Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Television: THE NINE TAILORS (1974) starring Ian Carmichael and Glyn Houston


In my opinion, there's little doubt that Ian Carmichael was born to play society super-sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. (In this particular episode, Wimsey calls and without fanfare is put through to the Archbishop of Canterbury with whom he is on first name basis - now THAT'S society clout.) You know how we always talk about certain actors born to play certain roles? Well, this is one of those. Carmichael not only looks the part, he is supremely at ease within it.

THE NINE TAILORS (1974) based on Dorothy Sayer's book of the same name is considered by some to be the best of the Peter Wimsey books, though I'm not part of that 'some'. I did think, however, that the television adaptation (by the BBC and shown in this country on Masterpiece Theater once upon a time) was that rare instance when (despite changes) a mini-series worked better than the original book. Less chance to get buried in Sayer's church bell minutiae.

But first: An Explanation (more or less) of the book title (from Wikipedia):

In some parishes in England the centuries old tradition of announcing a death on a church bell is upheld. In a small village most people would be aware of who was ill, and so broadcasting the age and sex of the deceased would identify them. To this end the death was announced by 'telling' (i.e. single blows with the bell down) the sex and then striking off the years. Three blows meant a child, twice three a woman and thrice three a man. After a pause the years were counted out at approximately half-minute intervals. The word 'teller' in some dialects becomes 'tailor', hence the old saying 'Nine tailors maketh a man.'

The bell used in the novel for the announcement is the largest (tenor) bell which is dedicated to St. Paul.

The story begins on the eve of WWI in an English country manor where a wedding is being celebrated. One of the guests is young Lieutenant Peter Wimsey, a friend of the groom. Another guest is an elderly woman who stubbornly insists on wearing her famed emerald necklace and later - uh oh - hiding them in a fairly obvious place.

When the emeralds are stolen over night, the two miscreants are quickly captured (with Wimsey's help) and sent to prison where one of them, a man named Deacon, later escapes. But the jewels are never found.

Later, while in the trenches in France during a lull in the fighting, Wimsey and a man named Mervyn Bunter chat. Wimsey tells the fellow soldier and friend the story of the stolen emeralds and the resulting untimely death (from stress and angst) of the lord of the manor, Sir Henry Thorpe. Thorpe had forked over the full price of the stolen emeralds (60,000 pounds) in lieu of insurance to the old lady - he had felt that responsible for the theft under his roof. She had no moral compunction in accepting the offer though Sir Henry's fortune never quite recovered.

Bunter, by the way, will go on to save Wimsey's life when shortly after their talk, a bomb buries Wimsey under a mountain of debris. I vaguely remember that in the books, Wimsey has some sort of breakdown after this event but I could be wrong. The mini-series doesn't go into it.

Ian Carmichael and Glyn Houston - Wimsey and Bunter

Twenty years later, as luck would have it, Wimsey's car has a flat tire in the vicinity of the Thorpe Fenland estate and with Bunter now serving as Wimsey's 'man' (butler/valet) they encounter a mystery which seems linked to the long ago burglary and resulting unhappy events which also blighted the son and heir who has since passed away from illness.

When at Easter, the widow also dies, a dead body is found already occupying the grave next to her husband. It is the body of a man, face badly beaten and missing both hands.

THE NINE TAILORS was filmed very nicely for television in what looks like tape rather than regular film, this adds a certain flavor to the piece. Maybe it's that the show looks more like a play than a movie. But for whatever reason, it works for me. I loved the outdoors scenes in which rain is the natural ingredient. Apparently this corner of England is a rather soggy one and a lot of the action takes place under torrents of cold rain, so much so that my toes began to feel squishy in my slippers. There occurs too, near the end, a flood which forces an entire village to seek shelter in the local church. At that point, I felt a cup of tea to be in order since I rarely keep sherry in the house.

Donald Eccles, Ian Carmichael and Kenneth Thornett as Superintendent Blundell

The cast, as always when dealing with the Brits, is perfection. 


My favorite (besides Ian Carmichael as Wimsey and Glyn Houston as Bunter) is Donald Eccles as Theodore Venables, Rector of Fenchurch St. Paul's who adds just the perfect touch of eccentric fussiness to an obvious toughness of character. He is a little Peter Cushing-like, but a bit lighter in tone. In a word (well, a couple of words), he is wonderful in the part.


Also excellent is the craggy faced Neil McCarthy as the tragic Will Thoday. 

Adding its own grim verisimilitude is the bleak rain soaked English Fenland moodily photographed, adding just the perfect gloomy tone to an engrossing, atmospheric mystery that begins with a jewel robbery and results in murder, family unhappiness, bigamy, an impenetrable cipher, a long buried secret and a deadly flood. Occasionally accompanied by the sounds of pealing bells in a belfry.

Since this is Tuesday, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other Forgotten or Overlooked Films, Television and/or Audio/Visuals other bloggers are talking about today. We're a fun bunch.

23 comments:

  1. Hello Yvette:

    A sad, soggy tale!

    These old films, or television series, can be hugely entertaining and can, perhaps in this instance, be even better than the book upon which in all likelihood they are based.

    We are having a spate at the moment of watching old films on our i-pad which we are thoroughly enjoying curled up on the sofa when the light of the day goes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you're watching old movies, Jane and Lance, then you're having a great time. That much I know. :) I love old movies. Well, maybe you already knew that. Ha. You would love Peter Wimsey too.

      Delete
  2. My first reaction to seeing THE NINE TAILORS listed as a forgotten or overlooked film was shock as it is my favorite of the Wimsey TV adaptations. So, it certainly isn't overlooked or forgotten in my vicinity as I watch it yearly.

    I agree with your assessment about the cast--all seem to have been born into their respective roles, and my favorite is Donald Eccles who is just great as the Rector. His wife is also superb in her role as the CEO of the church.

    And, Ian Carmichael is my favorite of the two Wimseys and Bunter is perfect as butler, photographer, and commentator (rather sly at times).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, a lot of the films and tv I talk about aren't really REALLY forgotten, Fred. I sort of fudge the meme a bit. :) It's all about what I happen to be watching that week. I hadn't seen the Wimsey shows in ages (just recently began re-reading a Sayers book now and again - one's on order from the library as we speak) but suddenly decided I wanted to. Suddenly I was in a Wimsey mood.

      I love Donald Eccles and yes, the rector's wife is marvelous. A terrific show.

      Delete
    2. Hey Yvette - another big fan of the Ian Carmichael Wimsey adaptations here...great stuff! (The Edward Petherbridge series from the 80s is excellent too). The stagey quality you speak of was extremely common on Brit TV up until the 80s, a mix of videotaped interiors and (usually) 16mm filmed exteriors. The look bothers some people but, like you, I like it...it is intentionally like a play, and tends to focus the viewer more on all those amazing British character actors and witty scripts.

      Delete
    3. Exactly, Jeff, you hit the nail on the head. '...tends to focus the viewer more on all those amazing British character actors and witty scripts.' We're in agreement. :)

      Delete
  3. I do like this adaptation quite a lot - the studio interiors were all shot on tape while the exteriors were shot on 16mm film, which was standard for British TV up to the late 1980s. I do like Carmichael in it but must admit to preferring Edward Petherbridge's older and more romantic Peter in the follow-up series, A DOROTHY L SAYERS MYSTERY, with Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I tried watching one of the Edward Petherbridge episodes but just couldn't accept him as Wimsey. I must try again. Everyone else seems to like him in the part. I'll give it another try. PS I never NEVER liked the character of Harriet Vane no matter who plays her. She wasn't good enough for Wimsey.

      Delete
    2. You are SO hard to please Yvette!

      Delete
  4. I think I must read this series again. No chance on seeing the film now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If not Gram, you could always listen to the audio books too. Ian Carmichael does the narration on a bunch of 'em.

      Delete
  5. Fond memories of the Wimsey series here. So long ago, before the impact of Prime Suspect on the genre. Am going on a hunt for this one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's definitely worth looking for, Ron. I'm thinking of watching it yet again. :)

      Delete
  6. Yvette, I'd love to see this series as I enjoy watching those old British television dramas. For now, though, I'll have to settle for Dorothy Sayer's book. It doesn't help that I don't know any of the main actors.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, since they're so good it doesn't matter a bit that you don't know who they are - just watch when you can and be entertained. In the meantime, the books are there for the re-reading. :) I've brought home a couple from the library myself.

      Delete
  7. Yvette,

    I agree with you about Edward Petherbridge. I definitely prefer Ian and when I need a Wimsey fix, I always get the films with him as Wimsey, even though Petherbridge is closer physically to Sayers' description of Wimsey in her books.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I just thought Petherbridge was too odd. Even for Wimsey. :) But since we're in the minority, Fred. I might give him another look one of these days. In the meantime, I loved seeing CLOUDS OF WITNESS again as well as FIVE RED HERRINGS. I'm on a Wimsey role.

      Delete
  8. Indeed, I seem to be the only one of my coterie who prefers Iam Carmicahel to Edward Petherbridge. Nice to find some support here. Carmichael IS Wimsey. And he has Wimsey's good natured sense of humour, too. Petherbridge takes himself so damn seriously.

    Thanks for this posting. Like Fred, I watch these shows frequently, having all the Wimsey dvds of both stripes, plus all the Miss Marples (Joan Hickson, of course).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We are Joan Hickson fan-girls for sure, Susanna. Ha. But I think in this instance we're in the majority (NOT that it matters, of course). I love Ian Carmichael and on one of the dvds there's a very nice interview with him.

      Delete
  9. Yup--Ian Carmichael and Joan Hickson--of course.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We can be Joan Hickson/Ian Carmichael fan-girls and fan-boys. How's that? :)

      Delete

Your comment will appear after I take a look.