Now is a good time to be a fan of Agatha Christie. Back in February of last year, I reported that the estate of the famous mystery writer had sealed a deal with the BBC to bring some of her lesser-known works to the small screen. The first fruits of that deal spring forth this weekend when the first of a six-part series is aired on BBC1. Starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine, Partners In Crime sees married couple Tommy and Tuppence in two adventures told over six episodes. The first of these two stories, The Secret Adversary, was adapted by Zinnie Harris. For Walliams, who’s best known for his comedy, it’s a slight departure – he not only took the lead onscreen but was also an Executive Producer role. We were given this interview with him, and it’s a fascinating read…
The Killing Times: Describe the character of Tommy and his relationship with Tuppence…
David Walliams: Agatha Christie’s Partners In Crime follows the adventures of a husband and wife detective team, Tommy and Tuppence. Tuppence is definitely more forthright. She’s braver than Tommy, he’s more on the back-foot, but he means well. Tommy is a bit more of a klutz than Tuppence and is sometimes more of a burden. During the Second World War, Tommy was hit by a catering van on his first day as a soldier so he never got to prove himself – this is his journey to become a hero. Together however, Tommy and Tuppence make a good team.
TKT: Have you had an interest in Agatha Christie prior to this?
DW: I was probably about 10-years-old when I watched Murder On The Orient Express with Albert Finney and I absolutely loved it. I was so taken aback by the twist at the end. Being a child myself, I hadn’t read the book and I didn’t have any knowledge of it so I just thought it was one of the most extraordinary things. From that moment, I became a fan and have loved the TV adaptations over the years. I was lucky enough to be in The Body In The Library, the first Miss Marple story in the new block of Marples. I was thinking about what I would really love to do and I thought I’d love to do something in this area again because I am such a big fan of Christie’s writing. I realised Tommy and Tuppence had been quite neglected and it just felt like the most incredible opportunity when thinking of resurrecting the duo. Unlike Poirot and Marple, who are familiar to audiences in their various adaptations, Tommy and Tuppence aren’t that well known. They have been televised before and there have been a couple of movies, but it has not been done in a way that most people would consider definitive.
TKT: How did you find the resetting of the Tommy and Tuppence novels in the 1950s?
DW: I’ve always liked the 50s and I’ve always been quite obsessed with Hitchcock films whose golden period was the 50s and early 60s. I believe there was a sudden explosion of positivity after the Second World War so it’s a good period to set these stories in. The problem with bringing Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence stories to screen is that she wrote them between the 1920s to the 1970s and the characters age within that time. The books however feel contemporary so we decided to put the story somewhere in the middle and I think it works rather well.
TKT: What was the significance historically of this period and why does it lend itself to this particular stream of the story-telling?
DW: The 1950s backdrop is visually a wonderful setting, just post Second World War, where these spy stories feel well placed, certainly the ones we have been filming, The Secret Adversary and N or M? they fitted because you have the Cold War and the visible threat of Soviet Communism. It felt like a really great time frame. I also think it is an interesting period as it’s not overly familiar to audiences, some time frames you keep coming back to, for instance the 1920s with the music and the fashions. But we just felt let’s try and do something a little surprising and set them in the ’50s.
TKT: Does the period allow the production greater freedom when it comes to elements of design?
DW: In the 50s people dressed in a formal way. If you look at footage from that time, the men are wearing suits, ties and hats and the women are equally beautifully dressed. I rather like wearing suits and looking smart. I like the cars and I like the slight sense of struggle about it, with poverty post Second World War. I also like the idea that Tommy and Tuppence aren’t living the high life that they might have done in the 1920s, even though it was after the First World War. I just thought we really haven’t seen this represented on TV in recent years. Hopefully people will embrace the time period and really get to enjoy it.
TKT: What does your role of Executive Producer entail?
DW: The reason I am Executive Producer is because I came to the owners of Christie with the idea of bringing Tommy and Tuppence to a new TV audience. I met with Hilary Strong at Agatha Christie Productions and said: “Look no-one is doing these stories and perhaps we can have a slightly different take on it than has been done before. We can have some humour and make a little bit more of Tommy and Tuppence’s relationship.” Agatha Christie brilliantly sets up these two characters, but I felt that there was more opportunity as we went along to have little moments of tension between the two characters. I have been involved for the last couple of years, meeting writers, that sort of thing. It seems strange because I am used to being on the other side of it, to being rejected! I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s something totally different for me and I love a new challenge and this has certainly been a challenge. They are quite big complicated stories that we hope will be around for a long time and be seen around the world, so it has to be brilliant!
TKT: How challenging is it as an actor to film a show out of sequence?
DW: The challenge of filming these stories is that they are extremely complex stories. In every single scene there is a turn, something changes, something you thought was true isn’t, or someone who was under suspicion isn’t. It’s constantly evolving, so you really need to keep on top of it. Basically you need to read the script thoroughly in advance and not all actors do that! You need to plan it and think about it and know exactly where you are because of course, you don’t film in any order so you have to keep track all the time of where you have been. It’s hard sometimes, you’ve got to come through a door having just had an argument that you haven’t filmed yet! But we are very lucky we have a great director in Ed Hall, who is very much an actor’s director. He’s been great with Jessica and me and he is very patient.
TKT: Do you have any preference to working in a studio or going out on location?
DW: I like being on location because we’re in a different place really every two or three days so it keeps it quite fresh and exciting. It was great filming in Didcot on the first few days. I had never been there before and I love old trains and railways so I plan to go back another time and have a little ride on the trains. I also had a bit of free time, so I went and visited two schools in the area and did some readings for the kids which was quite fun.
TKT: How does this project compare with the past work you have done?
DW: What is interesting in starting this, is trying to work out the tone of the drama because the Agatha Christie world is not quite the real world – it’s heightened. Trying to get the tone right, especially when starting something new is very interesting. We don’t want it to be exactly the same as Poirot and Miss Marple and we want some humour in it but not too much. We want the characters to have warmth and humour to them. Having come from a background in comedy, what I was really interested in was a husband and wife team and how they might relate and bicker whilst solving crimes, because their relationship is going to be key. I also thought there should be some humour there, but at the same time when someone dies, we want it to be horrifying. So we were conscious of treading the line between it being funny and it being dark and dangerous too.
TKT: Have you had any major challenges whilst filming?
DW: The weather is the biggest challenge because we have been filming through the autumn and winter with a lot of exterior locations and some days it just rained all day. In one scene we were off to the opera and we’re all excited about it and it was absolutely tipping down with rain. It’s odd having to still act like you’re having fun! These things happen. I’ve never had to use a gun as a prop before or grapple with a 1950s Morris Minor or drive an antique motorbike. At the end of the day you know all these challenges make it interesting. You just need patience overcoming them.
TKT: Describe working with Jessica Raine, who plays your on-screen wife, Tuppence?
DW: I didn’t know Jessica personally before we started filming. I had never met her, but I had seen her on television many times and thought she was brilliant. As soon as her name was mentioned as a potential Tuppence, it all made sense. She’s come from being the lead in one of the most popular drama series in recent years Call The Midwife and she’s got the exact qualities of Tuppence. It’s great working with someone so talented and she has a lot more experience as an actor than I have. I always feel like she is on the right page with everything and her choices are always great. I can take her lead a lot.
TKT: Describe the location for the guesthouse in the second story…
DW: We filmed the exteriors of the Sans Souci Guesthouse in Cromer, Norfolk which is the setting for the second story though the interiors were filmed in Reigate. The guesthouse is the backdrop to N or M?, which we soon discover is harbouring a spy. We find out that Tommy and Tuppence have different opinions as to the identity of the spy, which subsequently tears them in different directions. What is unique about working in the Agatha Christie world is that in reality if we came to the guesthouse and there was only one person staying, the story wouldn’t work so we need a typically large Christie cast. You need to constantly create that tension of throwing suspicion on everybody. I know from being a fan of Agatha Christie that as an audience member, that’s the exciting part… sitting at home trying to work out who the baddie is. So we have to keep that bubbling along the whole time.
TKT: Do you think there might be more outings for Tommy and Tuppence down the road?
DW: We certainly hope there will be more Tommy and Tuppence adventures. There are more books to adapt and it’s certainly been a real pleasure filming these two stories. But ultimately, it’s what the public think. If the public enjoy it, then I am sure there will be more. It has been a brilliant adventure making Agatha Christie’s Partners In Crime.
Agatha Christie’s Partners In Crime: Sunday 26th July, 9pm
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