I’ve just been rewatching the Lord Peter Wimsey adaptations made in the 1980s, which starred Harriet Walter and Edward Petherbridge.
My overriding memory of them had been coloured by the last in the series, Gaudy Night, which I found terribly disappointing. Watching now, they were much, much better than I remembered them (except for the aforementioned Gaudy Night, more of which later), but the reason for my talking about them here – as well as to recommend them to anyone who hasn’t yet seen them – is because of the opening to the first episode.
After five minutes or so of action interspersed with the summing up of the judge in the courtroom, we move to almost fifteen minutes occupied solidly by the judge’s summing up, threaded through with a few brief, and mainly mute, flashback scenes. I can’t imagine anyone making those choices today. There would need to be action, and possibly a car chase or two, to grab the viewer.
And while it is true that back then there were far fewer channels from people to choose from, and the production team doubtless were aware they already had a captive audience among Dorothy L Sayers fans, I think the reasoning behind their choices goes deeper than that.
A friend mentioned to me yesterday how comparatively unpopular long works of fanfiction have become these days, due to the social media effect. And it ties into my thoughts when watching the beginning of Strong Poison and the fact that I can’t find a documentary anywhere these days that hasn’t been bloated far beyond its substantive content by some sort of gratuitous re-enactment of the event being described – either the people in charge of commissioning or those responsible for making these programmes are catering to some idea that everyone out there these days has the attention span of an average grasshopper. Actually, that may be entirely unfair. I have no idea how studious or otherwise grasshoppers might be. But something with a short attention span, anyway.
Lest I come across like a grumpy old woman wishing to return to the good old days, I admit to never having fewer than ten tabs open in Firefox at any one time and jumping between them far more frequently than I actually need to, and to having the iPad next to me on the sofa when I’m watching television. But the thing that most troubles me about the assumptions made by those responsible for making programmes etc these days is that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People do still have the capacity for concentration and focus, but if they’re not called upon to use it, if everything’s reduced to the lowest common denominator, then how do we get back? We’ll have generations who don’t know any differently.
Climbing down off my soapbox
before I break a hip to get back to the subject of Gaudy Night….
When I was trying to nail down which Oxford college some of the scenes had been filmed in (Corpus, for those who are interested), I stumbled across an interview conducted in 2008 with Edward Petherbridge which sheds fascinating light on the disaster that was the adaptation of this particular book. Allegedly, among other sins, the producer refused to film at Somerville, hence the completely anomalous setting of Corpus – ancient buildings housing women who had only just been permitted to attend the university.
But worst of all, worse than the chopping from four episodes to three and the violence which that visited upon the plot and characters, was this:
“Most importantly, as soon as I saw the script of the last episode I declared, in league with Harriet Walter, that it was un-actable and that we wouldn’t act it unless the proposal to Harriet Vane, and her acceptance, was not a perfunctory two line incident half way through it (imagine our horror) but, as in the book, the climactic final sequence.”
All I can say is thank goodness for Harriet and Edward’s commitment both to their characters and to Dorothy L Sayers’ vision.