Have there ever been so many detective dramas on television? I enjoy a gruesome murder as much as the next person, but it can get a bit much. Then again, when TV looks elsewhere for dramas we end up with Vigil or The Larkins, so be careful what you wish for.
The latest addition to the genre is Dalgliesh, and it’s a good one. It would be quite a difficult one to get wrong, really, being an adaptation of the PD James novels, which are a cut above most stories in the genre.
But Channel 5 has done a fine job of bringing it to the screen. DCI Adam Dalgliesh was played for two decades by Roy Marsden, and briefly thereafter by Martin Shaw.
The casting of Bertie Carvel initially gave cause for alarm, because Dalgliesh is the unshowiest of detectives and Carvel is best known for his larger-than-life performances, from Miss Trunchbull in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda to a cheating husband in the histrionic Doctor Foster. His next role is Tony Blair in The Crown. But here he gives a deliberately muted performance, dialling it right down.
The production sets Dalgliesh apart from his surroundings, and from his fellow police officers. He is quiet, cerebral, a man who publishes poetry when not solving crimes. We are in the 1970s – the episode resorted to the handy device of a car radio delivering a news report about Margaret Thatcher challenging Edward Heath for the leadership – but in a certain light Dalgliesh could be from a different century, a Jonathan Harker figure with his sideburns and immaculate dark suit.
That’s in sharp contrast to his sidekick, DS Masterson (Jeremy Irvine), who dresses in the decade’s trademark browns and could have been beamed in from Life on Mars. He greets the sight of twin witnesses with: “My first porno was twins – had me seeing double for weeks.” Dalgliesh chooses to ignore him.
This first story in the series, Shroud for a Nightingale, was set in a training centre for young nurses. One of the students met a gruesome death, poisoned by gastric tube. The list of suspects includes her fellow nurses, an icy matron and a self-important surgeon. We’re halfway through and I haven’t a clue who did it, which is pleasing.
Carvel brings out the character’s fundamental decency while keeping him at an emotional remove. Dalgliesh has a coolness about him, but also a charisma. The script drip-feeds us details about his life: the poetry, the wife who died. It gives us enough to want more, while remaining firmly focused on the crime at hand. As for the crime, the tension builds with a nice sense of dread – even if you weren’t familiar with the plot beforehand, when you saw that tube go down poor Nurse Pearce’s throat you knew things were about to go very wrong.
For some viewers, Dalgliesh will always be Roy Marsden. It is possible to compare and contrast, because Marsden’s version of Shroud for a Nightingale is available in its entirety on YouTube (preceded by the Anglia TV silver knight, a little bonus for those of us who love telly nostalgia) with Joss Ackland as the surgeon. Marsden is superb, but inevitably the production values look dated: the episode aired nearly 40 years ago.
The new version doesn’t look as if it was made on a lavish budget either, but the programme-makers have made every penny count. It is classily done, from the costumes to the cars (Dalgliesh drives a gorgeous E-Type Jag). The sets are detailed, and there isn’t a weak link in the supporting cast, which included Natasha Little as the matron and Helen Aluko as the weepy Nurse Dakers. It’s the first in a series of two-part stories, which strikes me as a good idea.
Often these days the choice is either between a two-hour drama, which can seem like a bit of a commitment, or a story strung out over several episodes when two would have sufficed. The next stories are The Black Tower, set in a home for the disabled, and A Taste for Death, in which a homeless pensioner and a government minister are found dead in the same spot.
Channel 5 scores ratings hits with its schlockier dramas such as The Drowning, but Dalgliesh shows – in the same vein as All Creatures Great and Small – that the broadcaster can also do elegant restraint. Television executives elsewhere may consider this kind of straightforward, unflashy whodunit to be old-fashioned, but viewers may disagree.