Yet Another Journal

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» Friday, October 29, 2010
As His Wimsey Takes Him
I ordered Strong Poison, the first in a series of three 1985 Lord Peter Wimsey novel adaptations, from Netflix last week, watched it, and am now on the second, Have His Carcase. (I'd seen these when they were first broadcast, but wanted to see how they held up.)

My first encounter with Lord Peter Wimsey was in the 1970s, when Masterpiece Theatre showed "Murder Must Advertise" (previous Wimsey stories had been shown, but I hadn't seen them). I found the combination of advertising agency murder, Bright Young Things, and the appealing Lord Peter intoxicating. In short order I had raided my college textbook fund to buy all the paperbacks (they were only $1.25 back then). "Nine Tailors" followed on television and became my second favorite of the series. I eventually saw all five of the original stories, which starred Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter. Carmichael was a bit old to play Wimsey—he was 52 when the first one aired—who ranges from his 20s to his 30s in the five stories that were filmed (Clouds of Witness, Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors, and Five Red Herrings, but he fully captured (at least to me) the contradiction that was Peter Wimsey—aristocratic, clever (while acting the silly ass), devoted to his mother and later to Harriet Vane, with a puckish sense of humor and strong sense of justice.

Fifteen years later the BBC did three further adaptations of Lord Peter Wimsey stories, those featuring Peter's love Harriet Vane, a stubborn, indepedent "new woman" who is also a writer of mystery stories. For these stories, Edward Petherbridge was cast as Lord Peter Wimsey. While Petherbridge was also in his early 50s when he was cast in the role of a younger Wimsey, he also did look more like Dorothy Sayer's description of her investigative hero, with blond hair and a long face.

Since then there have been debates (many quite strident!) over who was the better Wimsey. Some people cite Petherbridge as being "younger" than Carmichael along with looking more like the description, although they were almost the same age when they filmed the stories. I've always leaned toward the Carmichael camp, as you might tell by my description above. While Petherbridge looked the part, he was a very Byronic Wimsey, all troubled looks and hollow eyes. Even when he is trading quips with Harriet, he is so very sober. One cannot imagine Petherbridge's dour Wimsey doing several of the things Wimsey does in the books: diving into a fountain dressed as a Harlequin, bantering with his delightful and unconventional mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, taking his young nephew on a treasure hunt in a rowboat, going to the Soviet Club with Marjorie Phelps, playing a mischievous prank with his young son Bredon in the very last Wimsey story ever written.

Perhaps in the future the BBC might try to do a new Wimsey series with someone closer to the proper age who blends the best physical attributes of Petherbridge and the mixed intensity and humor of Carmichael.

(Incidentally, Harriet Walter, who plays Harriet Vane, comes in for a great deal of criticism in the role. Complaints range from her voice being too high [???] to her haircut being terrible. I always imagined Harriet having darker hair, but I don't mind Walter so much in the role. I do notice she is involved in the new Law and Order: UK series as the police superior.)

The Petherbridge Wimsey stories also cast Peter's faithful manservant Mervyn Bunter as a young, handsome fellow. I'm so used to an older Bunter—Glyn Houston is quite charming as Bunter in three of the five Ian Carmichael stories—that the use of a younger man was a bit startling. However, Bunter always was a bit of a ladies' man, and the younger face certainly does work better with that image!

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