The Secret Adversary (1983)
Dramatised by Pat Sandys, Directed by Tony Wharmby; 115 minutes
Cast: Francesca Annis as Tuppence, James Warwick as Tommy
This is a one-off feature-length special that acted as a kind of pilot episode for ITV’s ten-part adaptation of Partners in Crime (1929). Shot entirely on film it looks like quite a lot of money was spent on it, with some particularly impressive location work transforming early-1980s London convincingly into the bustling metropolis of 1922, complete with vintage cars, horse-drawn cabs and handsomely attired extras. There are very few deviations from the novel and most of these seem to have been made for logistical reasons, such as changing the setting of a climatic car chase from night time to daytime and significantly altering (and shortening) the plot strand involving the ‘fake’ Jane Finn, presumably as a time-saving measure. Some of the locations are different too. Most notably, Tommy and Tuppence meet for the first time in a park, rather than at the entrance to a tube station. The sudden change of location from the horrors of wartime combat to peace-time London is rendered even more striking by this change of location. An adagio arrangement of the Partners in Crime theme tune playing over this peaceful scene during the opening credits heightens the effect, as well as foreshadowing the fully fledged ‘joint venture’ that won’t emerge fully until Tommy and Tuppence’s engagement at the end of the film (again moved to a parkland setting rather than the back of a cab as in the novel), when the theme tune proper kicks in over the credits. And a splendid theme tune it is too.
Interestingly, the opening sequences, although retaining the novel’s portrayal of the panic aboard the sinking Lusitania, makes no reference to the ‘women and children first rule’, which is erroneously alluded to in the novel. Later, it is said that Danvers believed that Jane Finn would have a better chance of surviving because she was a woman, but it’s never explicitly stated that she survived because of a chivalric approach to boarding the lifeboats.
What’s particularly good about this adaptation is that the story isn’t played entirely for laughs, but nor is it played entirely straight either. Thus, while Carter’s dialogue and the whole political context is hammed up in the extreme, Julius’s stereotyping is considerably toned down thanks to a charming and understated performance from Gavan O’Herlihy. Mr Carter’s dialogue takes a very tongue-in-cheek line with the silliness of Agatha Christie’s plot, and the idea that the country would be thrown into open revolution if a general strike were to occur. It’s as much as the actor can do to stop himself from guffawing into his moustache, and Tuppence’s disbelieving cry of ‘General strike?!’ is priceless.
The film also retains a lot of the novel’s self-referential aspects as well (‘You must sate this longing for vulgar sensation, Tuppence!’ cries Tommy at one point) most notably in Tuppence’s first meeting with Albert. In the film, Annis is wonderful, pretending to be a stereotypical private eye, ranging over different accents to prove herself a master of disguise, whilst simultaneously berating Albert for believing the rubbish he reads in comic books. Albert’s assertion that, in comic books and dime novels, those who ‘have swarthy skin and don’t shave’ are immediately recognisable as ‘bad ’uns’ is also an affectionate dig at the novel’s tendency to make its villains magically recognisable as such. I also enjoyed Tuppence indignantly telling Julius that she’s a ‘special agent pretending to be a menial’, which is entirely in keeping with the play-acting spirit in which her entrance into service is portrayed in the novel – as is the ridiculous wig she sports here. Yet none of these affectionate nods to the absurd escapism of the novel ever threaten your suspension of disbelief.
Physically, Annis and Warwick don’t totally resemble their counterparts in the novel. Annis is more beautiful than the modestly attractive Tuppence, while Warwick’s Tommy has dark hair, rather than red as in the novel (although I suppose ‘good-naturedly ugly’ isn’t a totally unreasonable description of James Warwick). Similarly, Rita Vandemeyer and Albert are both significantly older than in the novel. This doesn’t matter though, especially in Mrs Vandemeyer’s case, as it allows her to be played by the fabulous Honor Blackman. Moreover, Annis and Warwick embody their roles so well that it’s absolutely impossible to imagine anyone else playing the parts. Warwick’s portrayal is just the right side of camp so that you believe that the very deliberate way in which the lines are spoken comes totally from the fact that Tommy (as well as the actor playing him) is enjoying the adventure in which he’s caught up. Meanwhile the pleasing languor that characterises Annis’s acting style and the frantic enthusiasm that characterises Tuppence are an attractive, if unlikely, combination.
Basically, I adore this film. It’s easily one of the very best adaptations of an Agatha Christie novel. Not only is it very faithful to the plot of the book it’s based on, but, more importantly, it totally nails the tone of the original – all the actors seem to be having a whale of a time and it doesn’t hurt that an obviously ample budget has been well-employed in bringing it visually to life in sumptuous fashion.