Quiet as a Nun
Quiet as a Nun is a thriller novel, written by Antonia Fraser. First published in 1977, it features Fraser's sleuthing heroine Jemima Shore as she revisits the convent where she was schooled following the mysterious death of one of the nuns. A six part television dramatisation of the book (written by Julia Jones) was featured as part of ITV's anthology series Armchair Thriller in 1978.
The novel begins with the death of a nun, Sister Miriam, who apparently starved herself to death in a ruined tower, known as the 'Tower of Ivory', which adjoins the grounds of the Convent of the Blessed Eleanor, a nunnery and an all-girls school.
The tower has specific significance to the order, as it was the original convent building. The tower and the ancient history of the order are recorded in the Treasury of the Blessed Eleanor, a manuscript which is referenced throughout the story. Though it is never stated explicitly, Blessed Eleanor is presumed to be Eleanor of Aquitaine, the once Queen of England.
Television reporter Jemima Shore is an old school friend of Sister Miriam, who was also known as Rosabelle Powerstock and was heiress to "the Powers fortune", one of the largest fortunes in Britain. Jemima is invited back to the convent by Reverend Mother Ancilla, where she uncovers a number of mysteries, including the suggestion that Miriam, whose family owned the convent lands, may have written a second will bequeathing them away from the Order, and into the hands of another charity.
The tension builds when the girls at the convent school tell Jemima that the Black Nun - a malevolent faceless spectre reputed to appear whenever a death is about to take place within the grounds - was seen just prior to Sister Miriam's death, and has been sighted again.
Quiet as a Nun was adapted for television by ITV in 1978, as part of the Armchair Thriller series. The adaptation starred Maria Aitken as Jemima Shore, along with Renée Asherson (Mother Ancilla), Brenda Bruce (Sister Elizabeth) and Sylvia Coleridge (Sister Boniface). Patsy Kensit, then a young child, plays one of the convent schoolgirls, Tessa Justin, who has a significant role in the final two episodes.
The final minutes of the third episode, aired on 18th April 1978, are still regarded as one of the most chilling moments on British television, noteworthy because the series was transmitted before the traditional 9pm 'watershed', the demarcation line in British television scheduling between family-friendly and adults-only viewing. In the scene, Jemima Shore goes into the Tower alone at nighttime. As she climbs into the attic, she encounters the faceless Black Nun sitting in a rocking chair. Jemima screams as the Black Nun advances towards her, bringing the episode to an end. The scene was ranked 63rd in Channel 4's Top 100 Scary Moments list.
Episodes and original airdates
- "Part One: The Tower" - 11 April 1978
- "Part Two: The Chapel" - 13 April 1978
- "Part Three: The Black Nun" - 18 April 1978
- "Part Four: Witness And Wills" - 20 April 1978
- "Part Five: Powers Of Darkness" - 25 April 1978
- "Part Six: Death And Decision" - 27 April 1978
- Maria Aitken as Jemima Shore
- Renée Asherson as Mother Ancilla
- Brenda Bruce as Sister Elizabeth
- David Burke as Tony Amyas, MP
- James Laurenson as Alexander Skarbek
- Doran Goodwin as Sister Lucy
- Margaret D'arcy as Sister Clare
- Kate Binchy as Sister Edward
- Linda Slater as Dodo
- Sarah Webb as Margaret
- Michelle Winstanley as Blanche
- Patsy Kensit as Tessa Justin
- Catrina Hylton as Mandy Justin
- Mary Healey as Beatrice O'Dowd
- James Appleby as Joe
- Susan Engel as Sister Agnes
- Sylvia Coleridge as Sister Boniface
- Julia Jones - writer, adaptation
- Moira Armstrong - director
- Jacqueline Davis - producer
- Bill Palmer - production designer
- Roger Webb - music
- Robert Banks Stewart - script editor