There's an old adage that says if you want to really understand someone, know where that person came from. And with this in mind, Acorn Media has made the wise decision to introduce Lord Peter Wimsey to audiences unfamiliar with the Dorothy L. Sayers novels in the newly released first set by plummeting us smack dab into the Wimsey family tree and waiting a delicious while until we finally meet the main man himself.
Opening like an Agatha Christie novel or Gosford Park by acquainting us with a group of well-to-do characters vacationing at a Yorkshire estate, the '70s BBC production teases us by making us assume that these characters will be our main protagonists. Obviously, all of our assumptions change when the fiance of Mary Wimsey is found killed and the sight of her brother Jerry hovering over the body is discovered by Mary herself and the leisurely, man-about-globe, Lord Peter returns to England to take up the role of amateur detective alongside his manservant and more or less assistant sleuth Bunter.
Eager to clear his brother's name and figure out why a man's sized ten footprint and a woman's diamond and emerald brooch were found near the crime scene, Wimsey and Bunter work independently and occasionally in tandem with Scotland Yard Detective Parker whom, unlike other officers, truly respects and encourages Wimsey's knack for weeding out what really happened from what's really confusing.
And despite the fact that the set's opening mystery takes place six years after the follow-up title which is set in 1922 and we find a different (and unfortunately not quite as good-humored) actor portraying Bunter in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Acorn's decision to open with such an overwhelming complicated yet hilariously entertaining mystery proves to be a most effective one.
While today I would equate his portrayal with James Gandolfini's in The Sopranos, Robbie Coltrane's in Cracker and David Suchet's in Poirot as examples of an actor being perfectly suited to not just the material but the character he's portraying, I can only imagine the delight that the peerless Ian Carmichael possessed and inspired in his utterly charming turn as our flamboyant, quick-witted, slang spewing, sharp-minded whimsical Wimsey.
Delivering the first title Clouds of Witness in the series one hour format spread across two discs in five installments, while I'm partial to that mystery because of the sheer amount of humor and subplots that keep us on our toes, clues that lead to the final resolution feel slightly obvious as it's easy to suspect just where Wimsey's logic goes wrong a full two episodes before he catches on.
This is in stark contrast to the slower paced yet confoundedly bizarre Bellona which will really make you flex your mental muscles as you and Wimsey try to make sense of an elderly brother and sister who die in separate locations on the exact same day. Is it foul play or a truer than fiction coincidence? Whatever the case, the clue to understanding the deaths may lie in deciphering exactly what time each individual perished two different wills reveal who of the man's sons and the sister's niece will inherit a sizable sum that may have been just enough for which to kill.
With the talented but ill-suited Derek Newark filling in for my favorite Bunter Glyn Houston (both of whom worked in various stages on Doctor Who), the humor in Bellona depends more on Wimsey's exchanges with Parker or in his own wry observations than in the more equal partnership we observed with Butner in the former title.
Featuring a timely tie-in to the effects of battle both physically and emotionally on soldiers as one of the suspects and/or would-be heirs is suffering from debilitating shell shock that's left him so unstable he continually loses employment and relies on his wife to be the breadwinner, overall, the surprises that are in store for the viewer in this one plot-wise are far harder to predict.
Of course, the reason for this could also be owed to the fact that Bellona runs just three parts rather than five, nonetheless, by giving us some very unusual suspects and dabbling in everything from poisonous potions to a man not wearing a poppy on armistice day, it proves to be a rather ingenious concoction.
Although as a whole, time has been unkind to this series which aired on Masterpiece Theatre and “inspired the spin-off Mystery!” since even on DVD and presented with Dolby Digital surround, it still has the look, audio, and feel of dated VHS, in the end, that takes very little of the enjoyment out of these cleverly, comically and criminally charming cases.
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