The massive continuity of ducks

I’ve just been rewatching the Lord Peter Wimsey adaptations made in the 1980s, which starred Harriet Walter and Edward Petherbridge.

ikkkmagesMy 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.

ppindexAnd 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.




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5 Responses to The massive continuity of ducks

  1. Sarah_Madison says:

    I confess, I have the LPW series on DVD but haven’t watched it since it aired. I love Gaudy Night, it is my all-time #1 favorite must-have-on-a-desert island book. I’m currently re-reading it now! Fascinating reading the behind-the-scenes stuff on this!

    I have great fears for the readers of the future. Stories like Gaudy Night are described by readers as ‘too slow’ and ‘too boring’ while the reader moves on to the reading equivalent of Dumb and Dumber instead. The 140 character limit on texting and tweeting is setting up a generation of people who can’t retain anything longer than that. I watch my friend’s children ‘watch’ TV while playing a game on the iPad while listening to music on their headphones and nothing holds their attention anymore. (God forbid you come along and turn off one of their devices, though!)

    The other day on Facebook, I read a thread where readers were complaining if a chapter lasted more than 4-5 pages. I recently posted a long fanfic story, and I’ve noticed far fewer hits on it than I would have gotten a few years ago. in part because my fandom is shrinking, but mostly because 10 K seems like an outrageously long story to many people these days, whereas I’m just getting warmed up by then! 😉

    It saddens me to think there are generations of people coming behind me that won’t enjoy the lovely character studies of Josephine Tey, or appreciate what an adult relationship looks like from Dorothy Sayers, or *get* the brilliant layered storytelling of someone like Laurie R. King–much less Dickens, or Austen, or Bronte. 😦

    All I can do myself is write what I enjoy reading, and hope someone else will like it, too. As I read one librarian say today, ‘be glad anyone is reading at all.’ Now THAT is a sobering thought, isn’t it?

    • That’s a *terrible* thought. 😦 Perhaps – and this is probably wild optimism talking – things will come full circle in time, a little like with vinyl and CDs. I couldn’t wait to transfer all my records to digital files once I found out it was possible, partly for convenience of playing them but mainly for reasons of space, and a teenage friend of a friend – of the generation that supposedly grew up with MP3 players – was almost salivating as he plundered my redundant record collection for his favourite bands.

      Reading the rest of your comment depresses me further. I’m fairly certain that, just as mainstream media doesn’t recognise the fact in their reporting that not every person lives their lives online, what we’re seeing is only one part of the picture, but the problem is that it appears to be more and more a social norm. And a little like with education: once the generation who’ve received the dumbed-down version become the educators, it’s a diminishing, vicious circle that incorporates the majority.

      Well, that’s cheery. I think I shall follow your example and re-read ‘Gaudy Night’ to cheer myself up.

      • Sarah_Madison says:

        Eeep! I didn’t mean to depress you–I confess, I get a little discouraged myself these days when I think about what people want to read now compared to stories from past generations. On the other hand,at least I’m seeing that kids *are* reading–and some of them even prefer that book in their hands. 🙂

        When I was that age I read and loved some books that didn’t hold up to the test of time as I got older, so maybe I’m just being pessimistic. I do think that e-readers allow me to skim far more easily than I used to do, and if a book doesn’t hold,my interest, I can tell because I start flicking the pages faster and faster.

        So don’t take my gloom and doom to heart. And DO pick up Gaudy Night and re-read it again! So worth it!

  2. I think I depressed myself, rather than your comment doing so. Apologies! One of the lovely things about e-readers is that when I’m on the bus or train these days, I see many more people reading than I used to. And perhaps some of them are discovering the joys of Lord Peter for the first time. 🙂

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