Monday, April 25, 2016

Lord Peter Wimsey: The Nine Tailors

The quaint English town of Fenchurch St. Paul hardly seems like the proper place for two connected crimes—involving the theft of an emerald necklace and a mutilated corpse—committed over a decade apart. But then, there are many surprises awaiting mystery fans in the BBC’s 1974 adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.

Sayers wrote eleven novels and several short stories between 1923 and 1939 featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, a well-to-do amateur detective, assisted in sleuthing by his butler Bunter. Peter Haddon played Wimsey in the now-obscure 1935 British film The Silent Passenger and Robert Montgomery was the aristocratic detective in 1940’s Haunted Honeymoon (which Sayers refused to see). Edward Petherbridge played a married Wimsey in three limited-run television series in the late 1980s. But the most famous of all Wimsey interpreters is Ian Carmichael, who starred in The Nine Tailors and four other BBC Wimsey mysteries that played stateside on Masterpiece Theater: Clouds of Witness (1972); The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1973); Murder Must Advertise (1973); and The Five Red Herrings (1975). Carmichael and Glyn Houston as Bunter made a terrific tandem in all five adaptations, but our favorite is The Nine Tailors.

Lord Peter and his valet Bunter.
The first of the four 50-minute episodes is an extended prologue set on the eve of World War I that finds Lord Peter subbing for his brother, the Duke of Denver, at the Thorpe family wedding in Fenchurch St. Paul. That night, an emerald necklace worth over 60,000 pounds is stolen from Mrs. Wilbraham, a wedding guest. The culprits, the Thorpe’s butler and a professional jewel theft, are captured quickly—but the necklace is never found. Learning that the insurance policy has lapsed, Mr. Thorpe reimburses Mrs. Wilbraham for the cost of the necklace, an honorable act that brings near-financial ruin on the family.

Over a decade later, Lord Peter and Bunter get stranded in the countryside when their automobile slides off an icy road while en route to a Wimsey family New Year’s gathering. The nearest town turns out to be Fenchurch St. Paul, whose residents are coping with an influenza outbreak. Lord Peter and Bunter spend the night at the home of the local vicar, who now lacks enough healthy men to set a new record by ringing the church bells for nine hours. Lord Peter professes some knowledge of bell ringing and steps in to assist.

When he and Bunter depart the following day, they learn that Mrs. Thorpe (the bride from the earlier wedding) has died from the flu. When her husband also dies a few months later, an unidentified man’s corpse is discovered in Mrs. Thorpe’s grave…the face has been mutilated and the hands removed. Needless to say, that brings Lord Peter back to Fenchurch St. Paul for his third and final visit.

A moody shot of Fenchurch St. Paul.
The unraveling of the multiple mysteries in The Nine Tailors keeps the series engrossing from start to finish. Some Sayers enthusiasts argue that one of the twists is revealed in the prologue. While that’s true, it doesn’t detract from the main questions: Where is the emerald necklace? Who killed the victim, why, and how? It’s the “how”—revealed in the final ten minutes of the series—that make The Nine Tailors both memorable and highly satisfying.

Carmichael sparkles as Lord Peter, capturing both his upper crust manner and his genuine concern for others. If there’s a quibble with The Nine Tailors, it’s that Glyn Houston, as Bunter, has less to do than in other adaptations in the series. On the bright side, the prologue includes a couple of rewarding scenes between Major Wimsey and Sergeant Bunter during the war. Plus, it also explains how Bunter came to work for Lord Peter.

The BBC and its rival networks produced some of their finest productions in the 1970s, to include Upstairs, Downstairs, The Pallisers, Poldark, and I, Claudius. All of these series exhibited first-rate production values and impeccable casts (including many London stage veterans). The Lord Peter Wimsey series is another fine representative of the BBC’s “Golden Era.” So, brew yourself a cup of stout tea (with sugar and milk), grab some biscuits (cookies for us Yanks), and cozy up for a classic Wimsey mystery. (By the way, the title has nothing to do with tailors!)

Grade: A+.

This review was originally published at the Classic Film & TV Cafe.


  1. 'Upstairs Downstairs' was a wonderful series, but it was an ITV production, not BBC :-)

    1. Thanks for the correction (which I fixed above).

  2. This is a very entertaining series, and, watching it, I ended up learning about bell-tolling too!

    1. Me, too. Pulling the ropes looks pretty exhausting. Don't I could do it these days!