Wimsey Vane TV adaptations: Notes on Viewing

Mrs. Selby hosted three viewing parties recently, one for each TV adaptation of the following Dorothy Sayers’ novels: Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night.


Set in the late 1920s through mid 30s, each stars Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic sleuth, and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane, the mystery writer.

Although, like other screen adaptations, they tend to leave out substance from the books and can’t fully capture the author’s energy, humor, and literary wit, there’s much to recommend them. Mainly the way the actors interpret their characters, the humanity they bring out, and the chemistry they enjoy between them. I really liked Petherbridge’s Wimsey and Walter’s Vane. And I was very fond of Richard Morant’s interpretation of Bunter (Peter Wimsey’s valet and assistant in criminal investigations).

Along with Mrs. Selby and me, there were three other regulars: Dora, Michiko, and Gilbert Frisch. However, Lewis came by for Strong Poison; Hank & Ivy watched Have His Carcase, because they’d heard about the code-cracking scene; and Howard popped in for Gaudy Night, mostly because of his interest in the Oxford scenes, his interest in Mrs. Selby’s red wine, and his need to procrastinate on an assignment due two days later.

So, that said – what were our impressions of each adaptation?

Strong Poison

  • At least three of us, including Mrs. Selby, felt that Edward Petherbridge has beautiful lips. And that he’s a beautiful actor generally, though not in an obvious ‘heartthrob’ sort of way. It’s how he moves, and talks, and expresses so much with his face and hands. Also, he’s good at little hapless comedic gestures.
  • Dora aspires to smoke a cigarette the way Harriet Walter does as Harriet Vane. And Dora doesn’t even smoke.
  • Harriet Walter is a wonderful Vane. A delicious, clever Vane struggling with dread at the thought that for sure she’ll be wrongly convicted of murder and will be hanged.

  • She wears lovely blouses. Michiko’s favorite was the one she’s wearing in her second conversation with Peter.
  • Peter is ridiculously overconfident and self-doubting and awkward all at once. Proposing to Harriet Vane in prison the first time they speak… not the smartest thing to do, but it’s entertaining.
  • When he tells her he can produce quite good testimonials about his love-making, he sounds like he’s offering her a test drive with the full expectation that she’ll want to purchase the vehicle for regular use.
  • One of the awesome things about this story is that there’s a typing bureau that’s a front for an all-female detective outfit, sponsored by Peter Wimsey, where the women infiltrate various offices as secretaries and typists to uncover financial fraud and other crimes. Miss Climpson and Miss Murchison are awesome. (Even Lewis thought so, because he didn’t make disparaging comments about them.) Though it must be said that Dora and Gilbert found the way they talk really funny.
  • General consensus that it would be fun to have butter tea cakes with Miss Climpson. And to be with her when her eraser gives an eccentric bounce.
  • Miss Climpson looks surprisingly sexy when she’s alone in her room preparing for the séance she’s going to deviously manipulate. (Lewis was staring, though I think he’d die before admitting he can feel attraction for a woman old enough to be his mother.)
  • Peter and Bunter in a semi-dark library… both of them in dressing gowns, and Bunter has made hot cocoa. Beautiful men.
  • Having Morant’s Bunter around would make life more smooth and sunny. I enjoy watching him inspect a toasted crumpet. And buy perfume for housemaids. And run chemical tests. And do pretty much anything.
  • A game of billiards in shirtsleeves = win!
  • Freddy Arbuthnot and his “chappies” are a treat. Love it when he’s “sleuthing like stink.”
  • Michiko’s favorite line was “You’re too clever by half!”
  • Gilbert’s was “I shall endeavor to insinuate myself to your lordship’s satisfaction.”
  • Peter piffling in Latin is a treat. (But none of us knows Latin, except Michiko. We’re uncultured swine.)
  • Petherbridge rocks a monocle. And Gilbert said, only half-jokingly I think, that he wants Peter’s dressing gowns. (And that he’d wear them while watching football, which kind of ruins the effect. You should really only wear them in a library, with your hair artfully tousled to fall across your forehead.)

  • From what I remember, I like the book version of Harriet’s friends more than the one here (and the way Peter interacts with them in the book is better). The book’s final scene is better too.
  • Elegant and melancholic piano-playing! With a photo of Harriet covering up some elegant blonde we don’t know about (Barbara?).
  • The way Peter stares at Harriet in the courtroom. (Lewis was going to make some smarmy remark about that, but Michiko and I talked over him immediately.)
  • This story has a quietly slimy villain. And some other asshole characters (looking at you, Ryland Vaughan.)
  • We got a kick out of Peter singing while wearing his “shiny eye-glass.” And from the way he says ‘girl’ as ‘gehl.’

Have His Carcase

  • Harriet Walter gives the most convincing portrayal of someone finding a corpse I’ve seen. She shows Harriet Vane as revolted, shaken, but then nerving herself to collect the evidence. A very impressive part of her performance.
  • ‘Ethel Waterman & Her Waterbabies’ is an awesome name for a band.
  • Bunter gets to look dangerous stalking someone through London and going detecting in pubs and on farms with a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. He really shines in this one.

  • Petherbridge makes comic art out of Peter going through a revolving door. Just one little moment, but memorable!
  • It resonated with Michiko, how Harriet Vane was steeling herself to tell Mrs. Weldon about what happened to Paul Alexis. Kind of resigning herself to what she knew would be Mrs. Weldon’s meltdown.
  • I like how (unlike in the book, I think) Harriet Vane has that final conversation with Mrs. Weldon, giving her the police’s final report. I think the adaptations are generally kinder to Vane (and Wimsey) than the books are. Makes them gentler in some ways, and in some ways, they let Vane shine more.
  • Another difference – Peter is more bouncy in the books. More elastic energy. And he and Harriet wear bathing suits in one scene in the book, while here they stay stubbornly clothed in full (admittedly it looks too cold to swim). Still, I like Petherbridge and Walter, and their interpretation of the characters, very much.
  • Harriet: *with a glance downwards* “At this moment, my fibers resemble coconut matting.” Peter: *glancing downwards* “With not even welcome written across them.”
  • We were generally impressed with how, during a mind-boggling murder investigation, Peter and Harriet manage to flirt a lot and have a heated fight which is pretty much a heart-breaking eruption of thwarted love and improperly channeled sexual tension.
  • Dora laughed at how easily they cracked the code (in the book it’s a longer and more developed process, but they shortened it here). Hank and Ivy still thought it was cool; they liked how Peter and Harriet got so stimulated by nerdy endeavors.
    Wimsey Vane TV code deciphering

  • Bunter can tell us more about the mysterious razor! By reading the name written clearly on the razor… You’ve got to give Bunter a more serious challenge than that, come on.
  • We laughed our ass off at the line, delivered in all apparent seriousness: “Hoofprints or not, this horse witnessed the murder.”
  • When Henry Weldon said “spot of domestic bliss,” Dora made gagging noises.
  • Salcombe Hardy is Gilbert’s and Mrs. Selby’s favorite minor character (Mrs. Selby said he reminded her of her first husband). Mine is Mrs. Lefranc. Hank and Ivy have a weak spot for Monsieur Antoine. Dora likes Henry Weldon, in the sense that she’d like to slap him. Michiko finds Old Pollock funny, and that gruff military guy who breeds spaniels and gives inferior razors to his gardener.
  • Lovely dancing, but too brief. Harriet in a wine-colored frock, tripping on Peter’s feet, before they smoothly glide… “infernal cheek…” then it gets too overwhelming for Harriet, and she pulls away. (“Why?” Michiko whispered, taking another sip of wine.)
  • Petherbridge delivers a heart-stopping moment of Peter’s pure wanting, just wanting Harriet, when she slides her chair closer to him.
  • Dora liked when Harriet took charge of Peter’s car.
  • I would like to sit next to Bunter at the cinema.
  • Bunter’s more human than in the books. I like that. (Not that book Bunter isn’t entertaining.)
  • Dora was envious of how Peter could just easily get in on a police investigation, with the police sharing all their evidence with him and letting him go do his detective work without interference.
  • Mr. Bright should just stop talking. (Except for Ivy, who’s pregnant, and Mrs. Selby, who had just taken some of her meds, we all poured more wine for ourselves during that monologue of his.)
  • Peter and Bunter take pleasure criticizing a dead man’s fashion sense, basically. (Ivy, Hank and Gilbert all thought that their own clothes made them good candidates for distastefully dressed corpse in a Wimsey mystery.)
  • Got a kick out of Peter using Bunter to show Harriet how the victim’s throat was cut. And Bunter realizing, before Peter, how this little demonstration has disturbed Harriet. But he can say nothing, merely melt off to get the car, while probably thinking to himself that his lordship has put his foot in it again. (Peter’s got a talent for that.)
  • Monsieur Antoine’s facial expression while tangoing… priceless.
  • Two people can be on a cold, windy cliff top in coats, hats and scarves and have some very charged moments.
  • Is there a pattern to when the monocle goes on and comes off? No consensus, but Michiko thought that when Peter is trying to speak truthfully of his feelings to Harriet, the monocle is likely to come off. And does he need it, Gilbert wondered, like with a corrective prescription? Doesn’t seem that way, Dora said; it’s a prop, and can make him look like a silly stuck-up ass if he needs it to, or maybe he really does think it looks good. It does look good on him, Mrs. Selby said. Hank and Ivy are considering cosplaying as Peter and Harriet, but Hank doesn’t think a monocle would look good on him, plus it looks uncomfortable to wear. (That was the longest monocle-based discussion I’ve ever listened to.)

Gaudy Night

  • Peter and Harriet, please never stop dancing. I even liked watching the flashback footage of the dancing.
  • Peter, please never stop smiling that goofy smile of pure ridiculous pleasure.
  • Bunter seems kind of tired of Peter’s moping/pining, at least in the first part. In the second part, he’s more supportive. Even the way he says “sangfroid” in the second part is better.
  • We all liked Bunter sharing the anecdote of how he met Peter during WWI.
  • Michiko will be horrified to know that I haven’t (yet) finished reading Gaudy Night. She’s a stickler for reading the book before watching the adaptation. (At least I’ve read Strong Poison and Have His Carcase.) Michiko said that the Gaudy Night is not only a tough book to adapt to screen, but the screenplay doesn’t do the book much justice.
  • Howard could identify with the need to make eyes at someone during a boring academic function.
  • Peter, you are the picture of playfulness and longing in your academic gown and monocle combo.

  • “I forwarded it to my future address, by way of the fireplace” – witty Oxford femme fatale.
  • Michiko had us pause so she could get her book copy of Gaudy Night and read us the scene in the punt where Harriet gets flushed and Peter breathes like he’s been running. There is also Donne, and more involved discussions about one’s vocation in life and crafting a marriage based on musical counterpoint, with voices that are interdependent & independent (a lovely analogy). (All right, Michiko, it isn’t as if I’m planning to skip the book.)
  • “If I once gave way to Peter I should burn up like straw!” (“There are worse ways to die, dear,” said Mrs. Selby.)

  • That little gliding leg thing Petherbridge has Peter do while escorting Harriet for some tangoing.
  • Lots of tensions and frictions. The interactions involving some of the minor characters made me itchy.
  • Suspense in dark libraries. And someone playing a deranged version of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ in a dark college chapel. (Howard said that if he ever snaps under academic pressure, he’ll play the same tune at his university’s chapel – will learn how to play it just for that purpose.)
  • Dark corridors! Dim stairways! (“Will someone finally get murdered?” Dora wondered, looking at Michiko, who said nothing. “Come on, tell us,” Gilbert said. Michiko remained unmoved.)
  • Dora made a large batch of scones for this viewing, and Howard ate at least six. Gilbert brought along Twinings Tea.

So that’s that. Mrs. Selby has the box set for future viewings, and there are parts I’d want to re-watch. And Mrs. Selby is always happy to find new people to watch the same things with.

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