Lord Peter Wimsey solved his first murder in 1923, made his debut on live television in 1947 and his television series debut on Masterpiece Theatre in 1972, and has just bounded into the 21st century in an Acorn Media DVD of that 1972-1975 television series starring Ian Carmichael.
Dorothy L. Sayers wrote 11 novels and several short stories starring the First World War-wounded aristocrat, first class cricketer, and elegant pianist with lingering shell shock and a taste for cocktails. Sayers once described Lord Peter as a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster, the blissfully unaware protagonist of a series of comic novels who has to be guided through life by his butler, Jeeves. Although Wimsey calls himself “an ass” quite often, Bunter, his valvet, doesn’t need to point him in the right direction, although Bunter does save his life several times, including pulling him out of a bog in the first DVD episode, “Clouds of Witnesses.”
The success of “The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries” was part of the impetus that led Masterpiece Theatre to create a new series, “Mystery.” “There was so much programming in the British pipeline that it wouldn’t all fit into the 52-week Masterpiece, and Mobil was generously offering money for a second series,” says Rebecca Eaton, who has been the executive producer of “Masterpiece” for the last 25 years at WGBH in Boston which produces the program.
Those were the halcyon days when a single corporation would fund an entire season of upscale television. Then, a few decades later, “Exxon bought Mobil and started to withdraw their funding from us,” says Eaton. “Mystery,” with funding from PBS, became a “Masterpiece” summer replacement in 2003.
Then, in 2008, says Eaton, “We did the research and discovered “Masterpiece Theatre” was dying on the vine. We didn’t change the content; we changed the window dressing.” One of the first things WGBH did “was to take out the word Theatre which was scaring people.”
“Masterpiece Classic” (“Downton Abbey”) can be seen in the winter, “Masterpiece Mystery” in the summer, and “Masterpiece Contemporary” in the fall. Eaton, who will have “Making Masterpiece,” a memoir of her years as executive producer, published in October, says, that for a “Mystery” series to be successful, “It’s all about the actor.” When Edward Petherbridge played Wimsey on “Mystery” in 1987, the result was underwhelming.
When Martin Shaw took over the role of P.D. James’ poet-detective Adam Dalgleish from Roy Marsden, that series too floundered. Yet, in a less cerebral role, in “Mystery’s” “George Gently” series, Shaw was successful.
And sometimes there is the serendipity of a great idea. Says Eaton, “Steve Moffat and Mark Gatiss, people behind ‘Doctor Who,’ cooked up this idea to make Sherlock Holmes a 21st century semi-socialized genius without any social skills but with 21st century forensic tools. And ‘Sherlock’ has a huge following of younger people who come to it partly because they love ‘Doctor Who.’
And then Eaton makes a surprising admission: “I love mysteries on television – the more psychologically complex the better. I loved Wimsey’s leather couch and watching the cocktails being served in cut crystal glasses. But I can’t read mysteries. I am much too goal oriented and want to get to the solution.”