Series of single plays.
21 Episodes of 60 minute duration. 1978-1980
There have been many 'thriller' serials on British television over the years but not all that many series of thriller serials. In the late 1970s the ITV network screened such a series in a prime-time slot to great success in terms of ratings, though typically they soon forgot about it and moved on to other programmes.
There were actually two series of 'Armchair Thriller', the first of which premiered on 21st February 1978. Each story in the series was unrelated to any of the others and some of them were adaptations of existing novels. They were each told over the course of either four or six episodes, most of which ended with a dramatic cliffhanger to bring the viewers back for more.
The mood was set right from the off as most episodes commenced with the 'night time' version of the familiar Thames logo. Everyone remembers the usual version with a bright blue sky above the famous London landmarks, but occasionally in winter months Thames would use an alternative version to reflect the dark evenings. This darker, more mysterious Thames ident would then give way to the opening titles of 'Armchair Thriller', so very simple but highly effective: a short animation of a shadow coming to rest in a spotlit armchair, then, just as the shadow figure was seated, the hands would tense as though it were suddenly gripped with terror. And while these images were playing so too was an eerie melody. The theme music was actually written by Andy Mackay of the pop group Roxy Music. Even the trailers for the series heightened the horror element with their images of armchairs showered in blood and screaming faces. The serials themselves were a mixed bunch, and rightly so. The first series ran on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8.30pm. Andrew Brown and Jacqueline Davis produced, with Robert Banks-Stewart (later to create 'Bergerac') acting as script editor.
Kicking the whole thing off was 'Rachel In Danger', a four-part drama by John Bowen and directed by the highly-respected Waris Hussein. This story involved a 10-year-old girl (played by Della Lowe) who travels from Scotland to London to stay with her estranged father. Unbeknown to her, however, her father has been murdered and the man she believes is him is in fact a terrorist who is planning to assassinate a member of the Royal family. Next came the six-part serial 'A Dog's Ransom', a dramatisation of Patricia Highsmith's novel, again by John Bowen, which involved police corruption around a simple case of a dog being stolen, then the four-part 'The Girl Who Walked Quickly' by Ray Jenkins came next, a story concerning a man being literally brainwashed into terrorism starring Dennis Lawson.
The next serial was 'Quiet As a Nun' by Julia Jones from the novel by Antonia Fraser. This started out as though it were a fairly run-of-the-mill murder mystery albeit it the unusal setting of a convent as tv investigator Jemima Shore (Maria Aitken) looks into the events surrounding the death of a nun who was her childhood friend. Its use of a ghost in the form of a faceless nun terrified the living daylights out of a whole generation of children and is widely-remembered a quarter of a century later despite never having been repeated. Less remembered is the fact that one of the convent girls in the story is played by a very young Patsy Kensit! Of course the ghost eventually turns out not to be a ghost at all. And Jemima Shore of course survived to have her own tv series a short time later called 'Jemima Shore Investigates.' With Moira Amstrong directing, this made 'Quiet As A Nun' highly unusual for its time in that it had a female producer, writer, director and also a cast that was predominantly female too.
By the time the final story of the first series was broadcast in May , 'Armchair Thriller' had built up quite a following, resulting in the first episode of 'The Limbo Connection', which starred James Bolam as a man in search of his missing wife, achieving an audience in excess of 17 million viewers. 'The Limbo Connection' was written by Philip Mackie, based on the original book by Derry Quinn. The six episodes were directed by Robert Tronson.
So ended series one, but with such enormous success in the ratings, the commissioning of a second series was all but guaranteed. It duly appeared in January 1980, again on Tuesdays and Thursdays but at the slightly earlier time of 8pm. Andrew Brown now shared the producer's chair with Brenda Ennis, whilst Robert Holmes took over as the new script editor. Series two began with 'The Victim', a fairly straightforward tale of an executive (John Shrapnel) whose young daughter (Lorna Yabsley) is kidnapped. Gareth Davies directed from Michael Ashe's scripts.
Next up was 'Dead Man's Kit', a filmed affair produced by not by Thames but by Southern TV. Tom Clenaghan's story seemed to lack the special indefinable ingredient that had made the first series stand out, although the same can be said for most of the entries in the second series. Starring in this story was Larry Lamb as a Chief Petty Officer aboard a ship who believes the death of one of the crew is part of a bigger conspiracy. Director Colin Bucksey assembled an impressive cast: Philip Locke, Maurice Colebourne, Clive Merrison, Cheri Lunghi and William Russell all appeared in this four-parter.
The four-part 'Dying Day' is probably the highlight of series two and certainly served up the kind of memorable images that the initial series had specialised in. Ian McKellen starred as the rather weedy Anthony Skipling who becomes caught up in a chain of events that defy logical explanation, little realising that he is actually being manipulated through his own paranoia into murdering a man he doesn't even know. Each episode memorably began with Skipling relating his tale into a police tape recorder. The director was Robert Tronson the only director from the first series who contributed to the second. He also directed the next tale, the four-part 'Fear Of God.' Bryan Marshall stars as journalist Paul Marriott whose life changes suddenly one day when he sees a woman falling to her death past the window of his flat. 'Fear Of God' was another of Derry Quinn's novels, this time adapted for 'Armchair Thriller' by the experienced Troy Kennedy Martin.
'High Tide' saw P M Hubbard's original novel adapted into four parts by Andrew Brown. The story concerned a convicted killer (Ian MacShane) who, when released from prison, decides to discover exactly what the curious words uttered by his dying victim meant. Colin Bucksey directed this story for Southern Television.
Thames took over again for the final 'Armchair Thriller' serial, 'The Circe Complex', which aired in March & April 1980. Beth Morris starred as Val Foreman, also known as Circe, a woman with a cruel, manipulative power over men. Desmond Cory had written the original novel which David Hopkins adapted into 6 episodes, directed by Robert Cardona.
'Armchair Thriller' was not picked up for a third season, most probably due to cost implications and the second series not performing quite as well as the first. Some of the serials did get repeated in daytime slots and then later on the now defunct Super Channel but otherwise this often imaginative and sometimes chilling drama series has been allowed to fade from the memory – except that is for those really scary moments that will remain etched on the mind for many more years yet...
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