February 19th, 2012

life on mars

TV Watch: The Nine Tailors

LoveFilm is pretty random in its postings out; this weekend I got the 1974 television series of The Nine Tailors, starring Ian Carmichael. As they only send out one disc at a time I’m rather frustratingly stuck after the first two episodes. I would have seen this originally in black and white, as we were late adopters of colour television (snobs) and it was interesting to see other ways in which television drama has changed.

Dorothy L Sayers’ 1934 novel opens with Lord Peter and Bunter stranded in Fenchurch St Paul, Norfolk, when the car gets stuck in a snowdrift. After meeting the local ‘padre’, Peter volunteers to help ring in the New Year with ‘no less than fifteen thousand, eight hundred and forty Kent Treble Bob Majors’; nine hours of bell ringing. This is absolutely crucial to the plot but the reader can’t guess that yet. Following certain events which I won’t describe for fear of spoilers, Lord Peter hears about the theft years before of a wonderful set of emeralds, a loss which seems connected with present events. Throughout the book Dorothy L Sayers uses bell ringing lore to introduce chapters; the bells of Fenchurch St Paul come to have personalities of their own and you are never allowed to forget them. Her research into change ringing was meticulous. In spite of seemingly impossible riddles Lord Peter of course solves the case, which has an extraordinary conclusion. Some people think that The Nine Tailors is the best detective novel ever written. It must be one of the most ingenious.

The makers of the TV series decided on a different angle from the book’s. They have the story begin (looking just like Upstairs, Downstairs), with the original theft at the big house with Lord Peter as one of the guests. There follows a wartime interlude (not in the book) to explain the relationship between Lord Peter and Bunter. The trench effects are not even as good as those in the recent Downton Abbey and Lord Peter is shown later hobbling about but with no sign of the terrible ‘nerves’ which Bunter helped him overcome. Once Bunter is established as Lord Peter’s manservant, the scene at last moves to Norfolk and the mysterious crimes in the village. It is a very slow start indeed. The biggest problem though is Ian Carmichael in the leading role. It’s not his fault, just that once you’ve seen Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter, you’re spoiled for any other image. Ian Carmichael just looked too old, too fat, too silly ass. His interpretation lacked the hidden depths which Petherbridge managed to convey with a single glance. I also felt that too much of the plot was given away in the first episode but I still enjoyed it. I swear I saw Julian Fellowes’ name appear at the end but he must have been practically invisible because this series doesn’t even appear in his TV credits.

Coincidentally, this book is the March choice for The Cornflower Book Group. Jumping the gun, I’ll say straight away that it’s a brilliant book which I now want to read yet again and would recommend to anyone.