It’s 1952, and the Beresfords, prissy Tommy (David Walliams) and nosey Prudence, known as “Tuppence” (Jessica Raine, Call the Midwife) are in Paris – we know that because of a poorly CGI’d Eiffel Tower – on their way back to London after an expedition to buy a queen bee (Tommy knows all about queens, he says – ahem). While Tuppence reads a Dorothy L. Sayers novel (she also references Conan Doyle and John Buchan), a mysterious stranger, Jane Finn, hides a package in their luggage, before being chased off by a murderous birthmarked assassin.
The Beresfords, who have a son, a dog, and a failing apiary business, are on their uppers, so they turn to Tommy’s uncle Major Carter (James Fleet), who is something in Intelligence, a quality Tommy seems to lack, having missed the war due to being knocked down by a catering van. Carter offers to pay the boy’s school fees, but won’t give inept Tommy a job, feeling the Cold War is a bit too hot for him.
Tuppence, though, has started to investigate the mysterious Jane, after finding a photo hidden in a book. She stumbles on a gambling den, gets offered a courier job in the name Jane Finn, foolishly gives away that she has met the original, and is chased out by thug Lucky with threats ringing in her ears.
When they tell the story to Carter, he reveals that a Russian assassin known as Brown is in London, that an agent named Villiers had a tape identifying him, that Villiers has been killed, and that the tape and Jane Finn are missing.
Placing an ad, the twosome hear from Jane’s uncle Hersheimmer (Clarke Peters, The Wire), who explains that she was a language student on a scholarship to Paris when she disappeared; and they’re sent a watch engraved with her name, and photos of Jane, Villiers, themselves, the birthmarked man who has been following them, and a veiled woman.
They recruit Tommy’s old mate Pemberton (Matthew Steer) to help, keeping the full truth back from Carter. The veiled woman in the photos is identified as famous opera singer Madame Vandermeyer, and Tuppence, dressed in an unconvincing blonde wig, gets a job transcribing her memoirs. Vandermeyer (Alice Krige) has a James Bond-type white cat and apparently knew Hitler, so she’s obviously a wrong ‘un.
Tommy follows Lucky from Vandermeyer’s, ends up in a brothel and is confronted; while Tuppence is unmasked by the birthmarked assassin. It looks like it’s all up for both of them…
Transposed from the 20s to the 50s, The Secret Adversary loosely follows the plot of Agatha Christie’s second novel, replacing Bolsheviks with Communists. The setting determines that this adaptation is less chintzy than most Christies, though this results in there being less set-dressing to distract from the lack of action.
Tommy, a war hero in the original, is turned here into comedy relief, and Tuppence made much the more prominent character. Pity they coudn’t cast the aptly-named Tuppence Middleton in the part.
In fact the casting is the main problem here, with zero chemistry between the effete Tommy and the waspish Tuppence. David Walliams, as executive producer, must take the blame for this; he’s played Christie before, and clearly finds the idea of a married couple of detectives interesting, but he’s not the man to convince in the role.
What this adaptation needed was something of the vim and pep of a Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps; in the event, it’s all come out a bit Lou and Andy. What a kerfuffle! Let’s see if they manage to keep their hand on their tuppence next week.
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