“I’ve definitely mellowed,” admits David Walliams, sipping green tea. “I remember, as a student, being furious about loads of things, but as you get older, you become a little more pragmatic. You’re not just railing against the world all the time.” He pauses. “Even people who see themselves as quite radical – if they got invited to Buckingham Palace, they’d be there like a shot. We like our connection with things we feel have always been there for us.”
There’s just the ghost of a snarky giggle to remind you of Walliams’s accelerated evolution from comedy iconoclast, through professional metrosexual, to paid-up member of the entertainment establishment (and yes, he has been to the Palace – last month, in fact, at the Queen’s Young Leaders Awards celebrating emerging business talent). At 43, he is sleek with success and grooming products. If he registers the Geiger-click of excited interest from a neighbouring table of young women at the Soho bar where we meet – with Jessica Raine, his co-star of BBC1’s new drama Agatha Christie: Partners in Crime – his manner is impeccably avuncular.
It’s fair to say that, in a list of “things we feel have always been there for us”, Agatha Christie is up there with HP Sauce and the National Trust. The six-part series, which marks the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth, adapts two of her “Tommy and Tuppence” stories and Walliams is both leading man and one of the executive producers. His involvement began early: “I was lucky enough to be in [2004 Miss Marple story] The Body in the Library. I thought I’d love to do something in this area again because I’m such a big fan of Christie’s writing… And Tommy and Tuppence had been quite neglected.” It’s true, this husband-and-wife detective team are among Christie’s lesser-known characters, but they are worthy TV successors to Poirot and Miss Marple. And there are even shades of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday in Walliams and Raine’s on-screen relationship.
Walliams was said to be disappointed when his 20-year comedy partnership with Matt Lucas came to an end, and he is delighted with his new double act. “I’m a collaborator,” he says, happily. “I don’t particularly like working on my own. I’m not a stand-up comedian, but I’ve worked with people who are great stand-ups, and you quickly realise that they’re extremely self-sufficient – they don’t really need you to be funny. It feels very special to have a husband and wife solving these mysteries together – I don’t think we’ve seen that on TV since Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers in Hart to Hart – and it’s nice working with someone you feel comfortable with. It feels right.”
Off set, the pair seem just as easy. Walliams radiates “that’s my girl” approval as Raine, who has criticised crime drama for an over-reliance on violence against women, explains what attracted her to the part of Tuppence: “She’s not a victim, or in any way put-upon. Tuppence is a heroine – I had in mind Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone – and she hasn’t had to overcome horrific sexual abuse to get there.
“It’s become a top priority for me to try only to accept parts where the woman is three-dimensional. It’s easy to talk about ‘strong female characters’, but it’s not about being strong, it’s about being real, and with Tuppence, it was about being someone who is confident, front-footed, nosey and witty. She’s a clever, resourceful woman who’s always pushing, and I found that really rubbed off on me. In my own life, I found I was more open to adventure.”
Might Partners in Crime be the Sunday-night antidote to the only-women-bleed school of detective drama? Christie’s crimes are famously cosy – Raine probably encountered more gore in Call the Midwife. “There’s an element of cosy, for sure,” says Raine, “but there’s also a lot of full-on action – I get to have a fist fight and throw another woman over a balcony, and it’s not cartoony stuff. We take the danger seriously.”
“I think there’s room for everything,” says Walliams, equably. “You can watch Silent Witness and Poirot and like them both, can’t you?