Clouds of Witness was the first of five serials broadcast on the BBC during the 1970’s which featured Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey. Although Carmichael was older than the literary Wimsey, he very much made the part his own, and it’s his performance which is the chief delight of this run of adaptions.
Clouds was Dorothy L. Sayers’ second Wimsey novel, originally published in 1926. The BBC version was broadcast in 1972 and was adapted by Antony Steven and directed by Hugh David.
There’s been a death at the Wimseys’ shooting lodge at Riddlesdale. Denis Cathcart (Anthony Ainley) who was engaged to be married to Wimsey’s sister Mary (Rachel Herbert) is discovered in the grounds, shot dead. And the tragedy strikes even closer to home when Wimsey’s brother, the Duke of Denver (David Langton), is arrested and charged with murder.
There certainly seems to have been motive – the Duke had just discovered that Cathcart was a bit of a bounder (he made his money by gambling at cards in Paris), but Mary also seems to have something to hide. With the help of his faithful manservant Bunter (Glyn Owen) and Detective Inspector Parker (Mark Eden), Wimsey eventually unravels the mystery.
One of the chief pleasures of these adaptations are the first rate casts. Carmichael, as I’ve said, is a compelling Wimsey – although he initially seems to be something of a silly ass, he also has compassion and insight, which is brought out by Carmichael’s skillful performance.
There’s a lovely connection between Wimsey and Bunter. This generally goes unsaid, but a scene at the start of episode two helps to shed a little light on their relationship. Wimsey has just woken up after a regular recurring dream – where he’s back in WW1 and finds himself buried underground. He describes to Bunter his fear that no-one would come to dig him out, but Bunter says that (during WW1) he did. A throwaway moment, but it helps to establish the bond that the two of them share.
David Langton (a familiar face from Upstairs Downstairs) has the same type of gravitas as the Duke (indeed, he could be the same character!) whilst Francis De Wollf has a nice turn as the Duke’s solicitor, Sir Impey Biggs, constantly frustrated that Wimsey’s investigations are making it harder for him to prove the Duke’s innocence. Kate O’Mara has a small but memorable role as Cynthia Tarrant, who points Wimsey, by chance, in the direction of a new suspect whilst Mark Eden is very solid as Inspector Parker.
The only slightly discordant note is made by Rachel Herbert as Lady Mary Wimsey. It may be how the part is written, but her hysterical outbursts seem somewhat out of place in the story, particularly when the rest of the cast are generally underplaying.
Hugh David’s direction is pretty good, although there are a few misteps (a couple of poor uses of CSO and a rather obvious model plane in the last episode, for example). It’s shot at quite a leisurely pace – five episodes running for 45 minutes each – and it possibly could have done with losing an episode, which would tightened things up.
But even though it does sag somewhat in the middle, it still hangs together pretty well. The ending though, is a little disappointing, but that’s a problem with the original novel and there’s little Steven could have done about that.
Clouds of Witness isn’t the strongest Wimsey novel, but it’s a very decent adaptation and brought alive by the majority of the cast. Next up – The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.