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Shroud for a Nightingale (1984) – DVD Review

shroud for a nightingale dvd cover


Written by: Robin Chapman, based on the novel by P. D. James
Directed by: John Gorrie
Starring: Roy Marsden, John Vine, Sheila Allen, Joss Ackland, Deborah Findlay, Richard Marner, and Eleanor David


  • Cast biographies
  • P. D. James bio

Released by: Lance Entertainment
Region: 1
Rating: NR
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format.

My Advice: Rent it.

Scotland Yard’s Chief Superintendent Dalgliesh (Marsden) is investigating a contract killing of a witness that greatly benefits Martin Dettinger (Marner), a financier who may be selling British arms to Eastern Bloc countries (remember, this is 1984). To complicate matters, Dettinger is about go into surgery and can’t be interviewed properly because of his health. Dalgliesh decides to interview Heather Pearce (Findlay), a student nurse who tended to Dettinger, to see if he said anything of importance. To complicate matters more, she is the “patient” in a demonstration of naso-gastric feeding (sticking a tube up the nose into the stomach to feed) at the nurse’s school run by Matron Mary Taylor (Allen). What really complicates matters is the milk used to feed Nurse Pearce is poisoned and she dies right in front of Dalgliesh.

[ad#longpost]Was she silenced because she heard something she shouldn’t? As Dalgliesh investigates, he finds that Nurse Pearce was a sanctimonious, snooping, hypocrite who preached the Gospel while trying to blackmail her fellow nurses. Since no one really liked her, Dalgliesh has plenty of suspects there. But Pearce was a replacement for a sick fellow student, Jo Fallon (David) who has her own skeletons including an affair with the prominent surgeon, Stephen Courtney-Briggs (Ackland), and an unwanted pregnancy. When she dies from some poisoned whisky, Dalgliesh must discover whose secrets are worth killing for before they need another Shroud for a Nightingale.

While some mystery writers concentrate on the procedures of forensics and investigation or creating unusual characters to populate their stories, P. D. James focuses on the ordinary and mundane. While this may seem boring, James involves you in her characters’ lives so you can feel the fear and desperation over matters which, objectively, seem like much ado about nothing. Infidelity, petty theft, or a small inheritance is little cause to take a life, but James knows that murders are done for these very simple reasons every day.

The actors never overdo their characterization, thereby keeping them human and accessible. Roy Marsden conveys the sadness and pity the detective/poet Dalgliesh feels because he can see how the suspects are very rarely evil, just flawed people who can’t see how to escape their problems except through death. And the only thing he can do is arrest them. Shroud for a Nightingale can almost be the antithesis for Our Town. Where Wilder shows how the unremarkable things in life make that life worthwhile, James shows that they can make life horrible as well.

Victim from Shroud for a Nightingale

Unfortunately, the DVD special features are anemic. The too-brief bio of the author P. D. James only highlight how little effort was put into the disc. How difficult would if be to get Dame James into a studio and record her thoughts on this book, its adaptation to television, and on Roy Marsden, who has had the role of Dalgliesh in other productions? I’m sure she could make some room in her schedule somewhere. Unfortunately, the folks behind this DVD didn’t apparently have the time or the means. All that aside, this is still a good adaptation of a solid mystery novel written by a grandmaster of the genre–so rent it.

Shroud for a Nightingale

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  • Things erroneous in the movie description:
    1. Matron Mary Taylor is played by Sheila Allen, not Eleanor David; Nurse Jo Fallon is played by Eleanor David, not Deborah Findlay