11 February 2010

Ian Carmichael

Carmichael, right, as Wimsey:
He’s playing a Scarlatti sonata, of course.
(Glyn Houston as Bunter, at left.)

The death of British actor Ian Carmichael brings me one step closer to adulthood, for when our role models pass on, it’s up to us to become what they were. As the televised incarnation of Dorothy Sayers’ aristocratic amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, Carmichael was one of a handful of middle-aged actors who represented the kind of grownup I wanted to be: urbane, unaggressively masculine, clever, far from Texas. The girl I loved was a Wimsey fan, too, and together we read all the books and pictured ourselves in a lifetime of tangled mysteries and “talking piffle.” Only fear of getting beaten up (further) and the fact that my vision is poor in both eyes kept me from adopting a monocle, like my hero’s.

Now I am middle-aged, and I wonder how close I’ve come to the mark that Carmichael set when I was a boy.

Sure, other boys wanted to grow up to be rock stars or ball players, but I wanted to be like Ian Carmichael. He was far too old in the mid-1970s to play Wimsey, and the penchant of other characters to address him as “young man” was mitigated only slightly by the casting of the venerable Isabel Jeans as his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. This may be why romance was downplayed in the television shows, and Wimsey’s prolonged conquest of Harriet Vane was reserved for another series of (thoroughly delicious) adaptations, in the 1980s, starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter.

But oh, what a marvel Carmichael’s Wimsey was! Impeccably elegant in white tie or tweed or a Harlequin costume. An accomplished musician. An expert on everything from wine to French literature. (One mystery hinges on a reference to Manon Lescaut, of all things, and readers and viewers alike were presumed to understand, without explanation.) Carmichael’s Wimsey drops his Gs and says “ain’t,” and he’s given to long quotations in Latin and French — and from Lewis Carroll, for as Lord Peter once observed, “The mark of a gentleman is his ability to quote the Alice books from memory.”

Not least of Lord Peter’s charms for me was his wordplay; his puns danced like sugarplums on Carmichael’s tongue.

Most of the heavy work here was done already by Dorothy Sayers, who created Wimsey as a kind of seriocomic Arthurian knight, forever questing after Truth. As the novels build upon each other, Wimsey’s a paragon, an ideal: more than a few critics have rightly observed that Sayers fell in love with her own creation, and it’s no accident that, when Lord Peter does find his lady love, she’s a mystery writer.

But Carmichael brought to the role a number of assets: physical grace, a resonant voice, a love of language, and — quite possibly — a burning desire, after years of playing silly fops and Bertie Wooster, to portray a character who is that and something more: a hero, a man.

Even if I didn’t turn out much like him, I’m glad of his influence. And as we continue to share the mysteries and piffle of our lives, the girl I loved seems glad of it, too, all these years later.

Placetne, magistra?


karigee said...

I've been avoiding the Carmichael Wimsey adaptations simply because I saw Petherbridge first, and was unable to imagine anyone else in the role. But your description of Carmichael's characterization is just the nudge I needed; thank you for that.

Also, American in Paris: lucky you!

William V. Madison said...

Lucky me, indeed!

Petherbridge is awfully good, and he's much closer, physically, to Wimsey as described in the books. But Carmichael really captures the wit and playfulness that are such a big part of Lord Peter's appeal. And, as I say, I ran across him at just the right moment in my own life.

Girl From Texas said...

In that girl's eyes, You ARE Lord Peter Wimsey - still !

karigee said...

Ah, now that's exactly how I feel about Sayers (and Wimsey and Vane) in general -- I found her just when I needed her, and these books keep spurring me on to new and richer things. There's such joy in happy accidents that don't feel like accidents at all.

Now I will cease comment hogging, but thank you again.

kevinpask said...

I saw the Carmichael versions of Wimsey before reading the books. I still can't really imagine Wimsey without Carmichael. Thanks for putting up this lovely tribute. I hadn't realized that Carmichael had died. A real loss.