like to think that my grandmother would love David and Jess, though, along with the decision to set the stories in the 1950s and the general faithfulness and beauty of the production. But, you know, maybe there are some things that maybe she would feel a bit different about, as that’s how authors usually are. Personally, I’ve been delighted by what I’ve seen so far.”
His caveat is there and I suppose he was in a difficult position as chairman of the Christie estate promoting a new Agatha Christie TV programme. It wasn’t that faithful as most of us have seen.
It is strange that she wrote so few Tommy and Tuppence stories, did they bore her or were they just a chance to turn something out to keep her publishers happy? There are quite big time gaps between the Tommy and Tuppence stories and that was mainly because her publishers were insistent on having Poirot all the time, says her grandson and we can believe that though why the Tommy and Tuppence stories were not more popular is another question. It could be that more is less and the public craved so much for Poirot and Marple that the Beresford’s just got forgotten, but according to Matthew Pritchard:
“She was always very fond of Tommy and Tuppence, so every now and then she’d escape and write one of her novels about them.”
And this might be a clinching factor in the arc:
“I think that is one of the reasons why the Tommy and Tuppence material is very fresh, quite humorous and different in that they are more like adventure stories. She enjoyed writing them and that actually reflects on the written page.”
We can see the fun and enjoyment that she derives from writing them. At least we can in the books and the ITV production. There is little joy in the BBC version.
In 1973 Tommy and Tuppence made their last written appearance in “Postern of Fate” the last book Christie wrote before her death in 1976. They are retired to the resort town of Hollowquay where they’ve bought an old house. And of course even in her seventies Tuppence becomes embroiled in a new case. It is perhaps the most eloquent of her stories at a time when Christie was growing old and her gifts were leaving her that we have in “Postern of Fate” an elegy to her own childhood. Indeed, it seems as though Tommy and Tuppence have moved into Christie’s childhood home. If we have read her autobiography, we can recognize that the monkey puzzle, the greenhouse with the strange name of KK or Kai Kai, the old broken-up rocking horse called Mathilde and the toy horse and cart called Truelove, and the little girl who used to play with Truelove are from Christie’s memories of Ashfield, her much loved childhood home in Torquay and it seems that, in her last book, she is allowing herself a little indulgence by revisiting what she used to call “dear Ashfield” once more, if only to envision her characters once again living there.
Throughout the Tommy and Tuppence books, Christie remains true to her characters, and age doesn’t seem to be an issue for them. Although the playful dialogue of the earlier books takes on a different kind of flippancy in the later books, after all they’ve been married for over fifty years, they always remain Tommy and Tuppence, adventurous, cheerful, the happily married couple that they have always been. Dressing up and acting different roles on a whim. Breaking from the Kings English to Russian or French or Bronx as the fancy takes them.
Did this depiction lead to an outburst of male and female crime duos or did writers think they couldn’t beat Holmes and Watson with a mixed sex duo and didn’t bother?
In 1930 we had the glorious Harriet Vane and Wimsey whilst three years later Campion introduced us to the wonderful Lady Amanda Fitton who stole his heart then broke his heart, then married him. I don’t like what she has become in Mike Ripley continuation novels but that’s another story.
Over in America we met Hildegard Withers and Inspector Piper whilst the classic Nora and Nick Charles Thin Man series by Dashiell Hammett continued on screen and in print from 1934 till 1947. But really they are few and far between.
On TV of course we have the pair ups of Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan and Booth, Mulder and Scully, Stabler and Benson in Law and Order, Remington Steel and Broadchurch’s Hardy and Miller. Some play on the attraction and interaction between the sexes, others play it straight. In none of them do we see the light-hearted loveliness we see between Tommy and Tuppence, save for in the Thin Man series and this is brought to life on screen by William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Essentially I feel that the Tommy and Tuppence series is a love story with the sleuthing just thrown in as an aside. The characters portray two people deeply in love as evidenced over the 52 years they spend and age together. Annis and Warwick are in love. It glitters from the screen as it did from the page. Walliams and Raine are cold and yes austere. They catch the mood of the setting, but not the mood of the books. They are unsympathetic characters and we cannot warm to them. Annis is quirky, Warwick a true gent. Raine tries hard, but Walliams is dull.
Why oh why couldn’t the adaptor Zinnie Harris, stay true to the text. Change for changes sake is never good, just ask Bert Lance.