Please welcome back Jeanne of the Bookblog of the Bristol Library on this final Monday of November….
Sidney Chambers, Ian Carmichael, and The Nine Tailors
I have been reading my way through the Sidney Chambers aka Grantchester books by James Runcie and was intrigued by a particular aspect of one of the stories. In it, Sidney is persuaded to take a bit part in a movie production of “The Nine Tailors” by Dorothy Sayers. Sidney is rather put off by having to do several stereotypical vicar things—shots of him riding his bike are described, for instance—but is soon sidetracked by a mystery. Which I can’t quite remember, because I was sidetracked by the idea of a filmed version of “The Nine Tailors.” (In case you aren’t familiar with the structure of the Chambers books, there are generally at least four novellas in each book with a mystery—not necessarily a murder—attached to each.) I had read the book years before and remembered it as being difficult for me because so much of the plot revolved around the formal ringing of the church bells (the “tailors”) and I got more than a bit lost. For what it’s worth, reviewers seem to think it’s one of the best of the series but Sidney and I were not convinced.
Curious, I checked the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) just to see what filmed versions existed and found only one listed: a four part series with Ian Carmichael as Wimsey. I had enjoyed that series and knew I owned at least one episode, but I was delighted to discover I actually owned the complete set. There must have been a good sale at some point. So I settled in to watch.
As I said, I really enjoyed the Ian Carmichael Wimsey series. Many have pointed out that Carmichael was actually too old to play Wimsey—he was in his 50s at the time—but I liked the way he talked piffle: he was very good at playing Wimsey as air-head aristocrat when needed, but always allowing the audience to see the sharp intelligence behind the pose. For me, that was one of Lord Peter’s best investigative techniques, just as it was Miss Marple’s: the ability to appear to be harmless and a bit air-headed so that suspects would let down their guard.
For those unfamiliar with the book or series, the plot revolves around the theft of a very valuable emerald necklace from a guest at the Thorpe family’s manor house near the village of Fenchurch St. Paul. The thieves are caught—one of them being the manor’s butler-- but the necklace is not recovered, and its loss drives the Thorpes into near bankruptcy as the family feels obligated to pay for the loss. Some twenty years later, Lord Peter and faithful valet Bunter end up at the village in time for a ringing of the bells just as Lady Thorpe dies of influenza. Not many months after, Lord Thorpe dies but in the process of digging his grave next to his late wife’s, a mutilated body is found to have been added to her grave. The news reaches Lord Peter, who believes there may be a connection between the body and the theft of the necklace.
The first thing I noticed was that the series must have been shot on tape instead of film. It has that faded, grainy quality one gets from tape. A good bit of the action took place in winter or early spring, which added to the drab look.
The other unfortunate choice was that the program opened with a young Lt. Wimsey headed off to war. This was accomplished by putting a mustache and a lot of makeup on Carmichael which to my eyes made him appear older than ever and was actually kind of confusing when later (20 years later, in story time) he looks much younger than he did at the beginning. Apparently, the idea was to show audiences how Bunter—Lord Peter’s batsman in the War—came to be his butler. This is absent in the book, by the way.
The plot is more than a bit convoluted in both book and movie. I had to watch parts of it twice to get some of the characters straight for reasons I can’t explain without spoilers, and I still do not grasp the finer (or coarser, for that matter) points of bell ringing which is essential to the plot. (For one thing, cracking a cipher depends on knowledge of bell ringing.) Still, I found it worth watching which was good, because it took a couple of viewings to get some of the plot points straight.
As for the story which inspired the original question, I concluded that the scenarios Runcie described came from reading the original story and not from the filmed version. There were also a couple of pointed comments from Sidney’s POV about the plot of the original novel. I gathered that Sidney—and I presume Runcie—are not fans.