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Agatha Christie's The Secret Adversary (1983)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Agatha Christie's The Secret Adversary (1983)
LWT for ITV, tx. 9/10/1983, 116 mins, colour
DirectorTony Wharmby
Production CompanyLWT
AdaptationPat Sandys
Original novelAgatha Christie
PhotographyMike Humphreys
MusicJoseph Horovitz

Cast: Francesca Annis (Tuppence); James Warwick (Tommy); George Baker (Whittington); Peter Barkworth (Mr Carter); Donald Houston (Boris); Honor Blackman (Rita Vandemeyer); Alec McCowen (Sir James Peel Edgerton)

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In the aftermath of WWI, young amateur sleuths Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley investigate the mysterious disappearance of a valuable document.

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A well-tailored espionage-adventure yarn which fitted the obvious requirements of the Sunday evening ITV audience and matched the pattern of previous LWT Christie models. First published in 1922, and one of the earliest Christie works to be filmed, with the 1928 German production Die Abenteuer GmbH, The Secret Adversary introduced two of her lesser-known sleuths, Tommy and Tuppence. They featured in only four books, and the author made them the heroes of her final mystery story, Postern of Fate, published in 1973.

Somewhat darker in tone and appearance than the previous LWT adaptations, and more atmospheric than the succeeding 10-episode series (Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime, 1983-84), the story scrambled merrily along through its mystery and suspicion-drenched atmosphere like its earnest young detective couple, involving half a dozen running engagements with the villains and a final unmasking of the elusive spy network mastermind.

Although the multifaceted, but fairly coherent plot - hinging on a missing treaty which, in the wrong hands, would mean the fall of the government and Red revolution - was largely formula, Pat Sandys' adaptation remains fairly lively and Tony Wharmby's direction often displayed imagination, particularly in the use of chiaroscuro effects.

As is usual of television's period-set Christie thrillers (this one is located in 1919), the story is seldom very plausible: coincidence reaches out with a long arm, and the developments and the solution have their vague aspects. Christie seems impatient with the intricacies of espionage, and her attitude to human nature appears, as usual, formidably pessimistic.

With the exception of the leading duo and the zestful American go-getter Hersheimmer, played by Gavan O'Herlihy in youthful Cary Grant mode, the characters are essentially subordinate to the action. The character drawing for this type of drama was fair, however: George Baker, as the shadowy Whittington, plays with rather jaded competence; Peter Barkworth's dry authority creates a convincing secret service chief; Honor Blackman, required to switch from professional hardness to sweet purity, makes the change none too convincingly; and Alec McCowen, immaculate and stiff, delivers a rather sombre performance as the duplicitous Sir James Peel Edgerton. Yet somehow, LWT, having found the Christie flavour, were in danger of losing the taste by treating their already fascinating blend to overdoses of unnecessary seriousness.

Tise Vahimagi

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Video Clips
1. The papers (2:15)
2. Speeding to the rescue (9:24)
Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1983-84)
Blackman, Honor (1925-)
Agatha Christie on Television