We know her best from her role as Jenny Lee, in Call the Midwife – but Jessica Raine is about to burst onto our screens as go-getter Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Beresford, in a brand-new TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime.
“I’m thrilled to be playing her,” Jessica grins. “She’s really front-footed and quick-witted… all the things you want to be in real life.” As soon as the first script dropped into her lap Jessica knew Tuppence was her ideal role.
“She just ‘pinged’ out from the pages, the more I read. She’s really unusual because there’s no hint of sadness to her character; she’s a very happy, confident woman.”
As with many of Agatha Christie’s leading ladies, Tuppence is a strong female force to be reckoned with. The notion of this is not lost on Jessica, who is used to playing women in a post-war setting (this three-part adaptation of The Secret Adversary is set in 1952). She understands just how revolutionary her character is. “Tuppence is really modern for a Fifties woman. She’s a little frustrated that her life has plateaued and feels ‘there must be more to life than this’.
“I definitely had Diana Rigg’s gung-ho Avengers spirit in mind when I set to it. But the best thing about the part was playing a woman who isn’t in any way put upon, or a victim. That’s just what TV drama needs, I think.”
From the first episode of this new series it’s clear that Tuppence really is a heroine, intent upon action and unafraid to save the day. But her partnership with husband Tommy, who Jessica describes as “an anchor for Tuppence, allowing her to be flighty”, is what sets Partners in Crime apart from other Agatha Christie TV dramas.
Tommy is played by actor and Britain’s Got Talent judge David Walliams, whose idea it was to recreate Partners in Crime for this anniversary year: “I’ve been a fan of Agatha Christie ever since I saw Murder on The Orient Express as a child. I didn’t expect the twist and was rather haunted by it for a long time. I read more of her work and became hooked,” said David.
But David saw a glimmer of something special in Tuppence and Tommy. “The husband and wife detective duo really appealed to me. You still have Christie’s brilliant plot and adventures, yet there’s a human story, too. These characters aren’t geniuses like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot – they are ordinary.
“Christie only describes Tuppence and Tommy in a few lines, so we could interpret the characters in our own way and be inventive with this adaptation, though we’ve been careful not to turn it into a parody.”
Indeed David knows there is a time and a place for comedy. “I didn’t want to play Tommy like I was winking to the audience in serious situations. But of course I enjoyed the comic parts. I love the early scenes where viewers see Tommy and Tuppence at home and you get a feel for the relationship through their gentle bickering. “So there’s the mix of humour, great characters and great mysteries – perfect Sunday night television.”
David has huge admiration for the Queen of Crime. “Agatha Christie’s stories are always going to thrill people,” he says. “No other writer has come close to creating such an incredible body of work that is constantly surprising.”
There can be no greater accolade than a seal of approval from Agatha Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, who is sure his grandmother would have loved to see Tuppence and Tommy return. “The beauty of this series is you see my grandmother’s humour and vitality on screen. And we all know a Tommy, or a Tuppence,” he says.
Mathew is pleased that Jessica and David are young and able enough to continue playing their characters for years to come. “My grandmother always suggested that other writers avoid the trap she fell into, and invent characters that were the right age. Not like Miss Marple, for example, who would have been 106 by the last novel she appeared in. But this adaptation has it just right. I hope the BBC will make some more.”
Mathew sees a lot of Agatha in Tuppence, who is “very much like the grandmother I knew. I can’t help watching without a considerable sense of nostalgia, and affection for the person I loved and respected so much.”
He remembers how she would often jot down unusual names or snatched pieces of conversation, only for them to resurface later on in her work. “And it is clear that my grandmother was very fond of Tommy and Tuppence, who she created during her then-happy marriage to my grandfather, Archie,” says Mathew. “Occasionally, when she felt she needed a rest and to lose herself in something, she wrote another novel about them.”
Now, with a little help from Tommy and Tuppence, we can all lose ourselves in the magic of Agatha Christie once more.