Death in Holy Orders

It's P.D. James, for Shaw

What a wonderful gallery of veteran British actors adorned P.D. James's Death In Holy Orders over the weekend. There were players like Hugh Fraser, Alan Howard, Robert Hardy, Jeff Rawle, John Clegg, Freda Dowie and Julia McKenzie strutting their stuff in an absorbing two-part murder mystery.

Even better, it offered a chance for an exciting new young actor, Jesse Spencer, to swim (sometimes literally) into view.............

Death In Holy Orders is one of the many Adam Dalgliesh stories by novelist P.D. James, something we didn't really need to be told by having her name attached to the title.............Indeed it would have been more useful to use the name of Martin Shaw in the title line, for this was the first time he has played Dalgliesh, a part previously owned by Roy Marsden in ten of the stories on ITV between 1983 and 1996.

Marsden's behatted, moustachioed Dalgliesh, in his floor-length raincoat, always had an air of the 1940s about him, vaguely reminiscent of an old-fashioned headmaster. Shaw has brought the detective right up to date, with cropped grey hair, the latest in fashion specs, and smart-but-casual dress code.

But as James intended, both Marsden and now Shaw exude a certain sadness quite proper in a detective who sees the seemier side of life and has also experienced private tragedy. For Dalgliesh, back in Marsden's day, lost his wife in childbirth, along with the baby.

Nor is Dalgliesh now risen to the rank of commander at Scotland Yard, an Action Man hero. Shaw makes him contemplative and slightly depressed - as Janie Dee's Emma Lavenham, intended as a romantic interest for Dlagliesh, yelled at him last night, he is supremely indifferent and unruffled by everything going on around him.

This detachment didn't serve him too well when his boss at the Yard asked him to make a discreet investigation of the death of a youth at a smells-and-bells high church theological college on the East Coast on behalf of the boy's industrialist father, played by David Calder

It so happened that Dalgliesh, the son of a vicar, had spent happy teenage summers at the college, and was warmly welcomed back by Robert Hardy's Father Martin, one of the four elderly priests in residence.

The detective's familiarity with the scene blinded him to various simmering disputes, and when he returned to London at the end of the first episode, it was only the sudden death of Mrs Munroe (Julia McKenzie), the lady who did the laundry, that sent him scurrying back to the seaside.

Director Jonny Campbell perfectly captured the atmosphere of a self-absorbed and isolated outpost of the C of E, oblivious to the realities of the Church in the outside world, represented by the hated Archdeacon Crampton (Clive Wood), whose guilty conscience wouldn't allow him to complete the word 'trespasses' in the Lord's Prayer, and who wished to sell off the treasures of St. Anselm's and close the place down.

Crampton was bitterly opposed by the college warden (Alan Howard), a pompous administrator who nevertheless realised that the game was up for all of them - the holy Father Martin, the fussy Father Peregrine (Jeff Rawle) and the convicted paedophile Father John (John Clegg), with their lay tutors, Emma, and George Gregory (Poirot's Captain Hastings, Hugh Fraser).

This expensive superstructure, also supported an extremely odd odd-job man, Eric Surtees (Tom Goodman-Hill), committing incest with his half-sister; a second laundry lady, Ruby Pilbeam (Maggie McCarthy); and, as far as I could see, just three ordinands training for the clergy - only two after a cliff fell on Ronald in the opening sequence.

But one, the murder suspect Raphael, was played by the excellent young Spencer.

When the Archdeacon was found beaten to death with a large, gilt candle-holder in the aisle of St. Anselm's chapel - the only real bit of gore in the entire proceedings - it was not an open-and-shut murder enquiry, but a question of unravelling a satisfyingly complex plot.

Its elements included academic plagiarism, a will that might have benefited the four old priests to the tune of £10 million, the marriage of a woman on the point of death in a hospice to an unknown bridegroom, the disposal of an Old Master altarpiece, and, finally, the existence of a papyrus allegedly containing an instruction by Pontius Pilate to his guard to dispose of the body of Jesus Christ - a bombshell that could fatally undermine the story of the Resurrection.

All in all, a belated summer return to proper television after the meagre diet we've been on for so long.

Peter Paterson

Daily Mail, 25.8.03.


Back to TV reviews page