Monday, September 8, 2008

Same Character? but a new face?

Television shows have a problem with long-running series that may cover 5 or more years. Things happen and the familiar faces sometimes must change. Sometimes the actor dies or perhaps is injured and can't continue. Sometimes a dispute arises, for a variety of reasons, and the actor leaves. This introduces a serious problem for the producers. What do they do now that an acter is no longer available? In some cases, they can write in an accident or illness and simply kill off the character. In other cases, it's not that simple--especially if character is THE lead.

I saw a film last night that exemplified this problem and also one way to solve it, or at least attempt to solve it. The show was a mystery series based on novels by P. D. James. Her lead character was Commander Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, who was played by Roy Marsden in the first eleven dramatizations of her novels.

To be precise, I hadn't read any of her mysteries before I first encountered them on PBS' Mystery Theatre. I found the dramatizations so interesting that I started reading her novels and got hooked. Of course, when I read the novels, I pictured Roy Marsden as Commander Dalgliesh. And, so it went, for eleven dramatizations. To me anyway, "Roy Marsden IS Commander Adam Dalgliesh."

Then, something happened; someone else took over the role of Dalgliesh--Martin Shaw. I had never heard of him, so I had no opinion about him prior to viewing the film. After viewing the program, I must admit I was disappointed. It isn't that Martin Shaw is a poor actor; he is a poor replacement for Roy Marsden.

Roy Marsden is quite tall; he is easily spotted in a crowded room. He is a dominating presence. Martin Shaw is considerably shorter. Several times during the film when the scene opened in a room in which there were a number of people, it took a while for me to find Dalgliesh, which never would have happened if Marsden had been in the role. Moreover, even in the one-on-one scenes, Marsden is clearly in control, while Shaw usually takes a back seat to the other character.

Marsden's facial features are a bit on the harsh or rugged side, with piercing eyes that seem to be looking deep into you. Shaw is almost round-faced with mild eyes, a rather bland individual actually. He clearly, to me anyway, is not the commanding Dalgliesh that Marsden was. Again, he is not a bad actor; he is the victim of bad casting.

As I watched, I was reminded of Alec Guinness in his superb portrayal of Le Carre's everyman spymaster--George Smiley. Guinness portrayed him as a quiet and unassuming, almost shy individual, a perfect spy since he is the sort of person that most people wouldn't notice and would soon forget, even if they did. Guinness, unfortunately, died eight years ago. However, there are still two Smiley novels that haven't been dramatized. I think Martin Shaw would make an excellent George Smiley. He doesn't really look like Guinness, but he's the quiet, retiring individual that Le Carre created in his novels.

I think that the producers of the James mysteries decided that they wouldn't try to replace Marsden physically but would substitute someone obviously the opposite, and someone who, moreover, doesn't fit James' description of Dalgliesh in her novels. Perhaps they thought that, by substituting somebody so different from Marsden, the viewers would soon forget Marsden and accept Shaw. It doesn't work for me. Fortunately James' novels have complex and interesting characters and plots, so I watch the dramatizations for those elements. I wonder what P. D. James thinks of the substitution.

Why the switch? Nobody knows for sure, but there are several rumors floating around. One rumor is that the change took place when the show went from ITV to BBC but nobody knows why that might have caused the change. Another rumor is that Marsden suddenly developed a severe case of stage fright and just couldn't perform anymore, which forced the producers to go with someone else. The third rumor is that Marsden just got tired of playing Dalgliesh.

I looked at Marsden's history on and picked up two items. He was a very busy actor, with numerous credits to his record. However just before his last Dalgliesh role, the number of roles he played dropped considerably. Now that may simply be the effect of the Dalgliesh role, which usually lasted from 4 to six episodes per mystery, while most of his other roles only lasted one episode. So, one James' mystery meant four or more episodes, which also reduced his free time to some extent.

The second item of interest was that, again according to, Marsden did not have a single role between 1998 and 2004, a six year gap. Is this a real gap or did he work, but whoever created the listing missed six years of work. Regardless, in 2004, he went back to work and has been busy ever since, unfortunately not as Commander Adam Dalgliesh though.

A second example of changing actors in the middle of a series is the switch from Ian Carmichael to Edward Petherbridge in the role of Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers' mysteries. Ian Carmichael is a tall fellow and a bit of a stout fellow. Edward Petherbridge looks like someone whose name is Petherbridge should look like--a stereotype, to be sure. He's small, blond, wiry, fussy, possibly neurotic, and a bit frantic, a sort of Woody Allen, British style. I frankly prefer Ian Carmichael.

However, I did hear, and confirmed it for myself, that Petherbridge is actually closer to Sayers' description than Carmichael is. However, whenever I read a "Lord Peter" novel, it's Carmichael I see, not Petherbridge.

I have no idea and haven't even been able to come up with any rumors as to why the change was made.

So, here are two examples in which the main character in a continuing and popular series is changed to someone who is almost completely the opposite physically, and certainly different in the way he portrays the character. In the first case, the original actor, Marsden, was much closer to the description in the novel, and in the second, the replacement actor was closer to the character in the novel. However, I prefer the original actor.

I guess that says something.

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