Lord Peter Wimsey -- Clouds of Witness (BBC, 1972; Acorn Media, 2000)
Lord Peter Wimsey -- Five Red Herrings (BBC, 1974; Acorn Media, 2000)
Lord Peter Wimsey -- Murder Must Advertise (BBC, 1973; Acorn Media, 2000)
Lord Peter Wimsey -- The Nine Tailors (BBC, 1974; Acorn Media, 2000)

I first encountered this series on American public television some twenty years ago when it was being rebroadcast. I hadn't at that time read the source material in the form of the Dorothy Sayers novels and short stories. She wrote of Lord Peter Death Breadon Wimsey, his eccentric family, Bunter who was his Gentleman's Gentleman, and other assorted characters who made up this world; I fell in love with this ever-so-slightly comical slice of an English society that is no more and might never really have been...

Lord Peter is the central character in a series of detective novels and short stories by Dorothy L. Sayers that I mentioned just now. He solves mysteries -- most usually murder mysteries, but mysteries in which murder simply for the sake of murder is not usually the prime reason; for example, a drug syndicate and its use of an advertising firm are the reason for the murders in Murder Must Advertise. The tales all take place in the time period during which Sayers wrote them, which was from the 1920s until 1940s.

Lord Peter's 'fictional' life starts in 1890 as was noted in Murder Must Advertise. His elder brother Gerald inherited the title of The Duke of Denver from their father, and their sister Lady Mary marries Peter's friend, police detective Charles Parker, after they meet when her former fiancé is murdered (Clouds of Witness). Lord Peter was educated at Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford, where he received a 'double first' in history. He served in World War I and got a bad case of shell shock from a trench collapsing on him, which causes him occasional problems throughout the books, including Clouds of Witness. He has a manservant, Bunter, whom he met when he served with him in the war, and who dug him out from what would have been his muddy grave. Bunter is a man of at least as many talents as Lord Peter: photography and painting are two of them. If Wimsey has hobbies beyond being a very good detective, the only ones we know of from this series are fishing -- salmon fishing in the Scottish Highlands to be precise -- and playing classical music rather well...Wimsey likes fine cigars, good drink, and living very well. Certainly other pulp detectives such as Lamont Cranston (The Shadow) fit this mold too.

Some months before getting these DVDs sent to us from Acorn Media for review, I spend a few evenings reading The Nine Tailors novel. (The title of this novel refers to a sequence of church bells rung when anyone in the village of Fenchurch-St.Paul has passed on.) Our tale begins with Wimsey who is staying at a country estate when a daring jewel theft is pulled off in the middle of the night at the estate. Our Lord Peter brings the thieves to justice, but the item stolen is never recovered. Twenty years later (apparently after WW I) on a cold New Year's Eve, Wimsey and Bunter (played to absolute perfection by Gwyn Houston, as is Wimsey by Ian Carmichael) find themselves back in the same village when their touring car goes off the road in a blizzard, and where an outbreak of Spanish influenza has laid many of the villagers deathly ill or dying. They stay for the night with the local minister, and Wimsey rather delightfully allows himself to be pressed into an all-night (!) bell-ringing session planned to ring in the New Year, substituting for one of the ailing change-ringers. Later, when a mutilated corpse is found in the nearby cemetery, Wimsey turns sleuth when it come to light that the murder may well have something to do with the jewels that were stolen two decades earlier.

The book at 280 pages was a quick read. And the question is 'did the series render the book accurately'? Quite so indeed! Both the characters in the book, from the major ones (Wimsey, Bunter, and so forth) to the villagers ring true. The bad part is acknowledged on the Acorn Media Web site: 'Like many BBC productions of the 1970s (a habit which continues today), the majority parts of the story that take place indoors (which constitutes the bulk of the series) are videotaped, while the exteriors (and some of the location interiors) are on much lower quality film. This presents some problems in terms of picture quality for a DVD: the videotaped portions, which again are the majority of the program, are absolutely wonderful: the black level is perfect, shadow detail and contrast are excellent, and the color saturation is deep and very natural. Flesh tones are perfectly natural and very consistent. But the film portions are much lower quality: they are very grainy, the black level tends toward dark gray, and colors are more muted. The contrast between the two formats are a bit disconcerting given the advanced clarity of the DVD, however one must keep in mind that this is a problem with the original materials rather than the transfer.' Indeed the indoor scenes are so good that you'd swear they were filmed yesterday on high grade digital film; the outdoor bits are sometimes worse than simply awful.

Oddly enough, sound quality is excellent on all the scenes here -- that wasn't effected by the different series media. Dialog is crisp, Peter's music playing is fine, and the rain really sounds like rain falling. (It rains a lot in these series. More than one would hope it rains in these fair isles! Five Red Herrings, which is set in the Scottish Highlands, is a particularly wet affair, but The Nine Tailors also does a fine job of being quite sodden. Really sodden.)

Film quality aside, what you get here is hours upon hours of great entertainment. I won't go into any detail on the individual series as that spoils the fun of them. I will says that the series which have Wimsey and Bunter in them worked better for me than those that did not. What you must do is watch them in order as Dorothy Sayers does advance the lives of Lord Peter and the other characters as the series advances!

One note of caution. Do not pay any attention at all to the indexing! It's simply all wrong. The numbering that appears on your DVD refers to the individual hour (more or less) segment of each series. Unlike the Midsomer Murders DVDs which I recently reviewed and in which the indexing is perfect, these are not. Just ignore them -- you don't really need to know what each scene is called! Do watch the interview with a much older Ian Carmichael, but other than that, in the vernacular of Lord Peter, there ain't much else here. That may well reflect the age of the source material, but I have my doubts.

Not that the lack of 'extra features' matters at all as you'll love all of these stories which are well-worth seeing -- over and over again!

 

[Cat Eldridge]