PD James: Death of an Expert Witness (1983), Shroud for a Nightingale (1984), Cover Her Face (1985), The Black Tower (1985) [Network DVD]
When Britain’s ITV commercial channel was first set up, it consisted of a network of individual regional franchises that between them covered the entire country. Each produced their own output, contributing to the content pool available for national schedules. Pretty soon a number of these franchises became first among nominal equals – Manchester’s Granada and London’s Thames and LWT became powerhouse drama and light entertainment producers, with Yorkshire and ATV (later Central) among those succeeding at a slightly lower level. Scotland’s STV naturally maintained a ferociously independent output of its own, frequently eschewing programmes from other regions altogether in preference to its own. However a number of the more provincial out-of-the-way companies suffered from a lack of access to big budget and talent, and therefore largely stuck to local news aimed at their immediate market. The Norwich-based Anglia Television was one such, and for years its only significant weekly contribution to the wider network output was Sale of the Century hosted by Nicholas Parsons, a sort-of predecessor to The Price is Right. The start of the show was heralded by the station’s quaint ident, a revolving silver desk ornament from a jumble sale depicting a mounted knight flying the Anglia standard.
Anglia was also behind the long-running Tales of the Unexpected anthology show; and another very smart thing Anglia did in the 1980s was to pick up the rights to adapt PD James’ successful series of detective novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh. Both shows became popular staples of ITV’s drama output for the rest of the decade. Ultimately Anglia made ten Dalgliesh adaptations, all of them starring Roy Marsden who had already risen to fame as the lead in the short-lived but hugely popular spy series The Sandbaggers. In this case Marsden was one of those bits of inspired casting which proved utterly perfect – so much so that when the BBC revived Dalgliesh for two further outings in 2003 with Martin Shaw in the role, it never felt quite right.The first adaptation produced by Anglia was Death of an Expert Witness in 1983, based on James’ 1977 bestseller. The story is set at Hoggatts, a forensic laboratory in the Fens carrying out scientific tests for the police. It becomes a crime scene itself when one of its top experts is found bludgeoned to death in his laboratory. The story plays out over an incredible seven 50-minute episodes – a runtime that would never be countenanced today, and one that the story couldn’t possibly warrant even then. By this point British TV had abandoned its 60s and 70s pursuit of making fast-paced shows like The Avengers, Danger Man and The Saint to sell to America and was working on ‘prestige’ products instead such as Brideshead Revisited, Inspector Morse and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. As far as TV executives at the time were concerned, ‘prestige’ equalled ‘slow-paced’. Modern viewers watching shows from this era are usually astounded by just how slow moving most dramas from this period tend to be, but even by the prevailing standards of the time Death of an Expert Witness is absolutely glacial.
Presumably the budget to make the series required it to fill a certain amount of air time, because there’s little else to explain why each episode is as protracted as it is: the director is content to spend minutes on a slow panning shot following a car driving through the Norfolk countryside. In one scene, a detective finishes questioning a suspect and then turns away, walks around his car and gets in, starts the engine and reverses, and then pulls away and drives up the lane. Any modern editor would cut the scene after the line of dialogue and save over a minute of dead air, but that doesn’t happen here. It’s not even as if the show is padding out the time in order to reach a suitable cliffhanger on which to end that week’s instalment, because each episode finishes almost at a whim simply whenever time runs out.
The titular murder doesn’t take place until midway through the third episode (much later than the novel), meaning that the writer has to find things for Dalgliesh to do on the margins before he’s required to jump into deductive action. But the good thing about this is that there has been plenty of time up to this point invested in getting to know the staff and associated family and friends of those working at Hoggatts: we get to see the relationships and animosities build up over weeks and months (and sometimes it genuinely feels like it’s playing out in real time!) so that by the time the murder occurs, it’s no longer just the usual line-up of victims and suspects to be interrogated in order, but a really shocking event in a small rural community that we’ve invested time (so much time…) getting to know really well. The way that the serial dramatically shifts tone with Dalgliesh’s arrival is accordingly as shocking to the viewers as it is to the cast of characters. The unusually informal structure also means that the culprit remains hidden in plain sight until very nearly the end. Today’s crime shows usually blow their big reveal by casting a big name and then giving him or her an apparently small role until it’s time to unveil whodunnit; but in the case of Death of an Expert Witness, the murderer has a solid role to play long before you have any reason to think that they might be the guilty party.
If you can stand the slow pace, therefore, this is really quite a treat and very different from unsatisfyingly compressed modern detective shows. It puts character and performance above the puzzle and therefore has more substance to it than today’s ‘crime of the week’ production line affairs. But boy, does it take its time. I remember my mother really loving the Dalgliesh adaptations but they were far too dull for me as a teenager, and took so long to play out that I’d genuinely forgotten who most of the characters were after a month and a half of viewing. Ironically that makes them ideal to binge watch today on DVD, because even watching two or three in a single day (something I never do with any rapid-fire modern drama) didn’t leave me feeling overloaded or overwhelmed, just pleasantly sedated!
The other thing that stands out while rewatching Death of an Expert Witness today is its production values. While most shows made in the 1970s and 80s look dated to our eyes now, Expert has an additional cheapness that can only come from the early era of video technology. The serial appears to have been mainly shot on location using outside broadcast cameras as a cost-cutting measure, and they give the show the sheen of a corporate training video. Omni-directional microphones capture every footstep, creaking floorboard and buzzing fluorescent light while the dialogue bounces off walls and ceilings with a hollow echo. You could argue that it certainly makes the locations feel ‘real’, but it’s a standard of presentation that you’d never get away with in broadcast television today.
Technical levels hadn’t much improved by the time the next adaptation from Anglia followed in 1984. It was based on James’ 1971 book Shroud for a Nightingale, set in a NHS training facility for junior nursing staff. This time the story contrives to have Dalgliesh on hand and engaged in a different investigation when he’s himself witness to the death of one of the student nurses during a routine procedure; more deaths then follow before Dalgliesh gets to the bottom of the mystery. The serial is (fortunately!) somewhat pacier than the first adaptation, and takes up just five episodes – although the last is feature-length to accommodate a strangely extended melancholy epilogue regarding the fate of one of the principal characters after an effective whodunnit revelation. As a result, Shroud doesn’t drag as much as the first serial but at the same time it also doesn’t bring quite the same depth to the environment and supporting cast, partly because Dalgliesh is so quickly on the scene and down to work. There is also a slight issue with timelines in that a key revelation depends on a war crime, but with the TV serial coming along 13 years after the book the actors involved simply don’t look old enough to have been a part of the crucial events.
But the programme makers really struggle when it comes to the third adaptation, which is Cover Her Face. It’s based on James’ first published novel from 1962, which is itself a slender volume. It’s the story of a classic country house murder of a live-in maid, which James uses to comment on the changing social and class system in post-war Britain. It was old-fashioned when it was written, and even more so in 1985 when adapted for the small screen. It’s clear that the story can only stretch to three episodes at most, even when endowed with every bit of padding the director can muster. But rather than cutting the cloth to fit, they end up inventing a completely different additional story to expand it back to a full six episodes. This gives Dalgliesh a brand new murder to investigate from the start, rather than belatedly appearing midway through as he does in the novel. However the introduction of a drug smuggling ring, money laundering and international terrorism never gels with James’ genteel original story, and the two plots sit on separate sides glowering at one another joined by only the most tenuous of highly unlikely coincidences. It’s by no means the programme makers’ fault. Indeed, you could argue that theirs is the better plot, as James’ own mystery ends up without a single clue pointing to the culprit. Instead, they eventually simply confess out of good manners when it’s shown no one else could have done it.
Things get back on track with The Black Tower, based on a book first published ten years earlier in 1975. As the story starts, Dalgliesh has been on sick leave after being shot during a drugs raid (or in hospital with a serious illness in the novel), and is now unsure whether he wants to continue as a police officer – the book’s title is likely a metaphor for the depression he’s suffering. As a result he accepts an invitation from an old family friend to stay at a convalescent home in Dorset – only to find when he gets there that his friend has died suddenly. More violent and/or suspicious deaths ensue – at least one in every episode, a remarkable upturn in pace for the show! – as Dalgliesh comes to suspect a plot to force the home’s owner Brother Wilfred to sell the property to a trust. But at least nothing is allowed to get in the way of the patients’ annual pilgrimage to Lourdes.
While The Black Tower is one of the more ponderous James novels, the adaptation is arguably one of the most fun. It has all the formulaic elements that made the first two serials successful – an unusual institutionalised location stocked with memorable odd-ball characters and a great guest cast which on this occasion includes Martin Jarvis, Maurice Denham, Pauline Collins and Art Malik. It does get a little melodramatic at the end, indulging in a sequence where Dalgliesh is chased down, bundled in a car boot and then held at gunpoint on a clifftop, the sort of cop show dramatics that you’d usually expect to find coming from the US. It’s a sign that the times are already a-changing and the snail’s pace productions of just three or four years earlier hail from a fundamentally different era.
After The Black Tower there were two more Dalgliesh adaptations clocking in at six episodes – A Taste for Death and Devices and Desires. After that, Unnatural Causes and A Mind to Murder were just 100 minute feature-length productions that prove thin and unsatisfactory. The last two stories, Original Sin and A Certain Justice are at least allowed three 50-minute episodes but this is a far cry from the series’ languid beginnings. When Dalgliesh popped up on the BBC for Death in Holy Orders and The Murder Room, the running time was down to just two episodes despite being based on more substantial novels. Standard 21st century production norms were now in force.
It’s precisely because those early Dalgliesh outings have such a different feel to them that I remember them so fondly and enjoy revisiting now. I have the patience to watch them that I lacked as a teenager, and seeing them again now reminds me of how much pleasure they gave my mother three decades ago. I can’t imagine them winning favour with a younger audience who will almost certainly fall asleep before the first commercial break (the DVD faithfully includes the ad buffers as well as those Anglia desk ornament station idents) but they give me a warm glow of nostalgia that makes them a genuine treat and pleasure to revisit every few years.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
PD James: The Adam Dalgliesh Chronicles are available on DVD as a 16-disc boxset from Network.