“Dalgliesh is a serious attempt by Channel 5 to assert itself as one of the big players in the realm of drama and it succeeds on every score.”
Contributed by Will Barber-Taylor
The gentlemen detective is a genre of fiction that emerged during the late 19th century and was popularised during the 20th century. The gentlemen detective is a type of detective that stands out from the hard-boiled trench coat wearers of Philip Marlowe’s novels and the grizzled and often morose detectives of the present.
They are the kind of detectives that are associated less with popular fiction and more with literary detective stories – stories that don’t simply answer why the crime was committed or who committed it but that examine the circumstances in society that allow for the crime to happen.
Such novels are those penned by the late P.D James featuring Adam Dalgliesh. Dalgliesh, who first appeared in the country house set Cover Her Face (a reference to the Duchess of Malfi’s unfortunate fate) back in 1962 is atypical of the genre. He is inspired in part by Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice allowing for a somewhat tortured by otherwise compelling investigator.
Dalgliesh was first portrayed on television by Roy Marsden (best known to many people are the larger of the Driscoll brothers from Only Fools and Horses and The Green Green Grass) back in the 1980s and 1990s on ITV. Marsden’s cool, aloof and sharply intelligent portrayal of the character defined him for many viewers as the definitive Adam Dalgliesh – the true embodiment of James’ policeman and poet.
Marsden portrayed the character for well over a decade and starred in ten adaptations of the 14 novels that James wrote. In the early 2000s, a further two adaptations would be made starring Martin Shaw as Dalgliesh for the BBC.
Shaw’s Dalgliesh reflected a change in the character that had also occurred within the novels – a willingness to move on from the death of his wife. Dalgliesh’s widowhood is central to the character throughout most of the novels and plays into his central, tortured self. In the final four books
Dalgliesh’s relationship with Emma Lavenham softens him and gives him a chance at happiness that has eluded him throughout the earlier parts of the series.
Channel Five’s decision to make a new series of Dalgliesh adaptations is therefore understandable. Not only is the character one in which a great deal can be explored but he is also a character who inhabits some of the best detective novels that have been ever written. James’ acclaim is entirely justified as she is as concerned with the introspection of society as she is with “whodunnit”.
The first of the adaptations is Shroud for a Nightingale, the fourth novel and second TV adaptation. Unlike ITV’s 1980s adaptation, which lasted for six-hour-long episodes, this version of Shroud for a Nightingale is split into two-hour-long episodes. Yet nothing is lost in the distilling of the story because of Helen Edmundson’s artful adaptation of the plot.
Edmundson clearly understands the core elements that make up a James novel – the claustrophobic setting (James sets her murder mysteries in tight knit, modern communities like trainee nursing colleges and nuclear power plants because they work so much better than artificially creating a set of circumstances in which a body is found, like a dinner party), the disruptive outsider and the sense of impending doom.
Whilst the ITV adaptation begins with the build-up to the murder of the bullying hypocrite Heather Pearce, the Channel 5 version begins almost instantly with Pearce’s striking and horrific death. This adds an impactful, punchy start to the story and allows new viewers unfamiliar with James’ work to be drawn into the drama.
Edmundson gives Dalgliesh a subtle yet telling introduction that reveals not only the time in which the adaptation is set (February 1975) but also aspects of Dalgliesh’s character. He is a quietly intelligent, commanding presence in the story, assessing all who are about him and not making any fanciful leaps. This is a core part of Dalgliesh’s genius as a detective – he can pinpoint the reason a crime has been committed thanks to his natural ability to understand human nature.
Edmundson’s pairing of Dalgliesh with DS Masterson (much more faithful to the original novel than the ITV adaptation in which DI Massingham stood in for him) is a work of genius. Masterson perfectly contrasts Dalgliesh in that he is the stereotypical 1970s policeman.
The contrast helps give the story more life – were Dalgliesh partnered with a detective similar to himself their interactions would not be as enjoyable, nor would it serve the story as well. Masterson’s bluntness allows aspects of Dalgliesh’s character to come out in response to it.
It also works well for the interviewing scenes that form the bulk of the episode. As Dalgliesh and Masterson attempt to piece together the sequence of events that led to Heather Pearce’s murder and ascertain why someone would kill the trainee nurse, the contrast between Masterson’s much more plodding and at times harsh approach and Dalgliesh’s calm and empathetic one gives us an insight not just into the characters but their core difference as detectives.
The slow piecing together of the motivation behind Pearce’s murder is wonderfully realised, with Dalgliesh’s slow realisation as to the true nature of the reason for the murder at Nightingale House leading to a stunning climax that will make sure viewers will tune in for the second part of the story.
Whilst the episodes are naturally condensed down from the original novel, Edmundson never loses any of the poignancy of the original books. The relationship between Dalgliesh and Mary Taylor, one of the senior nurses, is a highlight of both the book and this adaptation as it is core to the conclusion of the story. Ultimately, Edmundson is able to give us both character and plot in a way that is both satisfying in an adapted form and as a tribute to the original work.
The performances are all excellent. Bertie Carvel’s inhabitation of the part of Dalgliesh is complete and utterly riveting. His ability to play Dalgliesh’s mournful side, which gives him his understanding of human suffering as well as the side that is the brilliant detective is wonderfully precise. His scenes with Jeremy Irvine’s Masterson are particularly well done subtly plays Dalgliesh’s slight disdain for Masterson’s coarser nature. Carvel’s command of the part is complete, and his portrayal perfectly matches up to that given by both Marsden and Shaw. Whenever he is on screen your attention is always fully on him because he exudes a quiet, commanding presence in every scene that he is in.
Carvel is one of those actors who come along every so often and is able to be utterly believable in whatever part he plays, no matter how different they are. His portrayal of Dalgliesh is one of his finest and one that should be justifiably recognized as such.
Jeremy Irvine’s Masterson is equally excellent, and Irvine plays the laddish DS with a real flair. His contempt for his boss is visible and his inability to understand how Dalgliesh works lends his portrayal of the part a genuine authenticity. He isn’t simply a necessary sounding board for Dalgliesh but rather an equally interesting but distinctly different character from his boss.
Natasha Little’s portrayal of Mary Taylor is quietly effective. Her clear chemistry with Carvel’s Dalgliesh gives their scenes together a real poignancy in light of the conclusion of the story. Her obvious ability to command a situation as well as Dalgliesh allows for the two to seem comparable and equals in a way that Dalgliesh isn’t to Richard Dillane’s brilliantly self-important Courtney Briggs.
The direction by Jill Roberston is magnificently done. Whether it be of the Nightingale Nursing College or of the pub in which Dalgliesh and Masterson are staying, she frames her shots crisply and dynamically. Whatever time of year you might be watching it, the coldness in the landscape is apparent throughout the adaptation and seemingly seeps in across the screen. Robertson makes the most of the setting she is given and gives the episode a dynamic and lively flavour to it that allows for the viewer to be completely engrossed in what they are watching.
Dalgliesh is a serious attempt by Channel 5 to assert itself as one of the big players in the realm of drama and it succeeds on every score. Well written, atmospherically shot and with an excellent all-star cast, the series is one of the best things that have been broadcast on TV this year. It is a welcome contrast to many attempts made to make interesting contemporary detective dramas which often end up just being dull and predictable.
Dalgliesh shows that Channel 5 has a real place in the TV landscape equal to that of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 and that the British television landscape is changing. It is also a phenomenally good piece of television that I highly recommend you watch if you haven’t already.
Dalgliesh starts Tonight at 9.00pm on Channel 5