First Nighter: Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Light Up TV Screens

Say the names Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and just about any reader on the globe will instantly think of their creator, Agatha Christie. Say the names Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and the world-famous author isn't likely to come to mind quite so immediately. Yet, the couple are reputed to be the ones about whom Christie most enjoyed spinning her stories.

Stateside television viewers are just about to get some idea why when the Acorn TV series Partners in Crime bows tonight (September 3) and continues for the next five Thursdays (visit Acorn.TV). Anyone in the mood for extremely well plotted and well-produced thrillers ought to tune in with bated breath.

Starring as the so-called partners in crime are David "Little Britain" Walliams as the often clumsy, hard-luck businessman Tommy Beresford and Jessica "Call the Midwife" Raine as keenly observant and snoop-prone wife Tuppence. The humorously intrepid pair track down several slyly nefarious perpetrators in two three-part thrillers.

Although Christie's tales "The Secret Adversary" and "N or M?" are adapted, the producers -- Walliams is one -- have taken liberties. In both cases the stories written between 1922 and 1973 are now set in the 1950s of the Cold War. They involve elusive figures determined to take control of unsuspecting nations.

"The Secret Adversary," written and fiddled with by Zinnie Harris, begins with the disappearance of Jane Finn (Camilla Marie Beeput) just after she's encountered Tommy and Tuppence on a train from Paris, and Tommy had shown her a queen bee he's bringing home in hopes of getting his fledgling beekeeping enterprise going. Sniffing something suspicious about Jane's vanishing, Tuppence insists Tommy and she look into the problem, which they do with the help of scientist Albert Pemberton (Matthew Steer) and to the consternation of Tommy's disapproving uncle and spymaster. Major Anthony Carter (James Fleet).

Their detecting not only leads them into tangling with the likes of opera singer-turned-shady Rita Vandemeyer (Alice Krige) but while doing that, endangering the life of their schoolboy son George (Miles Roughley). Inevitably, they get themselves into chilling episode-ending cliffhangers.

Needless to say, cliffhangers feature suspense as well in "N or M?" which is adapted and significantly altered by Claire Wilson. This time, Tommy and Tuppence get wind from Uncle Carter that a spy, whose surname or identity begins with either N or M, is possibly in residence at a resort called The San Souci. The Beresfords seem ideal to him to do the under-cover sleuthing required. Among the potential conspirators is a local, Commander Haydock (Roy Marsden, looking and behaving nothing like Adam Dalgleish).

The convolutions Harris and Wilson conjure in their separate diversions earn a high hair-raising quotient, but perhaps even more irresistible are the Walliams and Raine performances -- performances built, needless to say, on how the characters are drawn.

Walliams is thoroughly appealing as a man who'd like to make a go of the honey biz but who hasn't the luck or the understanding of what it takes. He isn't even keen to read the beekeeper's handbook. What he doesn't want, made clear in his reiterated requests of Tuppence, is entering the detective business.

(In Christie's stories, the Beresfords have their agency. Only late in the two-part series -- and despite the gumption Tommy demonstrates at the challenges -- does he even allow the possibility of turning their amateur escapades into a profession.)

Raine is intrepid as Tuppence, who's worth much more than her name implies. No matter how many times Tommy insists she keep out of harm's way, she manages to put herself directly in its relentless path. (In this, she's not unlike Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles adventures.) The part of Tuppence calls for a light touch, and Raine's couldn't be lighter. Televiewers who miss her since she departed Call the Midwife will likely decide that, if she left that assignment for this one, all is forgiven.

Gratitude needs to be expressed to all the supporting players -- Fleet and Pemberton chief among them -- and to the extensive creative team, most especially cinematographer David Higgs. The director is Edward Hall, who usually confines himself to the stage but proves here that he's found another medium in which to shine.

(FYI: A previous Tommy and Tuppence series starred James Warwick and Francesca Annis and was first televised in 1983.)

Maybe the highest praise that can be given Partners in Crime is to demand more escapades in the at-this-point too limited series.