One of the most frightening moments of my childhood – apart from the time I was caught flicking two fingers at a dinner lady and vainly tried to make out I was doing an impression of Rick from The Young Ones – was when journalist Jemima Shore climbed a ladder to a convent attic, heard the creaking of a rocking chair and encountered the Black Nun.
Shore screamed, I screamed and the next day, schoolyard chatter centred around the nun with no face. The Black Nun, or Quiet as a Nun, as the serial was called, was the most memorable part of ITV’s Armchair Thriller, five multi-part serials screened in 1978 that proved so successful (one episode pulled in 17 million viewers) that a second series of five serials aired in half-hour episodes on Tuesdays and Thursdays in 1980.
The terrifying scene in which Shore comes face-to- er… no face with the Black Nun came in at No.63 on Channel 4’s most frightening TV moments, rated scarier even than Quatermass and Michael Jackson’s Thriller! This was watercooler TV when the only office refreshments on offer were a cuppa and a Wagon Wheel from the tea lady.
But Black Nun fans can keep their wimples on. For now, only the first two Armchair Thriller stories are out on DVD, but even though these have been overshadowed by memories of the sinister sister, viewers can get a flavour of the series by watching Rachel in Danger and A Dog’s Ransom.
Each episode opens with the once familiar Thames TV ident, but anyone tempted to sing “Here they are now, Morecambe and Wise…” should look again – in this version, St Pauls is shrouded in darkness and a full moon shines down over Tower Bridge.
Then, spookier still, we see a spotlit armchair, and to the strains of the creepy Armchair Thriller theme, a shadow crosses the room and sits in the chair, his long, claw-like fingers gripping the arms as the theme reaches its crescendo. Are you sitting comfortably? Thought not. Let’s begin anyway.
Rachel in Danger, written by John Bowen and directed by original Doctor Who helmer Waris Hussein, offers the series’ typical mix of intrigue, suspense and a twist in the tale. 10-year-old Rachel is travelling from Scotland to London to stay with her estranged father. She hasn’t seen him in eight years, so she’s none the wiser when a terrorist, Juan (Stephen Greif), kills her dad and takes his place shortly before she arrives.
Juan arrives at Euston late to collect the girl, only to find she’s being looked after by WPc Molly (a pre-Mrs McClusky Gwyneth Powell). He has no ID to prove he’s Rachel’s dad, but the police give him the benefit of the doubt, their fears presumably allayed by the pair’s uncannily similar, and uncannily large, choice in glasses frames. The viewer, of course, has heard Juan speaking German in the opening scene and so already knows he’s a bad’un.
Juan and his Japanese accomplice Aiyako are in town to assassinate the Queen at a palace garden party, so Rachel is something of a gooseberry to the evil twosome. They argue over whether they should kill her, but Juan decides she’s a good cover story and plans to take her to the garden party too.
Rachel – a highly intelligent but socially inept young girl who has spent most of her life alone but for the company of her books and her mother (a detail that may have been worked into the script to cover for Della Low’s cue-card delivery) – suspects that all is not as it seems and contacts WPc Molly who finally realises that handing a lost girl over to a strange man solely on account of them sharing the same specs wasn’t such a good idea after all, and sets out to save the day.
The six-parter A Dog’s Ransom, adapted by Bowen from a novel by mystery writer Patricia Highsmith, begins with publisher Edward ‘Ned’ Reynolds (Benjamin Whitrow) receiving a series of threatening letters. Later that night, he takes his pet poodle Tina to the park, but the dog runs into the bushes and is never seen again. All we hear is a sinister voice – could it possibly be another German? – talking to the dog. “Come heeeere Teeeena…”
The next day, Ned gets a ransom note, demanding £200 in return for the dog. The money is picked up but there’s no sign of the dog. But hang on, what’s that white fluffy thing floating in the Thames…?
Ned goes to the police, only for CID to laugh him out of the station. But ambitious young constable Clarence Duhamel (Brian Stirner) takes an interest in the case and ‘photostats’ the ransom notes, spotting the poor English and crossed sevens and deducing that the dognapper must be – da-da-daaaaa – foreign. Pc Duhamel takes the law into his own hands, befriends the Reynolds, tracks down the dognapper and forces him to confess. And there are still three episodes to go!
But Tina the pilfered poodle is nothing more than a MacGuffin, and the thief just a crazy Pole. The real drama comes from the conflict between PC Duhamel and DCI Tom Choley (Z-Cars’ Paul Angelis), a prototype Gene Hunt – a disciple of Gene’s even: this is 1978, after all. Choley’s career in the CID has stalled, and he has no time for the Cambridge-educated, effete young constable he calls ‘Girlie’ sticking his middle-class, non-smoking nose in CID’s business.
Choley accuses Duhamel of taking a bribe, and before you can say ‘internal investigation’, our young hero is in danger of losing his social worker girlfriend (Susie Blake, last seen in Corrie, here co-starring with a pair of Deirdre’s old glasses), his job and much, much more…
The pace of both dramas is slow at times, and the acting outside the main characters a little wooden, but while Bowen’s scripts naturally introduce us to stereotypes – the middle-class couple, the caring policewoman, the ambitious graduate, the sinister foreigner – he soon gives the characters real depth.
Huge glasses and dodgy knitwear apart, the episodes haven’t dated as much as you’d think. Yes, my initial response to a cut phone cable was “Use your mobile!”, and social workers slagging off “the fuzz” raised a laugh, but the scripts could be adapted for today’s audiences with few edits, although the on-screen violence and raw language would probably have the guardians of the watershed up in arms if the programme returned to its original 8.30pm slot.
Both Rachel in Danger and A Dog’s Ransom have shocking conclusions too, and some of the cliffhangers – a body falling out of a cupboard, that floating dog or a brutal stabbing – would certainly have had viewers coming back to their armchairs for the next thrilling episode.
Now, where’s that nun…
Rachel in Danger:A Dog’s Ransom: