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Not as Dorothy would have liked it.

by Edward Petherbridge.

We are very pleased to welcome Edward back, following his hugely popular interview with us (here) earlier this year.

In an exclusive extract from his forthcoming autobiography A Leaning Towards the Theatre he treats us to a glimpse behind-the-scenes of the filming of the BBC’s Dorothy L Sayers Mysteries and a rather surprising revelation about Peter Wimsey’s proposal to Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night.

Not as Dorothy would have liked it.

One has the firm impression that in TV drama these days the ‘men in suits’ (and of course the feminine equivalent) have an iron grip on quality control, and the scripts – by the time they are finalised – are sacrosanct.

This is the story of how Harriet Walter and I, in The Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries way back in 1986, kicked over the traces and altered the schedule in a way that might not happen now.

It is generally believed that Dorothy L. Sayers created her ideal man in Lord Peter Wimsey and that she was in love with him; not surprising then that for the denouement of Gaudy Night, where he proposes to Harriet Vane for the last and, he knows, crucial time Dorothy pulls out all the literary stops.

Retrospectively, I can understand our producer’s urge to brandish the secateurs and cool things a bit. They were used elsewhere too, but it was Gaudy Night that suffered the most at his hands, and he never tired of declaring that the first thing he did when taking on the three book project (which had already been developed to some degree by someone else – who, I never could discover), was to cut Gaudy Night from four episodes to three, though it is the longest of the three novels that were adapted and arguably the best and the most dense. In a ridiculous bid not to give the end away, the character of the culprit was crudely marginalised, the plot at once over simplified. It was the idea of being involved with a ladies’ college for several weeks that set our producer’s teeth on edge and he made sure we didn’t film at Somerville, but – anomalously – at Corpus Christi, one of the much older traditionally male colleges.

Achieving the “definitive” Wimsey was a bit of a struggle sometimes, amongst all the approximations and impurities that arise in adaptations – though one must pay tribute to so many felicitous production touches, those wonderful lady dons, a host of supporting character studies many of them excellent, innumerable studio set design triumphs, and my suits – “shoulders tailored to swooning point” – in Dorothy’s happy phrase.

I soon cast myself in the part of purist policeman, insisting that the TV audience, like the reader, should have all the clues. We managed in rehearsal to insist on the deciphering business in the last minutes of Have His Carcase. 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.

On our last day of all on location in Oxford we were due to finish our months as Harriet and Peter by shooting the proposal scene followed by the shots of the cars disappearing down the road to London with the two of them in the Lagonda, and Bunter following behind in Harriet’s Morris.

Our sympathetic but harried director was off on various quests to do with the last shots of the cars. Our producer was mysteriously absent, whilst Harriet Walter and I were in one of those curious lumber rooms that always manifest themselves on locations however elegant, on account of being repositories for anything and everything that must be got out of shot – in this case we were in a room just off the beautiful colonnade in which the proposal was to be acted.

In amongst a clutter of furniture and rolled up carpets, we conferred and pored over the novel’s immensely long build up to the actual proposal and its acceptance, both in Latin. We scribbled our necessarily pithy suggested dialogue – all of it in English – and then Michael Simpson would breeze in, cast doubts, leave counter suggestions and buzz off again as the clock ticked nearer to the moment that afternoon when we should have to commit whatever it was going to be to memory, rehearse it and get it into the can.

At last we had a scene. It was agreed and someone typed it. It had lost, of course, all Sayers’ marvellously photogenic stuff on the roof of the Radcliffe Camera (too expensive I suppose) – the winking traffic lights, the agonisingly romantic stretching of the dénouement which I’d loved on first reading, but afterwards found impossible, emotionally and philosophically convoluted, and as exotic and indulgent as an over-planted hothouse.

We were torn – I don’t think we’d got everything in we wanted to and when it came to it – the walk down the colonnade – the length of it dictated the pace and everything about the scene. I think using the colonnade was Simpson’s idea. We had a lot of flying hours by then, a certain amount of clout so to speak, but it was a delicate matter… The scene was about walking on eggs … culminating in the golden egg.

It was the end of a happy collaboration; the early mornings in muddy car parks on location near Lulworth Cove for Have His Carcase, when Harriet was always a witty and cheerful companion as we drank our mobile canteen coffee from polystyrene cups and talked about the latest international news, life and art. For our badinage between shots we were dressed in thermal underwear beneath our summer clothes to combat the off season chill – how else, except off season, to achieve the necessary 1930s idyllic desertion in the beach scenes? We would wait for 20 minutes for a minute of sun in which to do the take – and of course it all looks splendid, like a 1930s travel poster with the innocent fleecy clouds.

But imagine if we’d played, half way through the last episode of Gaudy Night, mid way through a bit of sleuthing:

Peter: By the way Harriet, will you marry me?

Harriet: As a matter of fact, I think I will.

Over our dead bodies!


Edward, who is currently filming in Germany,  sent us this specially-written ‘plangent ditty’ (his own splendid term – ‘plangent’ is not a word that’s used nearly enough these days) with sketches, to accompany the extract …


Edward Petherbridge
Two Self Portraits


Connections with Lord Peter Wimsey
Are shadowy here – rather flimsy

Youth:  pen and wash, and some scribble.
Age:  careful charcoal. Now quibble ~

You may ~ likeness shifts,
Isn’t fixed, we all know, but it drifts.

Though yonder, in some far beyond
A noble sleuth may still be blond

Admiring a wine coloured dress
Yearning for Harriet’s ‘Yes’

So poised and astute – debonair ~
I know he still is:  I was there.


Euskirchen, Germany.  18th – 19th September ’08.

© Edward Petherbridge. 2008.


So Much for Buckingham … A Poem by Edward, written on the occasion of his memorable attendance at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party, when rain stopped play …

25 comments on “Not as Dorothy would have liked it.

  1. IvoD
    September 23, 2008

    That was really excellent. What a fascinating insight. I don’t think you could get away with that today. My late wife and I really enjoyed your Peter Wimsey, sir. Thank you for renewing a special memory.

  2. Christy
    September 23, 2008

    A delightful post and even more delightful poem and sketches. I have loved Edward Petherbridge’s Wimsey.

  3. Christine
    September 23, 2008

    I got quite a kick out of this. I love the Golden Age of Mystery and the Wimsey/Vane novels in particular. Gaudy Night is about as good as it gets, so it was disturbing (when I finally saw the BBC versions) to see two wonderful actors working with a script that made such a hash of the novel! Now we know that the actors thought it was a mess too. Is there any insight as to what happened to St. George and/or the chessmen? How about Harriet’s young admirer (some line about a large alsacian named “Caesar” sticks in my mind)? It was so sad to see the best of the books turn into the worst of the productions. Although the clothes were wonderful.

  4. rabidsamfan
    September 23, 2008

    Oh, at last, an explanation for why “Gaudy Night” is the one film I can never quite bear re-watching. *glares at silly producer* It was a marvelous book, and the adaptation left such a bad taste in my mouth I was glad that “Busman’s Honeymoon” didn’t get made. (Even though I really loved the other two films.)

  5. Joy
    September 24, 2008

    Dear Mr. Petherbridge,

    I am extremely grateful to the publishers of this blog for giving me the opportunity to say thank you for introducing me to world of Dorothy L. Sayers. I first saw the Lord Peter Wimsey series on the PBS/BBC Mystery – when it was still hosted by Vincent Price.

    As a matter of fact, I still remember Vincent Price closing out “Gaudy Night” with a bit of obscure trivia – that there had once be a Wimsey/Vane musical proposed, to star Elton John and Olivia Newton John. Thank heavens that never happened!!

    My father and I have taken much delight over the past ten years or so, discussing the changes that were made and the possible explanations. To this day we still talk about how wonderful it would have been to see you and Harriet Walter and Richard Morant make the complete series.

    I apologize if my note seems a little rambling and ill written, but I wanted to say again – thank you. Thank you to you, and to Ms. Walter for introducing me to a literary masterpiece. Truly – I cannot thank you enough.

    With my very best wishes,

    San Francisco, California

  6. HJWeiss
    September 25, 2008

    I remember this program from way back, and wishing it could have been longer. Nice piece and interesting insights. The second sketch looks like Mr Petherbridge was in character in something?

  7. Moira
    September 25, 2008

    Hello again, HJW (I hope you don’t mind the informality of the initials …).

    Edward tells me that he did the second sketch from the reflection in his dressing room mirror in the lengthy wait between scenes during “The Woman in White”. He was in costume as Mr Fairley.

  8. Petherbridge
    September 26, 2008

    EDWARD PETHERBRIDGE: St George and the chess men? Lost in translation to video tape at the scripting stage in the interests of brevity – and isn’t there a wonderful scene in an Oxford antique shop where Peter tries out a spinet or harpsichord and sings to Harriet? That was an opportunity missed.

    I am more positive about the series when I am not talking about Gaudy Night!
    I DID DO the original Sayers/Byrne play of Busman’s Honeymoon with my wife Emily Richard as Harriet – a sell out season at The Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. 87 or so. The play demonstrates that to write a really good novel does not qualify you to write a good play, although the piece has a delightful flawed charm.

    I got invited to a reception at 10 Downing Street (Norma Major is a Sayers fan) partly on the strength of the Major’s visit to see the play: and talking of The Woman in White, Norma Major came round to Michael Ball’s dressing room one night after the show, and I, who dressed next door, was invited in to meet her amongst a gathered little throng. Lady Major, looking elegant and beautifully coiffed, rose from her chair and crossed the room to kiss me- it WAS a theatrical dressing room, not the Prime Minister’s residence – but within moments she was being rather less than diplomatic about my last scene, having wanted Mr. Fairley to ‘ sign the resignation and get it over’. I was so tempted to say that I had felt the same about her husband’s Prime Ministership.

  9. Christine
    September 26, 2008

    Mr. Petherbridge, thanks for your reply regarding the cuts from the novel. Gaudy Night is dense, so the cuts are not surprising, just disappointing. The book has always seemed atypical for a “mystery” because it’s focus is on place and character rather than the linear plot. I would guess that every fan has his or her favorite scenes and any cuts, no matter how necessary in an adaptation, could diminish enjoyment. I like the spinet scene, too. It involves that young man who admires Harriet and highlights how important it was for her to realize that men other than Peter (and the odious Boyes) could find her attractive.

    Didn’t you sing in one of the adaptations? I can’t remember which one, but I do recall not being surprised when I found out you had moved into the world of musical theater.

    And as for missed opportunities, I suspect you had one in Mr. Ball’s dressing room during Women in White! Courtesy is often overrated, particularly when it comes to politics.

  10. Marian
    September 29, 2008

    On a slightly more positive note, I was introduced to the Wimsey novels by watching the 1980s TV adaptation and therefore had no comparison to make to the book. However, having been smitten by the characters and the storylines (you would have to get up very early in the morning to beat the plot for Strong Poison!) I then read the books and was smitten all over again. I have learned from experience that books which are adapted to another form of media be it TV, Films or audio plays/readings always suffer and the level of suffering is subjective – according to the interpretation of the individual watching/listening. The only exception to this I have come across is the unabridged audio recording of Presumption of Death read by Mr Petherbridge and worth every penny of whatever you pay for it!

  11. beadtific
    October 10, 2008

    Oh, this is a lovely insight into that scene. I admit to rewinding a few times and watching some of the the lovely, subtle moments in this series that are so revealing of Peter. They’re just tiny things; a quick change of expression and movement, but oh, they made my toes curl with joy.

    One’s from *Have His Carcase,* I believe. The scene where Peter and Harriet are in that dreadful bed-sit she runs off to, and they sit at a table side-by-side to go over some evidence or somesuch and Harriet sits too close or brushes arms with Peter or something (I, sadly, do not have video at hand.) Not moving, not doing anything but altering expression – mostly the eyes – you can see *exactly* how affecting Harriet’s nearness is to him and it’s like a bolt of lightening. He’d been so proper and light and piffling up to that moment and then; wow.

    The other that I remember so strongly is the joyful surprise that flits over Peter’s face when he and Harriet are piffling about over something or other and he thinks for a brief second that she’s accepted one of the proposals right as she’s bustling out of the room. The expression he has before he bolts after her is priceless.

    And while the proposal scene was not verbatim, it was incredibly satisfying. It looks like we are so lucky to have it!

    Mr. Petherbridge is so much fun to watch in how he lets the audience know what is going on in his character’s mind, over and above the dialogue; to actually show us what we are missing in the translation from the novel’s narrative to the screen.

    To grope for the proper analogy, the moments like I’ve just described are like a particularly beautiful turn of phrase stumbled across while reading, or a just the right chord struck during a piece of music that causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up; not in the slightest a bit of showing off (Look at meeee,I can *Act!*) but more zeroing in on an essential bit and gathering the audience in, helping us to leave off observing and connect emotionally.

    I do hope that made sense. To be able to do that in a way that is authentic and in such simple gestures is a gift and an excellent object lesson; subtle gesture can shout as loud as speeches. (And sometimes the quietest voice is the most penetrating.)

    I do wish they’d had the chance to film *Busman’s Honeymoon,* though or that I’d been able to see it on stage, but I am grateful for what we do have.

    Many thanks for sharing your memories and work with us, Mr. P!

  12. Linda OReilly
    November 27, 2008

    I found Lord Peter and Harriet Vane a few weeks ago and was struck by the excellence of it. I had to watch the episodes several times to convince myself that it was really that good. Now I am convinced and I watch the story for the great enjoyment of it alone.
    Bless you all for making it. It is a brilliant piece of work.
    Finish that autobiography, Mr. P. I must know all.
    L from the USA

  13. Regina
    May 6, 2009

    Thanks to Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter for embodying Lord Peter’s unrequited love and Harriet’s spirited resistance….and then saving and acting the joyful key scene wherein she accepts his proposal at last.

  14. Dyan from NJ USA
    May 18, 2009

    This website is an answer to prayer! I am listening to the unabridged audio recording of “Gaudy Night” even now as I write this…I became ravenous, all of a sudden, for more information about those delectable chessmen; I did a google, and here I am. I so enjoyed the posts from the other lovers of DLS, but the lines and sketches from Mr. Petherbridge are priceless! (For those of you who are interested, DLS writes a few lines referring to the life and death of the chessmen in her apologetic work ‘The Mind of the Maker’.) May I add my thanks and appreciation to that already expressed here, and plead for another trilogy – “Busman’s Honeymoon”, “The Haunted Policeman” and “Presumption of Innocence”? Although I am forever grateful to Ian Carmichael for his audio and video interpretations of LPW (expressing the more jovial, collegial, pre-Harriet side of the character), I can’t bear to see anyone but Mr. Petherbridge play the part now – as stated so eloquently in previous posts, he truly embodies the spirit of the character – the subtlety of his and Ms Walters’ portrayals of Harriet and Peter are almost impossibly exquisite. I do admit to loving the entire DLS trilogy; however, watching “Gaudy Night” invariably sends me scurrying to the audiobook, so that I can savour all of the amazing little bits (especially those omitted from the teleplay) of this literary masterpiece all at once! By the way Mr. P., and humbly begging your pardon, I think the play came before the novel – maybe that’s why you liked the novel better!

  15. Pingback: Crazy Like a Fox. « Vulpes Libris

  16. sherri
    January 23, 2010

    Thank you for all the wonderful stories about one of my fave series. I saw it for the first time on mystery. I loved it and the actors. I ran out and got all the Harriet and Peter books and loved it more though there was no internet and I had to get a french into english books. I recently just found the dvd set and fell in love all over again. Thank you so much Mr. Petherbridge, your a doll;)

  17. Pingback: Gaudy Night » Edward Petherbridge on the bastardized film version of Gaudy Night

  18. James
    February 24, 2010

    Speaking of the BBC adaptation. Near the end of the film when Peter is dining at the high table (or some such thing), he refers to a book on the scientific method. I think he calls it The Quest. I did not catch the author or title for sure, but it sounded interesting. I could not find the reference in the novel. Does anyone know the book being referred to?

  19. Michelle
    March 8, 2010

    Response to James:
    The dinner at the High Table actually comes about 3/4 into the book, in Ch 17, when Peter already has an inkling of which way the wind’s blowing but is not too sure. And when Harriet invites to dinner at Shrewbury, he steers the conversation in the most subtle way towards the vital question of women in academia and in the home, private loyalties versus professional ethics, etc. One of the best dining room conversations in a novel, I think.

    The best part is at coffee when they’re all gathered in the Senior Common Room. The quick and flitting talk there opens the key to the whole mystery. At least for Wimsey; everyone else had to wait until Peter had them all gathered round again in that same room for the incredible climax towards the end (climax 1 = mystery but climax 2 = the moments beneath the Bridge of Sighs!).

    But sorry to digress! The novel LPW mentions is The Quest by C.P. Snow. Exactly hitting the nail on the head when Peter quotes the line from that book: “The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time.” He shows it goes for any intellectual work as well.

    Signing off now–and sorry for the elaborate explanation. It’s one of my favorite chapters in this beloved book!

  20. Naomi Staley
    January 1, 2012

    Happy New Year from Bonita Springs, Florida, U.S.A. I discovered the three VCR’s at a second hand shop for $1 each. Two of the tapes were jammed. However, Gaudy Night is played at least a few times every. week between doing my chores and also to relax me as I count sheep! My New Year’s resolution is to plunk down the money and buy the DVD set. The tea room scene brought back some memories of 1950’s tea dances. Again, add me to the chorus singing the praises of your Lord Peter.


  21. paula
    January 14, 2013

    I remember watching this when it came out originally, only 17, and I was mesmerised. I couldn’t tell you what it was called, or who wrote it, but the acting held me in a spell. I’ve only now read all the books, revisited the episodes (thanks to youtube) and am once again – mesmerised. Thank you Mr. Petherbridge for, well, having such a long lasting impression on me. I loved to read your insight above in Gaudy Night, but maybe the character of Harriet Vane lost out in that episode even more than Lord Peter? – her personal struggle, so swiftly glossed over. The wonderful tension between Lord Peter and his nephew…. ah well. These things can’t be repeated. But you and your fellow actors gave us a wonderful treat. Many thanks.

  22. Farah Mendlesohn
    June 2, 2014

    I first saw this in the US when I was an exchange student in 1988 and I was so glad when I found the DVDs. I’ve just watched the series again for maybe the fifth time. No, Gaudy Night is not the book, but the romance is handled so beautifully I can live with that.

    And while I’m here, thank you Mr Petherbridge for your wonderful Newman Noggs, which I saw as a teenager, live in Stratford. I’ve never forgotten it.

  23. Alida Baxter
    August 2, 2015

    I’ve only just found this wonderful site and, first, wish to express my gratitude to you, Mr. Petherbridge, for explaining so much that puzzled me when I was first glued to the television adaptations of books I’d already read till they were falling apart. (I’ve still got the video tapes I bought when they become available!) No more perfect casting of those roles can be imagined than that of yourself and Harriet Walter, and I remember how I had looked forward to Gaudy Night because I too regarded it as the best of the books dealing with the relationship between those two characters, and the most fascinating psychologically. But then how I missed the chess set, Miss Hillyard’s bitter jealousy of Harriet, etc., etc.

    I’ve often wondered how actors can bear having to utter lines or perform scenes that they know aren’t right for the characters they are playing, and now I know for sure – they hate it, Thank Heavens you two were able to do something about at least some of the damage.

    Two friends and I rushed to see “Busman’s Honeymoon” at the Lyric after the television series, but of course you’re right – it really isn’t a very good play. Dorothy L. Sayers was confined to the limits of what ended up as not much more than a who-and-how done it, and it didn’t suit her. She made up for it by spreading herself in the book of the same title, and if the television people had had any sense they might have adapted that too, although if they’d butchered it we might have even more to moan about.

    Thank you so much for all the pleasure you have given to your audiences.

  24. Carol
    May 20, 2018

    Dear Mr. Petheridge,

    Thank you so much for your absolutely perfect Lord Peter. I only wish you could have also done Busman’s Honeymoon. I have long been a fan of Dorothy Sayers’ titled detective, but fell in love all over again when I watched you bring him to life in Strong Poison. I didn’t have a TV at the time, so I drove an hour to watch the show on my mother’s TV each week — it was well worth it. I now own the DVD set and watch it over and over. Like beadtific above, I enjoy the subtle moments that so eloquently convey Lord Peter’s feelings. My personal favorite in Gaudy Night is the moment when Harriet salvages a bad moment by asking Peter to teach her to tango. The light-hearted bounce in his step, just as the camera cuts away, says it all.

    Thank you again.

  25. Gillian Naylor
    June 29, 2020

    Dear Mr Petherbridge
    I have loved D. L. Saylers LPW since my early teens some 50 years ago now…I cannot read them now and I reread them often without visualising yourself and Harriet in my minds eye and I must say those visions are attributed to all the novels not just the ones you covered for the BBC. I am in accordance with many others here in feeling you were the embodiment of the intended Wimsey and I thank you for me continued enjoyment of my favourite author.

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