Lord Peter Wimsey – the Ian Carmichael years [TV (1972-75) and radio (1973-1983 & 2005)]

It must be nearly a quarter of a century ago that I read Dorothy L. Sayers’s crime novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. That is I read all of those available at our public library, and so I am not sure if I read all the Wimsey novels or just “most of them”. I also can’t really remember anything about the stories themselves.

When it comes to crime mysteries, this form of forgetfulness is a good thing, because this way you can “re-enjoy” them – whether by re-reading the book or by watching an adaptation.

 

And so, when I came across a used DVD a few months back which contained some of the BBC multi-parters starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter, I was able to enjoy them with only a minimum of spoilers floating around in my brain.

Despite their age, these BBC adaptations look and sound really good – period pieces simply age much better than other programming. The acting is also very strong throughout, down to the smallest role. I enjoyed these adaptations so much that I ordered 2nd-hand copies of those Ian Carmichael adaptations that were not included in my first purchase.

 

Ian Carmichael played Lord Peter Wimsey on TV in adaptations of five novels, and each of those adaptations took the form of a mini-series. Each of them consists of four parts (of approximately 45 minutes), with the exception of the first one (Clouds of Witness) which consists of five parts.

The resulting running time (3 hours for the four-parters) is a fortunate choice, because it gives the novels room to breathe: the adaptations do not have to cut down the novels beyond all recognition for lack of time.

 

[Although I should add that – since I cannot really remember the novels – I am not qualified to make any statements about how faithful these adaptations are to the source material.]

 

Since these BBC mini-series make sure to retain the same actors for recurring roles (with one exception), you could also think of them as one long TV-show with 5 short seasons. But since each mini-series adapts a different novel, they are five self-contained stories that can be enjoyed independently of each other.

 

The five novels that were adapted are Clouds of Witness (broadcast in 1972), The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and Murder Must Advertise (both broadcast in 1973), The Nine Tailors (1974), and Five Red Herrings (1975).

 

Those that know Sayers’s novels may notice that these are the 2nd, 4th, 8th, 9th, and 6th Lord Peter Wimsey novel respectively. There are a number of reasons why those novels were chosen, and in parts this was a rights issue.

 

 

 

 

I said that these adaptations look good despite their age. But it has to be said that, unsurprisingly, many of the sets look like TV, and not like Hollywood.

But the only really irritating element for me is the use that is made of the camera-frame. The characters and their actions often fill the frame to nearly 100%. Maybe the nature of the sets / sound-stages necessitated this; but I also have the feeling that – as these adaptations are relatively old and people had rather small TV screens back then – there was a deliberate choice to not “waste” any space on the characters’ environment as this would have made the characters and their faces awfully small on some viewers’ TV screens. The effect of all of this is that these adaptations have a certain look to them that is best described as “a stage play filmed for television”.

 

The acting is very strong. Mark Eden (who was also a core cast member in The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs) is a real asset as Inspector Parker. And Glyn Houston is very good as Lord Peter’s butler, Bunter – although I prefer the less “chummy” approach to the role that Derek Newark had who replaced Houston for one of the five stories.

Ian Carmichael’s acting as Lord Peter is outstanding. Never too foppish (unless Lord Peter chooses to play a role), never too distant. My only problem is that – reading the novels – I had always pictured Lord Peter differently. While he was charming and also was able to pretend to be a fool (Carmichael clearly has no problem with those two aspects), Lord Peter also had to be able to be the dark mysterious stranger that women would immediately fall for and he had to be able to suddenly appear really menacing at the drop of a pin. Carmichael is far too affable to be able to pull off the latter; and as for the former, I’d have difficulties buying into it: twenty years prior to this, I might have bought Carmichael as a “masculine” romantic lead, but not here, not in his early to mid fifties.

 

Talking of age: one of the adaptations requires scenes to be shot that are actually meant to have taken place twenty years earlier. And the make-up job the BBC attempted here with Carmichael does not work: you never believe it for a minute.

 

 

But, as I said, the acting is actually great and these five BBC adaptations are a very good way to enjoy Sayers’s stories if you do not want to read the novels themselves.

 

 

The five “Carmichael adaptations” are available on DVD (both Region 1 and Region 2), sometimes as single mini-series, sometimes as part of larger collections. Prices vary, but I think that most 2nd-hand offers that start at 4 to 5 Pounds per mini-series represent good value for money. By contrast, the later adaptations starring Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter are currently being sold at ludicrous prices.

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning almost concurrently with the TV shoots, between 1973 and 1983 (with one outlier in 2005), the BBC also turned all of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels into radio plays – also with Ian Carmichael in the title role (although all other roles have a cast different from the TV adaptations). The length of each of these adaptations varies, between 5 and 8 parts of 30 minutes duration. I listened to the 7-part adaptation of Unnatural Death recently, and like the TV adaptations it was a well produced play which had an agreeable pacing.

 

As I said, these radio adaptations cover all of the Wimsey novels. The following site lists them in more detail: http://www.saturday-night-theatre.co.uk/Radio_Detectives/gregorym101_bbcwimsey.html

Please note that the information on that site is very old and that Gaudy Night has since been adapted, with Ian Carmichael and Joanna David, in 2005.

 

All of these radio adaptations have been repeatedly broadcast on Radio4 or Radio4extra, so if you are interested in them you could try to keep an eye on the schedules. They have also been released on CD, I believe. Of course the BBC has made other radio dramatisations and reading of these works over the years, with other actors, so you need to check exactly what it is you have in front of you.

[The situation is complicated by the fact that Ian Carmichael also narrated many of those novels as audio books. So just as with M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin, which exists as radio dramatisations starring Penelope Keith as well as as audio books read by Penelope Keith, you may be at risk of mixing up audio books and dramatisations when trying to buy Ian Carmichael audio adaptations of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels.]

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