A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
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.
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 …
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 …