Well, after only ten episodes and one film, Partners in Crime comes to an end. Fair enough: there were only a few short stories and the three later novels (set many years later) remaining, but it’s still hard to say farewell…
Review: “Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime” : Episodes 7 – 10 (1983)
with Francesca Annis (Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford nee Crowley),James Warwick (Tommy Beresford), Reece Dinsdale (Albert)
written by David Butler, Gerald Savory and Jonathan Hales
Things don’t change much for Tommy and Tuppence: indeed, while I mourn the fact that I have no more episodes to enjoy, I’m aware that further episodes would have been very much in the same vein, so perhaps it’s a good thing that they stopped when they did. And, it must be said, these final installments – while considerably pushing the series’ boundaries further afield – are slightly less delightful than those that came before.
“The Man in the Mist” is a peculiar little episode whose mystery never really comes together, but which generates much entertainment through the character interplay. Tuppence and Tommy – the latter dressed as a priest, for reasons unrelated to the mystery – discover the body of an acquaintance in her home, and attempt to break down the walls of deceit. As a mystery, The Man in the Mist leaves a lot to be desired: by the halfway point, there are only two suspects (and indeed only three guest characters). While previous ‘bottle’ episodes have worked, this just feels unpleasantly claustrophobic, as very little attempt is made to investigate the victim’s life. The solution is, unfortunately, rather mundane which is perhaps a comment on the viewer – as I know that I was jumping to all sorts of elaborate conclusions in which the dead woman wasn’t who she seemed, etc, etc. More to the point, not only does the murderer take no great pains to disguise his/her identity (a major plot point), but the solution relies on an unseen phone call from Tommy to Albert, which substantially weakens the power of the mystery. All in all, it’s a bit tiring.
However, as mentioned, there’s a lot of fun to be had from the character interplay. Tommy retains his disguise, based on the detective Father Brown. Although the detective novel parody element of the book was largely removed, this episode retains it – partly, I imagine, because Brown was more well-known than some of his faded contemporaries, and partly because it does serve in advancing the plot. (Besides, by now we kind of get the point!) The highlight comes in the denouement as Tommy has the entire household (and Tuppence) playing roles as he re-enacts the murder, only no one is very good at remaining in character! Incidentally, Tim Brierly has an amazing voice – a cross between Sean Connery and Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in There Will Be Blood. I hope he’s had a great career playing masked villains or doing animated films.
“The Unbreakable Alibi”, meanwhile, is the most utterly frivolous episode of the series, but it is the strongest of these four. Tommy and Tuppence assist a man who made a bet with the lady he fancies: she’ll generate two alibis for herself, effectively being in two places at once. If he can figure out which is real, she’ll let him court her. With stakes so low, the episode wisely lets us revel in the increasing frustrations of our duo’s investigation. Not only does Francesca Annis get to showcase some utterly astounding outfits (seriously, the costume designer for this series deserves a medal) but she’s effortlessly hilarious as Tuppence is increasingly put out during a long day’s journey into nowhere. At first, Tommy won’t let her eat, but when they arrive at the hotel, it’s past dinner time. Her gradual sulkiness is wonderfully played, and her interplay with Tommy has never been finer.
In fact, what makes this episode work is that both Annis and James Warwick clearly have a lot of say over their characters. The pair have become increasingly tender and intimate since we began back in The Secret Adversary, and you can tell that much of this has been worked out during rehearsal; Tommy and Tuppence are so comfortable with each other that their banter alleviates even the worst of the series’ longueurs. Beyond this, the series as a whole is allowed to be down-to-earth about human relationships. Okay, it’s not by any means “gritty”, but it also isn’t just the clean ’20s vibe that a lot of reviews claim. This episode, for instance, takes its catalyst as a man meeting a woman in a bar. What’s more, we’re never left in any doubt that Tommy and Tuppence have a very healthy sex life. Lovely.
Things do get perhaps a bit too serious in the final reel, in a severe deviation from the story. However, as the story’s solution is as frivolous as the set-up, and rather obvious, so I can understand why they felt the need to inject some drama.
“The Case of the Missing Lady” is by far the most farcical episode of the series, centering almost entirely around Annis, and it’s a worthy showcase. Tuppence goes undercover at a mysterious medical clinic where their client claims his beloved is being held. Tommy, meanwhile, lurks on the fringes, attempting to ensure both her safety and the reputation of their business. While the short story is very Sherlock Holmes, with a simple introduction, and a quick trip that reveals the rather defeatist ‘why’, the writers here chose (reasonably) to make the trip to the nursing home the centrepiece. Tuppence goes undercover as a pretentious Russian ballerina, meaning that Annis gets to ham it up something chronic, particularly as her situation becomes more and more imperiled. The extended scene where Tuppence finds herself giving a ballet recital to the guests (under the watchful eye of the German doctors), and keeps trying – in vain – to postpone the performance, is hysterical. (It also calls to mind – accidentally, I’m sure – Ronee Blakley’s heartbreaking turn as Barbara Jean in Nashville.) Annis is a true delight, as if I haven’t said that enough. By dissolving into utter farce – the German villains and Tommy’s Cockney disguise complete the set – the episode allows us to relax and fully enjoy the performances on offer. Unlike the previous episode, they keep the short story’s deliberately anti-climactic ending, leading to a great escape sequence. It may border on the ridiculous, but The Case of the Missing Lady is a gem.
The final episode of the series, “The Crackler”, is rather dull plot-wise, with a ponderously slow investigation into a counterfeiting ring. The opening scene, in which Inspector Marriot returns (full circle!) to explain the case just goes on forever. The investigation itself is just as slow, and it isn’t until the last ten minutes that anything remotely invigorating happens. It’s a big flaw, and perhaps justification for why the writers chose not to adapt the more spy-heavy short stories, since it just wasn’t in their wheelhouse. Yet, even in the doldrums, it’s almost worth it just to see Annis, Warwick and Reece Dinsdale so comfortable with their characters. While the scenes are still too long, there are several that just feature Tommy, Tuppence and Albert (or some combination thereof) chatting and debating the merits of the case: it’s utterly delightful! By now, Albert has matured somewhat as a detective without losing his comical edge, and Dinsdale feels much more connected to the rest of the series. On top of this, the intimacy between Tommy and Tuppence – so clearly improvised by the actors in rehearsal – is at its peak. It’s not quite enough to save the episode from tedium, but it’s fair to say that Partners in Crime would be a challenge to bring back today. Some of the best episodes – The Unbreakable Alibi, The Sunningdale Mystery – were, for the most part, duologues between our eponymous partners, with sparkling dialogue played to the hilt by Annis and Warwick. What a shame that modern crime series rely almost entirely on large but colourless ensembles and ceaseless movement, since there’s a lot of delight to be found here. The series’ final shot – Tommy and Tuppence kissing in a film noir-style silhouette before heading home for what’s undoubtedly going to be an intimate evening – is gorgeously filmed, and feels completely deserved. Lovely.
In closing, I should admit that – while this series covered all the good Tommy and Tuppence stories – there’s a fanboy inside of me who wishes that Annis and Warwick had come back, maybe ten or fifteen years later, to do a second series. Between the remaining short stories and the three leftover novels, I’m sure an inventive writer could have fun depicting the aging but zestful couple. And while those remaining novels are godawful, both the modern Marple and Poirot series have managed to salvage some stinkers, so surely we could do the same here? I suspect it is not to be: I daresay the remaining short stories will never be filmed, and Marple did By the Pricking of My Thumbs a few years ago, so perhaps the best we can hope for is that someone will bring back Greta Scacchi and Anthony Andrews (by force, if necessary!) and make them complete the series with N or M? and Postern of Fate. Or mix and match the pairs until we find two who are up for it? I’d watch!
Or maybe I’m crazy.