XXXVI. ARMCHAIR THRILLER : 'QUIET AS A NUN' (1978 ITV)
The series premiered in 1978 and lasted until 1980. Its ratings were phenomenal and peaked at approximately 11 million and still were delivering the goods until it’s sudden vanish from the schedules.
With the first season receiving praise from the critics and public alike a second series was soon to follow. This was a little weaker but did feature some decent outings, Ian Mckellens' terrifically tortured performance in ‘Dying Day’, springs immediately to mind.
One tale has stood the test of time and still is chillingly recalled despite the series never being repeated or available on video or DVD format.
Quiet as a Nun was written by Antonia Fraser and was first published in 1977. The story was the first to feature the character of
Julia Jones translated the book to the small screen with great accomplishment and eventually
The sophisticated, attractive ‘Maria Aitken’ took on the role of Jemima Shore and the supporting cast were chosen with much care based on acting ability and conviction by the seem of things. The actresses involved really bring the characters off of the page and each seems to have at least one scene stealing performance.
Pug Faced Patsy Kensit appears as Tessa and is surprisingly effective in performance despite her juvenile age. The wonderfully eccentric Sylvia Coleridge appears as Sister Boniface, two years before she appeared as an eccentric botanist in the classic ‘Seeds of Doom’ Doctor Who story.
Another ‘Who’ before, is Susan Engel playing a superb and eerie Sister Agnes, she featured in Bakers’ story ‘The Stones of Blood’ in 1978. In both roles she excels in characterisation uniting sexy and menacing all at the same time, excellent stuff. Brenda Bruce and Renee Asherson finish off the high quality cast. Anyone I haven’t mentioned is also bloody good by the way.
In the Tower a nun is found, starved to death.
Prompted by a letter of invitation to the Convent by her alma mater and friend Sister Ancilla she decides to go back to her old school in the hope of trying to find more information about the mysterious death.
Jemima is dining with the schoolgirls where she hears some alarming news. It seems, according to one child that before a death occurs the Black Nun can be seen wandering the grounds. The girls add that the spectre is evil and malevolent and heralds death. A child ‘Tessa’ confirms she has seen the apparition recently.
Fuelled by inquisitiveness and of a journalistic nature, Jemima pilgrimages to the tower in the dead of night and the viewer gets the shit scared out of them for it’s here Jemima discovers something rather nasty that attacks her viciously……
What begins as a routine thriller excels into gothic horror. The direction is brilliant at conveying the ephemeral, silent corridors are explored, cobwebs cloud and at any moment you expect to see something manifesting; it would not look out of place in the slightest.
The music is another triumph too and fits well with the musty dwellings and unfolding skulduggery, such combinations make this compelling viewing. The only slight let down is that after the climax at the end of episode 3 everything else seems a slight anti-climax but the quality never falters and neither does the stories capability of captivation.
In a recent trash TV poll programme entitled ‘100 Scariest T.V Moments’, this climax made an entry at number 65. I think this is quite a feat as thee programme hasn’t been media saturated like other alleged ‘spine chillers’.
The clip was also played with another demonstrating the opening credits. They too are most unnerving. An animated sequence shows an empty white chair, spotlighted. A shadow makes its way to the seat, it settles, grips the arms with clawed hands then the camera plunges into the darkness of the shadows head, paving way to something icier than your average thriller.
Another worthy of note is the different Thames Television ident that was used right at the beginning of the programme. Instead of the bright blue
This show could have been easily mistaken for a horror anthology at the time if the teasers and credits were anything to go by. In one trailer the chair is soaked in blood as a screaming, maniacal face sweeps by before a graveyard voiced announcer declared the evenings glimpse of events.
The series was shown in the slot, twice weekly and just about pushes the boundaries of pre watershed ‘family’ orientated drama and because of this brave attempt turned successful, gave a legion of children sleepless nights.
Despite this being a real treat and all episodes existing in their entirety it has never been repeated on the network since its original air date.
DVD-R grey releases are available and are surprisingly decent prints, they will have to suffice until someone sees the sense of a box set release or a digital channel repeat but I would think will never be shown, due to its lack of tits, explosions and CGI.
* Maria Aitken (
* Renée Asherson (Mother Ancilla)
* Brenda Bruce (Sister Elizabeth)
* David Burke (Tony Amyas, MP)
* James Laurenson (Alexander Sharbeck)
* Doran Goodwin (Sister Lucy)
* Margaret D'arcy (Sister Clare)
* Kate Binchy (Sister Edward)
* Linda Slater (Dodo)
* Sarah Webb (Margaret)
* Michelle Winstanley (Blanche)
* Patsy Kensit (Tessa)
* Catrina Hylton (Mandy)
* Mary Healey (Beatrice O'Dowd)
* James Appleby (Joe)
* Susan Engel (Sister Agnes)
* Sylvia Coleridge (Sister Boniface)
Directed by Moira Armstrong / Writing credits; Antonia Fraser (novel), Julia Jones & Philip Mackie (Television Adaptation)
Produced by Jacqueline Davis
Original Music by Andy Mackay & Roger Webb
Robert Banks Stewart ; Script Editor & Story Editor