Sunday, April 4, 2010

DVD review: The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries

The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries were first brought to the airwaves by the BBC in the early 1970s, and Set One, recently released on DVD by Acorn Media, includes two feature length mysteries based on the novels by Dorothy L. Sayers. Set in the 1920s, these two episodes follow the dapper Lord Peter Wimsey and his loyal butler Bunter as they root out answers to dastardly deeds in their profoundly British manners.

The first Mystery, “Clouds of Witness,” takes place on Lord Peter’s brother’s country estate where the group is gathered for a shooting party. When Lord Peter’s future brother-in-law is found dead, Lord Peter’s older brother Gerald is accused of his murder. At the inquest, however, many inconsistencies in nearly everyone’s stories come out – plus Lord Peter’s sister’s dead fiancĂ© is revealed to have been a card cheat and thus a man who has many enemies. Lord Peter, along with Bunter and Scotland Yard’s Charles Parker follow the leads from the countryside to Paris and even to America, trying to clear Lord Gerald’s name. Many red herrings later, the truth comes out.

In the second Mystery, which I enjoyed quite a lot, “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club,” confusion arises as to who will inherit a fortune when both General Fenteman and his elderly sister die within hours of each other. Lord Peter’s allegiances are called into question when one of the suspects is a war buddy of his, poor shell-shocked George Fenteman, the deceased general’s grandson.

Although hugely popular when it first aired in the 1970s, this series seems dated now. The sets seem cheap and the action is staged like a play, along with outsized stage acting from the supporting players. These are very talky movies, as though the person in charge of adapting the screenplay was loathe to cut any of Dorothy Sayers’s prose. The costumes, however, are quite fabulous and the British manners of the day impeccable.

I found the acting a little uneven between the two Mysteries. In “Clouds of Witness,” there was a distance to the large cast of characters that made it difficult to sympathize with any of them. In addition, Ian Carmichael played Lord Peter extremely fey, making him more of a dilettante and a caricature, and difficult to believe as a ladies’ man, as some characters professed him to be. Carmichael was more subdued in “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club,” portraying Wimsey as a highly intelligent and empathetic bon vivant which I think is closer to Sayers’s writing.

The DVD extras are slim: an interview with Ian Carmichael, looking back at The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries twenty-five years or so later; production notes; and a biography of Dorothy L. Sayers.

Fans of classic British mysteries will very much enjoy these DVDs of The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries , which by their popularity in the 1970s inspired PBS’s series Mystery!. It takes a little time to get used to the production values of the show but once you do, Lord Peter Wimsey makes for pretty good company.

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