Armchair Thriller (S1, E15-20): Quiet As A Nun 1978 REVIEW

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Dark happenings at a convent girls’ school and an iconic moment of 70’s Brit-TV horror. RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES revisits the classic Armchair Thriller tale, Quiet As A Nun (1978).

Armchair Thriller (S1, E15-20): Quiet As A Nun 1978 REVIEW 1

BROADCAST: In six parts 18-27 April 1978
STARRING: Maria Aitken (Jemima Shore), Renée Asherson (Mother Ancilla), Brenda Bruce (Sister Elizabeth), Sylvia Coleridge (Sister Boniface), David Burke (Tom Amyas MP), James Laurenson (Alexander Skarbek), Doran Godwin (Sister Lucy), Margaret D’Arcy (Sister Clare), Kate Binchy (Sister Edward), Linda Slater (Dodo), Sarah Webb (Margaret), Michele Winstanley (Blanche), Patsy Kensit (Tessa), Catrina Hylton (Mandy), Mary Healey (Beatrice O’Dowd).
WRITER: Julia Jones (from the novel by Antonia Fraser)
DIRECTOR: Moira Armstrong

Armchair Thriller: Quiet As A Nun Review

Investigative television reporter Jemima Shore returns to her former school at the Convent of the Blessed Eleanor when her old friend Sister Miriam is found dead in the adjoining tower (known as the “Tower of Ivory”), apparently of self-induced starvation.

Called back to the convent by Mother Ancilla, Jemima discovers that Miriam (the heiress to a vast fortune) was thought to have changed her will: originally stating her intent to leave her wealth to the Order, was she instead opting to leave the fortune to another charitable organisation?

As the search for the second will gathers pace, Jemima learns of a schoolgirl superstition around a mysterious and sinister “Black Nun”, a faceless entity which is said to manifest itself whenever a death is about to occur in the vicinity and which the pupils claim to have seen just before Sister Miriam’s demise.

Initially dismissing the tales as the stuff of gossip and myth, Jemima may have to reevaluate her opinion when she has her own encounter with The Black Nun…

If one tale from Armchair Thriller can be said to have cemented the show’s reputation as nightmare fuel, it’s undoubtedly Quiet As A Nun but more specifically it’s the cliff-hanger of its third episode which everyone recalls: the faceless appearance of The Black Nun rocking in a creaking chair, Maria Aitken’s screams, the nun’s rapid approach towards camera with a violent slap, then the segue into what is surely one of the creepiest theme tunes in British television history – the very essence of night terrors in a nutshell.

An iconic moment from British TV terror...
An iconic moment from British TV terror…
...as Maria Aitken has an encounter with the Black Nun in Armchair Thriller: Quiet As A Nun (1978)
…as Maria Aitken has an encounter with the Black Nun in Armchair Thriller: Quiet As A Nun (1978)

In truth, nothing else in the adaptation comes quite as close to that moment for chills and for the most part it unfolds on screen like a more hardcore Nancy Drew mystery, its supernatural elements eventually explained away in earthbound fashion by the story’s conclusion.

That’s not a criticism by any means – it is a mystery thriller after all, albeit one with creepy overtones scattered throughout and it certainly makes the most of the dark nooks and crannies of its setting. The set designers and builders at Thames Television’s Teddington studios deserve plenty of kudos for their work here, particularly on the tower set used for THAT scene and the crypt constructions.

Quiet As A Nun cracks along at a fair old pace through its six episodes and the fate of the story’s villains is a grimly satisfying one, providing a less celebrated image which certainly stuck in this correspondent’s mind long afterwards. Suffice to say, fans of the period’s public information films, particularly those emphasising road safety will love it.

In the annals of 70’s televisual chills, Quiet As A Nun quite rightly sits high in the memories of those who saw it on its original broadcast. However, it was not the only creepy card Armchair Thriller had up its sleeve, as the series’ next, very different tale would demonstrate… 

I’ll leave the final word on Quiet As A Nun to a comment by IMDb user VikiLauda, who described the third episode as “my gateway drug of my love of spook!” – I guess a lot of us of a certain age feel the same way.

TRIVIA POINTS: Quiet As A Nun would provide a belated Armchair Thriller spin-off of sorts: Jemima Shore Investigates (1983) featured the sleuth in twelve further 1-hour episodes, the part taken this time around by Patricia Hodge.

Yes, it is indeed that Patsy Kensit in the cast, aged 9 when Quiet As A Nun was shot but already something of a screen veteran from the age of 4, including the part of the daughter of Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby (1973).

Of the other child performers, Linda Slater went on to play Susi McMahon in Grange Hill from 1979-81 while Michele Winstanley went on to a variety of roles, including the part of Janice in post-war comedy/drama Shine On Harvey Moon from 1984-85.

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