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14 September 2016

Why the antics of 1930s detective Peter Wimsey still sound fresh on the radio today

The old-fasioned dramatics of the BBC's radio adaptation conceal a darker, more difficult story.

By Caroline Crampton

Walking into the kitchen on a Monday evening to find, as ever, the radio blaring, my housemate asked a question that had clearly been plaguing him for some time. “Who is this Peter Wimsey?” he demanded. “You’re always listening to his strange posh voice.”

Strictly, the answer is that Ian Carmichael is Peter Wimsey – or at least he was in the seminal BBC radio and television adaptations of Dorothy L Sayers golden age detective novels made in the Seventies. These are still irregularly repeated across the BBC radio network, and it always feels like I’ve solved a mystery myself when I finally catch an announcer saying “. . . and now, a spot of sleuthing with Lord Peter” and hear Carmichael’s plummy RADA tones ringing out. Somehow, the Hull-born Carmichael inhabits the character of Wimsey – the Eton and Oxford educated younger son of a Duke who turns to mystery-solving after traumatic experiences in the First World War – better than any of the others who tried over the course of the twentieth century.

In Have His Carcase (BBC Radio 4 Extra, weekdays, 8pm), Wimsey is at the fictional Devon seaside resort of Wilvercombe to attempt that most difficult of detecting feats – to solve a murder without a body. Or more accurately, Wimsey is there to try and persuade the woman he loves – detective novelist Harriet Vane (played by Maria Aitken) – to marry him, and she finds the body of a Russian émigré with his throat slit spread-eagled on a rock exposed at low tide.

When the pair return, the body is gone. In an ambitious scene for a radio drama four decades old, the pair proceed to don bathing suits and splash around in search of clues. Accompanied by plenty of exclamations of “Brrrrrr!” and the sounds of much sploshing in a bucket to suggest paddling in the sea, Carmichael and Aitken still manage to convey the grim horror of encountering a dead man in a still-warm pool of his own blood. Just as Wimsey’s buffoonish, aristocratic utterances conceal a vulnerable, perceptive intellect, so does the old-fashioned style of this drama hide a darker, more difficult story.

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation

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