Lord Peter Wimsey, an invention of Dorothy Sayers, is one of the more memorable detective characters of the 20th century. He’s a classic English gentleman detective, enjoying his inherited good life and assisting the police in murder cases, which he solves through a combination of intuition and cerebration. Wimsey’s world, of posh city clubs and grand country houses, is a pleasant place to escape to for a few hours, without any need to worry too much about whether it bears more than a passing resemblance to any historical reality.
Ian Carmichael created a memorable Wimsey in a series of five BBC mini-series in the ‘70s, despite being about 20 years too old for the part. Carmichael mastered the art of appearing perpetually surprised (his modern-day heir in that department is Robert Downey, Jr.), while being able to switch effortlessly into know-it-all Sherlock Holmes mode. There’s just a touch of Bertie Wooster, another role Carmichael played to great effect, in his portrayal of Wimsey, but he keeps it sufficiently under control so you never fear that Wimsey will descend to the level of being a silly ass.
Wimsey’s most important relationship is with his butler, Mervyn Bunter, who assists Wimsey in his work while also being the perfect gentleman’s gentleman. It seems a bit odd today that so able a person should be content, based on an accident of birth, to serve another of no greater intelligence or accomplishment, but these stories are absolutely products of their time (the first Wimsey novel was published in 1923). Within their world, the English class system is a fact of life, a hierarchy that functions smoothly by having a place for everyone, with everyone in his or her place. Working within these boundaries, Glyn Houston creates the definitive Bunter in the “The Nine Tailors”, “Clouds of Witness”, and “Five Red Herrings”, while Derek Newark is adequate, but less memorable, in “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club” (Bunter does not appear in “Murder Must Advertise”).
The five Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries are substantial mini-series, consisting of four 52-minute episodes each, with “Clouds of Witness” weighing in at five episodes. The good news is that they never seem rushed, while the bad news is that they sometimes feel a bit slow. The two liveliest are “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club” and “Murder Must Advertise”. The title of the former, in a case of classic British understatement, refers to the death of an aged club member who passed away in his favorite chair before the fire, and wasn’t discovered for some time—as the old joke goes, how could they tell? However, it becomes critical to establish the time of his death, because his sister died the same day, at home, and the terms of a will rest on the order of their deaths. John Quentin steals the show as George Fentiman, a shell-shocked World War I veteran.
In “Murder Must Advertise” Wimsley goes undercover to work in an advertising firm, passing himself off as just another bright young thing. Carmichael’s age-inappropriateness is most obvious here—he must be the oldest junior copywriter in the history of the world, and when holding the slingshot (or “catapault” in the script) that plays a key role in this story, he looks like an old perv who’d probably like to dress up in knickers and have his behind paddled. Other than that objection, “Murder Must Advertise” is great fun, informed by Sayers’s years of experience in the advertising trade (she developed the Guinness “zoo” ads and the Colman’s “Mustard Club” promotions).
Bells figure prominently in “The Nine Tailors”—the title refers to the nine peals rung to announce that a man has died, and change ringing also plays a key role in the story’s central mystery. The bells theme also supplies a plum role for Donald Eccles as a vicar who is really, really into change ringing. “The Nine Tailors” also provides the backstory for Wimsey and Bunter’s relationship, which dates back to their mutual service in World War I.
In “The Five Red Herrings”, Wimsey takes on the case of an unpopular painter who is found dead at the base of a cliff. There are six suspects, all painters, but, as the title suggests, five are red herrings. The story is set in Galloway, Scotland, and makes the most of the potential for local color, but feels the slowest of all the series on these disks. “Clouds of Witness” also feels slow, with Wimsey investigating the murder of his sister’s caddish fiancé, for which his brother is the chief suspect.
The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries were originally broadcast between 1972 and 1975, and the picture quality is about what you would expect—frequently soft and sometimes washed out, although the indoor scenes have generally have lasted better than those shot outdoors.
The extras package includes a 2000 interview with Ian Carmichael (about 30 min. total, split into four segments), in which he discusses his work in musical revues and comedies and shares his thoughts on Sayers’ novels and the Wimsey character (he says Wimsey was the “ideal man” for himself as well as for Sayers). There are also text biographies of Ian Carmichael and Dorothy Sayers, and text production notes in the form of a Q & A between Acorn and Ian Carmichael; among other points of interest, these notes explain the logic behind the order in which the mini-series were filmed, and how Carmichael came to play Wimsey despite being somewhat too experienced, shall we say, to match the character’s age in Sayers’ novels.