Appellate Judge James A. Stewart ain't expecting period pieces about the Snoring Zeroes.
Our reviews of The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries: Complete Collection (published July 25th, 2013) and The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries: Set Two (published September 22nd, 2010) are also available.
"I wish to blazes that I'd stuck to books and never touched crime."—Lord Peter Wimsey
Even if Lord Peter Wimsey protests, TV mysteries seem to be a good career move for former Bertie Woosters. Ian Carmichael, who had portrayed P.G. Wodehouse's bumbler on British TV in the Sixties, took his light touch to crime in 1972's Clouds of Witness, a five-part series based on a novel by Dorothy L. Sayers. He followed up with four more serials about Lord Peter Wimsey, two of which are included in The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries: Set One. All of them aired on Masterpiece Theater in the United States.
Facts of the Case
Two mysteries are featured in this three-disc set:
• "Clouds of Witness"
• "The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club"
In an interview with this set, Ian Carmichael acknowledges that, at 51 when the series started, he was a little old for the role of the adventurous noble Lord Peter Wimsey, and "not as athletic as I should have been." That might not sit well with Sayers fans who haven't seen the series before, but Carmichael makes up for it with a light touch. He's got a good sense of humor, and he's game for chases which leave Peter winded and muddy. At the same time, his Peter is always hearty, chipper, and irreverent (a trait marked by his use of the word "ain't"), and always manages to subtly take charge of the situation. There's a hint of a dark past in the form of his barely mentioned World War I experience, but it doesn't seem to have had any lasting effect on Carmichael's Peter. The show isn't necessarily realistic, but in Carmichael's hands, it's a lot of fun. By the end of "Clouds of Witness," I realized that there really wasn't much of a mystery, but I didn't really care.
The writers seem faithful to the original plots, but don't seem to take the stories too seriously, as they play up some of the absurdies, whether it be Peter's habit of bribing information out of witnesses, his broad conclusions from a simple clue, or his encounter with wealthy Socialists in "Clouds of Witness."
Supporting characters aren't very important. Alert viewers might notice the change in actors playing the solicitor Mr. Murbles (John Wyse in "Clouds"; John Welsh in "Bellona") or Bunter (Glyn Houston in "Clouds"; Derek Newark in "Bellona"), but don't be too alarmed if you missed that, because the focus is on Carmichael. That allows for a tour-de-force in "Clouds of Witness," but probably blunts the impact of "Bellona Club," since a shellshocked vet and a dislikable artist who everybody somehow likes provide untapped possibilities for character studies.
The BBC production doesn't go overboard with spending, but does a better-than-average job of recreating the upper-crust milieu of Riddlesdale, the ancestral home of the Wimseys, and the Bellona Club, a world of flappers, billiards, piano dabblers, and hunting parties. Establishing shots are done with vintage photos for an arty touch.
The videotape hasn't held up well. Particularly in "Clouds of Witness," you'll find a lot of fading, along with the normal flecks and blemishes. Sound quality on both stories is adequate.
Acorn has included a 2000 interview with Ian Carmichael, in which the actor, who passed away in February 2010, looks almost as young and healthy as he did in 1972. There are also text bios of Carmichael and author Dorothy L. Sayers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there's a mystery trope I hate, it's got to be the noble murderer. You know, the one who does the honorable thing and commits suicide at the end to avoid messing up everybody else's lives further. Wouldn't the honorable thing have been to not commit murder in the first place? Bellona Club ends with that trope.
There's also the possibility that a modern audience, having seen too much deconstruction of detectives, could simply find Lord Peter Wimsey ridiculous. It's definitely a relic of an earlier, less cynical, age. They could also find it a bit slow; a contemporary adaption would probably cover these stories in a 90-minute TV movie.
Since there were only five mysteries in the series, Acorn might have been better advised to release them as one set. If you're a fan, you might want to hold off, in case it does so later.
Ian Carmichael may have been too old to be the perfect Lord Peter Wimsey, but he clearly enjoys the role and puts zest and humor into it. That makes The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries: Set One worth a look for fans of mysteries and the Roaring Twenties.
Not guilty. Makes you wish to blazes you could put down the books and solve a
murder or two.
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Studio: Acorn Media
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