We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_Strong Poison_: Walter to Rogers as Petherbridge to Astaire · 29 July 05

Dear Miss Vane,

Yvette and I fit in one more film before going off, the 1987 3 part adaptation of Sayers’s Strong Poison (director Christopher Hodson, screenplay Philip Broadley), with Harriet Walter playing you and Edward Petherbridge, Lord Peter Wimsey. Yvette appeared to enjoy it very much; she finished Gaudy Night the other day, and beyond Bel Canto, Caroline will be taking Busman’s Honeymoon on our holiday.

I used to feel I enjoyed the film adaptations of Sayers’s novels more than the novels themselves. This was in the 1970s and I may have changed. For now my pleasure in this film came from the scenes between Harriet Walter and Edward Petherbridge. The relationship of these to the rest of the experience was analogous to the way the scences of magnificent dancing between Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire related to the rest of their films. The films exist to allow for these moments.

Yes the idyllic and gothic picturesque of the comic mystery has its charm. I was charmed by the opening dark blue cartoon. The alluring music. Richard Morant as Bunter reminded me of Dirk Bogarde. Lord Peter had his servants do the manipulative and conniving work, and in two cases the effective people were women (Shirley Cain as Miss Climpson, the pseudo-medium, and Norma Streader as Miss Murchison, the sleuth typist and obstructive jurist). He sits in melancholy stillness playing the piano. Very like modern films this one did not end in marriage, but in Harriet Vane walking away to travel—though as Lord Peter looks yearningly, poignantly after her, this very unlike modern films.

However, all this was created by Peter to wrest Harriet from prison and their moments seated across the table as he told her how he was progressing were the heart of the film. Petherbridge was perfect for the role I thought: just the right touch of eager plangency. Walter held back, steely, hurt, wounded inside, frightened and then humiliated to have to be so grateful. His hair butter blonde and thick, hers the tight curls of the lady of romance. His light voice was fetching, her hard look its complement.

One conversation: when I listened to the novel read aloud by Petherbridge (in an abridged text on audiocassettes), I had been puzzled by Harriet Vane’s indignation and anger at Philip Boyes as well as his apparently nonsensically counterproductive behavior. The film Harriet Walter tells Edward Petherbridge that Boyes said he didn’t want to marry because he was against marriage on principle; Boyce persuaded Harriet to come live with him. But then after a while Boyce revealed that he had proposed this as a test, and now that Harriet had passed, he wanted to marry her.

Test? asks Petherbridge. Yes, says Walter, bitingly, you see if I would come live with him that meant I was submitting to him (in effect needed him more than he needed me), and now that I did that, that he had triumphed, he was willing to marry me. The smile of mild-tired real contempt on Petherbridge’s face was brilliant as he uttered, "Why how Victorian of him."

Their film dialogues had nuances suggesting Harriet thought herself not worthy Petherbridge because she had had sex with Boyce, but Petherbridge treated this as beneath his notice. He had had his liaisons.

Mr Drake came in and thought perhaps Petherbridge and Walter were really too old for the characters envisaged by Sayers, but then agreed that in fact whatever age Sayers nominally gives them in the books, her readers are encouraged to see the characters as mature adults, people in their thirties. And this did give the presences gravitas.

A fine send-off. More holiday books: Mr Drake takes Bryan Little’s Somerset and I 3 books by and about travelling women of the 19th century, one on the earliest European women to go to live in Australia (convicts & working class women), E. H. Young’s Miss Mole, Janet Frame’s autobiography, Sinclair’s Mary Oliver, White’s Frost in May. &c&c, Caroline will be sewing: theatre costumes. Yvette will rush out on Sunday to buy Harry Potter in the English version.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Dear Sylvia,

    This sounds wonderful… I read your comments and put this at the top of my Netflix queue. Walter and Petherbridge – and the balance of the film – sound so very right.

    I was puzzled by Harriet’s feelings the first time, too; but how horribly insulting and cheapening Boyes’ behavior really was! I always admired her for seeing that. For not submitting to what she HAD wanted on terms that were unacceptable; not brooking the erosion of real dignity to gain a visible acceptability.

    I do think maturity in the characters is necessary, and intended. Better a shade more than Sayers envisioned, than any less.

    Considering what you did with your time, I’m happy that you weren’t feeling "reasonably" inclined to sleep!
    Julie Vollgraff    Jul 30, 5:01am    #

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