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Saturday, January 26, 2013


While I was aware of Agatha Christie's keen sense of humor from watching the delightful "Poirot" and "Marple" television adaptations of recent years, it wasn't until I met Tommy and Tuppence Beresford that I encountered Dame Agatha's downright silly side.  Their one-season, 11-episode TV series from 1983 can now be found in Acorn Media's 3-disc DVD set AGATHA CHRISTIE'S PARTNERS IN CRIME: THE TOMMY & TUPPENCE MYSTERIES, but how much you appreciate them depends on your tolerance for screwball detective shenanigans of a distinctly lightweight nature.

James Warwick, almost a dead ringer for a young Michael Palin of "Monty Python", plays wounded World War I vet Thomas Beresford. In the feature-length pilot "The Secret Adversary", Tommy returns to London after his military discharge and is reunited with Prudence "Tuppence" Crowley (Francesca Annis, "Lillie", "Cranford"), the beautiful, vivacious army nurse who helped him recover from his injuries.  Naturally, they fall in love, but are both desperate to find work. 

After a few improbable contrivances, the soon-to-be-married couple find themselves working undercover for the British government in an adventure that feels more like a low-rent espionage yarn than a mystery story.  While there's a McGuffin of some sort that I can barely recall, this is simply an excuse to put our hero and heroine in and out of mildly dangerous situations for an hour and a half while dealing with guest stars George Baker ("I, Claudius"), Honor Blackman (of "The Avengers" and GOLDFINGER fame), and Gavan O'Herlihy (Richie Cunningham's phantom older brother on "Happy Days") as Julius P. Hersheimmer, an American millionaire who may or may not be in cahoots with the bad guys.

"The Secret Adversary" has that dreary, overcast look typical of filmed British teleplays of the era, which I actually regard with much nostalgia.  The story is more serious than the later series, with more gravitas and character depth.  Period trappings do a good enough job evoking the atmosphere of the post-WWI "flapper" era, especially in the rather lavish costuming.  All in all, it comes off as something Agatha Christie might've written to give her brain a rest from its usual rigorous literary workouts.

The first episode of the series proper, "The Affair of the Pink Pearl", comes as something of a shock since it features that odd-looking tendency of early British television to mix gloomy filmed exteriors with brightly-lit videotaped interiors, which never fails to look jarring and artificial.  Tommy and Tuppence have taken over a detective agency despite their having no experience in the field whatsoever--they rely mainly on sheer luck and pluck to get by--with their movie-obsessed young butler Albert (Reece Dinsdale) serving as receptionist and general comedy relief buffoon. 

The series has the look of a sitcom with everyone playing their roles in a broad, theatrical manner.  The mysteries Tommy and Tuppence are called upon to solve are quickly and easily dealt with for the most part--anything more complicated, in fact, would be beyond their limited capabilities--leaving plenty of time for frivilously romantic banter between the charming but sometimes sickly-sweet lovebirds. 

"Pink Pearl" is a simple, even paper-thin drawing room mystery involving the theft of the title item amidst an upperclass household of eccentrics.  Francesca Annis' Tuppence is flightier and sillier than ever, yet she's more naturally clever at solving puzzles than Tommy, a sturdy, reliable chap who enjoys letting his playful side show through in her presence.  Guests include William Hootkins of STAR WARS, BATMAN, and HARDWARE, and Graham Crowden of BRITANNIA HOSPITAL.

"The House of Lurking Death" is more like it, living up to its lurid title quite nicely with a better balance of seriousness and humor.  Half the characters we're introduced to in the first scene are killed off by poison, putting Tommy and Tuppence into a situation that's much grimmer and more genuinely involving than usual.  (Joan Sanderson, the crabby old deaf lady from "Fawlty Towers", guests.)  After this, "The Sunningdale Mystery" is positively inert, with our leads wandering around a golf course discussing a murder mystery and poking around for clues until they figure things out and go home.  

"The Clergyman's Daughter" is a fun one about a supposed mansion haunting with the usual "Scooby-Doo" plot enhanced by Tuppence's masquerade as a spiritualist.  "Finessing the King" gives Tommy and Tuppence a chance to dress up as Holmes and Watson for a costume ball and revisit some old romantic haunts from their past, one of which becomes the setting for the inevitable murder.  After that, "The Ambassador's Boots" is about as bland as the title suggests.

There's some nice foggy atmosphere in "The Man in the Mist" but it gives way to tedium as Tommy's longwinded re-enactment of yet another murder goes on too long.  The episode is saved by a chuckle-inducing ending.  "The Unbreakable Alibi" is an interesting tale of a woman who claims to have been in two places at once, with a solid alibi in each instance.  Fairly intriguing, until the most obvious solution to the mystery turns out to be the right one.

In "The Case of the Missing Lady", Tommy and Tuppence infiltrate a country asylum where an Arctic explorer's missing fiance' is thought to be held captive.  This is one of the most comedy-heavy episodes, with Tuppence, disguised as a famous Russian ballerina, keeping staff and inmates occupied with a prolonged shaggy-dog version of "Swan Lake" while Tommy searches the place disguised as a scraggly old gardener.  A last-minute revelation makes the story even more lightweight than previously thought, but with amusing results.  "The Crackler" sends the series off with a pretty interesting tale of counterfeit bank notes floating around an illicit gambling club.

The 3-disc DVD set from Acorn Media is in 4:3 full screen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  There are no extras.

If you're up for this sort of frothy, lightweight entertainment, then there's no reason why you shouldn't enjoy AGATHA CHRISTIE'S PARTNERS IN CRIME: THE TOMMY & TUPPENCE MYSTERIES to some extent.  Just as long as you're not expecting something with the same rich atmosphere and emotional resonance as Christie's more substantial filmed works.

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