The production, in early 1972, of "Clouds of Witness" represented several years of hard work by actor Ian Carmichael, who had reportedly been lobbying for a chance to play Lord Peter Wimsey on television for five years. Finally, the BBC took the gamble on Carmichael and producer Richard Beynon and commissioned a five-part adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers' 1926 novel, which was transmitted with considerable success both in England and America.
Thereafter, Beynon kept up a working relationship with writer Anthony Steven and, as each production succeeded, the BBC would order another, without ever giving a broad order to adapt more than one novel at a time. This continued, with Bill Craig stepping in to pen the third serial, until 1975 with the transmission of "The Five Red Herrings."
"Herrings" was created amid internal problems at the BBC that meant only a few studio dates would be available, and Steven, some ways into an adaptation of Sayers' Strong Poison was forced at the last minute to switch gears as the producers fumbled for a script that could primarily be shot on location. With arguably only three location-intensive novels left to choose from, having already shot "Clouds of Witness" and "The Nine Tailors," the producers were forced to discard Have His Carcase and Busman's Honeymoon as these were continuity-based novels that would have to appear after a TV version of "Strong Poison," which would introduce the important recurring character of Harriet Vane, Lord Peter's future wife.
In the end, Beynon and Carmichael never got the chance to introduce Harriet as the BBC did not commission further TV stories beyond "Herrings." It's still a mystery why the series ended, although we can guess the usual culprits of ratings and cost may have been to blame.
The legacy of this series is an important one, though. A few years after it aired in America, WGBH in Boston felt its success was strong enough to warrant a separate series for British mystery adaptations like Rumpole of the Bailey and Cribb and devoted a separate spinoff compilation package, Mystery! for them to appear.
The 21 episodes of the 1970s Wimsey series have since been re-edited into a 20 episode package called Murder Most English which is available for PBS stations to purchase. (Despite what some Internet sites have reported, these were not produced under that title.)
Some notes on the faithfulness of the adaptations: This is television, after all, and even British television requires a little action to spice up the drama, particularly when much of the novels have material that is told in evidence after the fact, or relayed to the reader by way of, for example, a newspaper account of an inquest. The TV serials have a not unwelcome tendency to create scenes actually at these instances, so that we viewers can watch them unfold. While on one hand, these can be welcome additions (see Victor Dean's death in "Murder Must Advertise," which gives us the facts we need in just a few short minutes), they can be taken to rather annoying extremes. In "The Nine Tailors," a fair chunk of the first episode takes place at the time of the theft of the Wilberham emeralds (many years before the events of the adventure), before then showing us how Lord Peter and Bunter met in the war. On the whole, Bill Craig's adaptation of Murder Must Advertise is by far the most faithful of the five, but even at his most excessive, Anthony Steven does retain large quantities of the dialogue from the original texts, and his additional scenes are well-written enough that we could believe Sayers wrote the interplay in them as well.
Some notes on the actors: They are too old! Wimsey should have been played by a man at least 10 or 15 years younger than Ian Carmichael. Ditto Bunter. This is taken to ridiculous extremes in "The Nine Tailors," wherein Carmichael and Houston are at least 30 years older than the young versions of the characters they should be playing. Having said that, these are adaptations and not verbatim transliterations, so we can forgive these flaws since the acting is so very good. The directors manage to coax some fabulous performances from all the artistes, and in many cases, you might see better work from the actors present here as guest stars than they would give as main stars of their own shows later on (see Christopher Timothy or Paul Darrow in "Murder Must Advertise" for examples).
Some notes on the production: It's a very good thing that the BBC has the services of some brilliant directors and designers, because they distract, as much as possible, from the bottom-barrel budget afforded these productions. Perhaps the first thing viewers might notice is that interiors are videotaped and exteriors are filmed. You may have gotten used to this convention if you've watched Doctor Who or All Creatures Great and Small before, but the shift between the two is still jarring, intrusive and distracting. Some fool at the BBC decided years ago that videotape for drama was acceptable. It is not. It looks cheap and nasty and the corporation should stop it. The second thing that viewers may notice is the quite unbelievable lack of incidental music. Having these two major complaints against them, the productions still manage to be worthwhile because, not only are the stories and the acting very good, but the designers do a great job transforming studios into totally believable environs for the actors to work in.
Sources: Collins, Max Allen and John Javna: The Best of Crime & Detective TV. (New York: Harmony Books 1988)
Tibballs, Geoff: The Boxtree Encyclopedia of TV Detectives. (London: Boxtree 1992)
O'Flaherty, Terrence: Masterpiece Theatre. (San Francisco: KQED Books 1996)
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