Tommy Beresford and Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Cowley are first introduced as the somewhat unlikely young heroes of Agatha Christie’s second published mystery novel THE SECRET ADVERSARY in 1922. They appear a few years later in a collection of short stories and, more than a decade after that, in this novel. Unlike Christie’s other serial protagonists the Beresfords (they become engaged at the end of the first novel) age in real-time so here, following the outbreak of the second world war, they are begrudgingly inhabiting middle age. Their adult children are involved in the war effort but though both have offered their services neither of the senior Beresfords are required. That is until Tommy is approached to uncover the identity of fifth columnists working against the British who are thought to be hiding at a seaside guest house. Overhearing his conversation and unwilling to be left out of the adventure, Tuppence inveigles herself into events as well and, with the help of a faithful old friend, they unmask some truly dastardly spies.
Although a thriller rather than detective novel the book does use some elements of Christie’s successful formula. The beach-side boarding house, with its odd assortment of guests and staff, bares a marked resemblance to the country houses in which many of her tales are set and the protagonists are on the trail of a who-will-do-it if not the classic whodunnit. But there are departures from her standard fare too, not least due to the more political nature of the story. I suppose that’s not surprising given its release during war time, though clearly the book’s main aim is to be uplifting at the difficult time as it maintains the air of a romp even with its dark themes and realistic tone. Indeed the book even caught the eye of authorities because one of its characters is named Bletchley (at that time a very secret code-breaking facility) but this was an apparent coincidence.
In many ways Tommy and Tuppence are Christie’s most realistic characters and I wonder if it is this that has made them less popular than her solo creations. Do we prefer our fictional heroes to be larger than life rather than people quite like us? Unlike Poirot or Marple the Beresfords have domestic tensions and face the realities of life, like actually aging, even while drama unfolds all around them.
N OR M? is complicated but believable and its twisted ending is among Christie’s most devilish. The cast of potential suspects is all a bit familiar (now) but this is still a thoroughly enjoyable tale and not as dated as some of Christie’s other stories. In fact the issue at the heart of the novel, why and how a country might be betrayed by people from within, is as fresh now as it was in 1941.
For the past couple of decades televised adaptations of Dame Christie’s more popular works have proven a gold mine for her estate and producers alike. But having completed filming all the Poirot stories with world-wide favourite David Suchet and begun scraping the bottom of the narrative barrel with the less voluminous Marple tales, it was probably inevitable that someone would bring Christie’s crime-fighting duo, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, to the small screen again even though the characters are less well known. To that end the BBC aired two 3-part adaptations of Tommy and Tuppence stories earlier this year. N OR M? is the second of these and presumably the last we’ll see of this particular incarnation as the series has not been renewed.
The most noticeable thing about the adaptation is its almost total lack of connection to its source material. I am not such a stickler for authenticity that this fact in itself would have deterred me but the changes made here make for a fairly preposterous standalone narrative. Set a decade later than the novel, the adaptations plays out as if they keystone cops were running MI5 – there is much bumbling and fumbling – and for some inexplicable reason the one of the baddies is revealed at the outset. There’s little enough drama in this absurd tale that it could afford to give away its own spoiler.
I suppose the source material for these characters is problematic because they age so dramatically across the stories. If such a jump is impossible for a hoped-for long-running TV series, due to the difficulties of aging both the actors and their surroundings, then the producers might have been better off opting for an older couple even if they chose to set the stories in a different time. Or at the very least they needed a more credible couple. In the lead roles David Walliams and Jessica Raine do not exhibit much in the way of chemistry and Walliams in particular seems entirely miscast. His playing of Tommy as a well-dressed buffoon doesn’t sit well with the character’s depicted role. It is inconceivable to an audience who watched the first adventure that even a truly desperate MI5 would ask for his assistance again. Raine is a better fit, showing the spunk and intelligence that Christie gave the character, but she’s not given a great deal to work with script-wise.
The elements that work best in the source material – Tommy and Tuppence’s relationship and the authenticity of the spy romp – are both entirely missing from this adaptation. And even though Raine’s ever-changing hats are to die for they don’t make up for this otherwise lackluster affair.
N OR M? isn’t Christie’s best work but it’s still a cut above the pastiche that its adaptation became. A shorter script (the adaptation did not need to be nearly 3 hours long) and a more credible Tommy might have made the match more even but it’s hard to tell. I’m glad the series aired on local TV so I only wasted time not money to watch it.
Have you read the book and/or seen the adaptation? Agree or disagree with me? Have I missed something vital? Has anyone seen the 1980’s adaptations of the Tommy and Tuppence novels that were done for TV? Are they worth the small fortune they would cost at our current exchange rate for me to procure?
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