Early 1922 saw Agatha Christie’s second novel The Secret Adversary introduce readers to Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.
To mark the centenary of its publication, Steve Cain examines how the characters have been portrayed in various television adaptations.
There is no doubt that Agatha Christie liked Tommy and Tuppence – the bright young couple “willing to do anything, go anywhere” in pursuit of excitement and adventure.
These two recurring characters spanned Christie’s entire literary career.
They were the protagonists in both her second novel, in 1922, and her last, published more than half a century later, in 1973.
Having already created the slightly comedic and rather eccentric Hercule Poirot, Christie revelled in writing about this lively, decent young couple.
They’d tease one another mercilessly, call each other “old bean” and “old thing”, and dismiss compliments and serious sentiment with a hasty “Rot!”
“Their affectionate matiness combined with their infectious pleasure in being in each other’s company” gave the characters “a very precise youthful interwar contemporaneity,” according to Martin Fido, author of The World of Agatha Christie.
“She was always very fond of Tommy and Tuppence,” added Christie’s grandson Matthew Pritchard.
“I think that is one of the reasons Tommy and Tuppence material remains 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.”
In 1982 an ITV dramatisation of The Secret Adversary preceded a ten-part weekly series Agatha Christie’s Partners In Crime, which starred James Warwick as Tommy and Francesca Annis as Tuppence.
Set in the vibrant 1920s, Annis was “frolicsome” as Tuppence while Warwick was “almost perfect” as Tommy.
“They fly through adventures as to the manner born, we never think to ask why they have turned detective,” said Jonathan Wilkins, who gave a presentation on the characters at an Agatha Christie conference in 2019.
“Tommy and Tuppence were made for the Twenties,” he added.
“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.”
Wilkins did not bestow such praise on the 2015 BBC six-part series, also titled Partners In Crime, which starred David Walliams and Jessica Raine as Tommy and Tuppence.
Deriding the decision to change the time period from the 1920s to the ’50s, Wilkins referred to the production as “a bit of a museum piece where the props department could show off the wealth of 1950s artefacts they have available.”
His opinion of David Walliams’ portrayal of Tommy was equally scathing – “a dull, miscast fish out of water” – although he did concede Raine “almost got it” and, had she been cast opposite a better actor, “could well have been perfect.”
Defending his portrayal of Tommy, Walliams explained: “Tommy’s a good man but he’s let his ambitions slide.
He needs Tuppence to help him make something of his life. I like that Tommy has to defer to her; that she is more intelligent and heroic than he is.”
Raine, who described Tuppence as “forward-looking and modern,” agreed.
“It’s so nice to play a woman who isn’t put-upon or a victim,” she said. I like how front-footed and quick-witted she is. She’s funny, intelligent and curious – all the things you want to be in real life.”
Yet, Wilkins maintained that rather than capturing the joie de vivre of the “adventurous, cheerful, happily married couple” described in Christie’s novels, Walliams and Raine were unable to muster anything more than a depiction of “the perfect cozy crime home counties couple.”
He added: “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.”
Because Christie spread the four novels and short story anthology, featuring Tommy and Tuppence, across a 52-year arc and aged her characters appropriately, it was only a matter of time before an adaptation focused on an older version of the couple.
In 2006, the third novel in the Beresford series, By The Pricking of My Thumbs, was adapted into an episode of ITV’s Marple series – despite the fact that Miss Marple did not even feature in the original novel!
In this adaptation Miss Marple and Tuppence are the detectives. Anthony Andrews and Greta Scacchi portrayed Tommy and Tuppence – he as a “pompous MI5 man with no time or thought for his embittered wife” and she as “a functioning alcoholic” – opposite Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple.
“Scacchi and Andrews could have been the perfect Tommy and Tuppence,’ said Jonathan Wilkins. “But not in the roles cast for them here.”
He added: “Christie tells us in the final book of the series, Postern of Fate, 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 other 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 smiled approvingly. Yuck!”
However, irrespective of the varying degrees of success associated with the portrayal of the Beresfords in any particular adaptation, one thing is certain – the sleuthing couple’s influence on the genre remains their lasting legacy.
Hart to Hart, which ran from 1979 to 1984 before being revived in the 1990s starred Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers as a pair of wealthy married sleuths. Undoubtedly, it owes its origins to the Beresfords.
It could also be argued that a number of other television series’ featuring crime-fighting couples have been influenced by the characters of Tommy and Tuppence. These include Dempsey and Makepeace, Remington Steele and Broadchurch.
And, although “some play on the attraction and interaction between the sexes and others play it straight,” according to Wilkins, “in none of them do we see the light-hearted loveliness we see between Tommy and Tuppence.”