Lord Peter Wimsey is novelist / translator / academic Dorothy Sayers' most well-known creation. As literary legacies go, that's not too bad. Subject of eleven novels, numerous short stories, and a stage play, Wimsey is the iconic posh English detective, using his affable and buffoonish upper class persona to disarm parlor maids and peers alike, worming his way to the truth with his underappreciated wit and insight. Detecting is just sort of a hobby, as he's independently wealthy, and thus he is immune to bribery, and is often happy to dispense karmic rather than strictly legal justice.
After much urging from actor Ian Carmichael, who plays the eponymous detective, the BBC finally got around to producing television adaptations of five of the novels in the early seventies. Along with his faithful gentleman's gentleman Bunter (played by Glyn Houston in four of the series, but by Derek Newark in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club for some reason), Wimsey sallies forth into the upper crusts of British society to foil jewel thieves, poisoners, and drug runners. And there's usually murder, or as good as, in the offing.
What sets Sayers apart from other mystery authors has always been her accomplished literary style. The tales she weaves are always pleasantly intricate (sometimes a bit too intricate, but I'll touch on that later), and have plenty of human foibles, betrayals, bloody murders, etc. to please the mystery fans. But she's interested in the fascinating characters as well, and not just as window dressing or a serving of oddity, but as real, relatable people. The BBC productions, surely to the great relief of her fans, do a fairly good job of hewing close to the original plots. Of course, it's inevitable that some things will have to be added, or cut, or combined together. Four or five hours aren't enough time to adequately convey a complex novel, and some things simply don't translate. But these productions are remarkably faithful to their source material, in both story and spirit.
The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries Complete Collection includes on six discs all five television adaptations that Ian Carmichael starred in. Edward Petherbridge also portrayed Wimsey for the BBC in the eighties, adapting different books. The visual quality is what one would expect from a British TV drama of the period. The look of the interior scenes (shot on television cameras) and exterior scenes (shot on more mobile film cameras) are quite distinct, and both have suffered over the years. Washed out color, film scratches and dirt, and a slight fuzzy indistinctness are all present. If you've seen episodes of Dr. Who or other BBC shows from the seventies, you'll know what to expect, and the low quality of the video doesn't really detract from the enjoyment of the story.
Below is a list of the shows, with brief descriptions included with the discs:
Clouds of Witness
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Murder Must Advertise
Five Red Herrings
The Nine Tailors
All of the shows are good, though some are better told than others. The Five Red Herrings particularly is incredibly complex, with at least a dozen speaking roles, and as the title implies, six suspects, five of which didn't do the deed. A lot of the mystery relies on railway timetables and who could have caught which train when, and it's a bit much to take in. The book shared this complexity, but it's easier to get through when one can pause and read back through to figure out what's going on. At the other extreme, The Nine Tailors is definitely the standout piece, with an intriguing series of puzzles, colorful characters (but not too many of them), and Wimsey on his finest form. Once again, none of the shows are really less than delightful, but some are more fully satisfying than others.
The British have a special flair for mystery stories, and Sayers has that flair to an even finer degree. By sticking close to her original intent, portraying Peter Wimsey as she wrote him, the BBC has provided a great service to mystery fans around the world, and managed to give us seventeen hours or so of ripping murder yarns. Highly recommended.