While I’m out of town for Thanksgiving, I thought I’d post my comments on various television adaptations of Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels. It’s as good a way as any to occupy myself while I wait for release day for The Moonlight Mistress!
Those novels are a major part of my fictional consciousness. I read them for the first time in the early 1980s, then again in the late 1980s with a much deeper appreciation. I still re-read them, particularly certain ones, every few years, just as I re-read Jane Austen’s works and C.S. Forester’s Hornblower books (and as I expect to do with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books, once I’ve run out of new ones).
I have a collection of the Sayers adaptations on DVD, and periodically go back and watch, even though in all cases I prefer the books. What’s relevant to my usual blog topics is I’ve learned some interesting lessons about different ways to present the same or similar material in a story depending on format, and different ways to think about narrative itself.
If you haven’t read these classic mysteries, there are some spoilers in these posts.
The Nine Tailors is the oddest of the adaptations starring Ian Carmichael as Peter, because it strays farthest from the text. There’s a lot of movement in the novel’s dialogue, mostly breaking up long speeches among several characters in a scene, in ways that I don’t think I’d notice were I less familiar with the books, or in some cases holding the book in my hand as I watch. There are also various small omissions and shifts to accomodate the medium and the budget. One event I really missed is Peter having to climb onto the roof of the church, but I could see how that would have been a challenge for the budget.
There’s one big difference between this adaptation and the others. The Nine Tailors adaptation has some completely original material. An important element of the novel is the theft of the Wilbraham emeralds during World War One, which here is dramatized, taking about 25% of the total length. Carmichael, though a bit too old to be convincing as a callow young Peter, nevertheless carries it off with changes in his manner and speech, and the judicious addition of a moustache. The viewer is then dragged to the trenches with Peter and Bunter; Peter’s traumatic experience is dramatized, as well as Bunter’s subsequent arrival to be Peter’s valet. At the same time, we see what happened to the villain Deacon, and how.
It’s scripted; none of this business is shown in the novels at all; yet I confess I liked it. Better than I liked the rest of this adaptation, which I found rather dry. (Yes, I know there’s a flood. Ahem.) The acting was all excellent, but for some reason, this particular adpatation didn’t grab me like some of the others. Maybe I was just in a mood when I watched it. Maybe it’s because I find large sections of the novel itself to be rather dull; by that point in the sequence, I want more of Harriet Vane and her glacial romance with Peter, and here I feel her lack acutely. Her absence in the novel is a presence, I think.
I did not feel the lack for all of the change-ringing neepery that fills the novel. It’s interesting enough, but definitely would not translate well to the screen.
Fans of Blake’s 7 will easily recognize the late David Jackson (Olag Gan) playing Jim Thody, the sailor brother of Will Thody. They may or may not spot Peter Tuddenham (voice of the computers Zen, Orac, and Slave) in Mr. Godfrey, who rings Batty Thomas; he’s using one of his innumberable accents, but traces of his future characters can be heard by the keen of ear.
I’m really glad I bought this DVD when I did; it’s difficult to find now.
Here’s a link to the book: The Nine Tailors