Adapted from the 1977 novel of the same name by Antonia Fraser, Quiet as a Nun was a six part dramatisation revolving around Fraser's regular sleuth Jemima Shore, who revisits the convent where she was schooled following the mysterious death of one of the nuns. The nun, Sister Miriam, was a former friend of Jemima’s and she apparently starved herself to death in a ruined tower in the grounds of the convent. Jemima soon learns from the girls at the convent about a mysterious and malevolent figure called the Black Nun - a sinister faceless spectre which allegedly appears whenever a death is about to take place. The figure was seen just prior to Sister Miriam's death, and has been sighted again…
"Oh Christ... It's the rocking chair..."
The final minutes of the third episode, aired on 18th April 1978, are regarded as one of the most chilling moments on British TV – and the very scene that ingrained itself into the mind of my friend, who spoke about it with a mixture of loving nostalgia and well-remembered terror. In the scene, Jemima, who is thoroughly engrossed in her sleuthing, gingerly enters the tower alone at night. Climbing up into the attic she is greeted with the sound of a rocking chair on old rickety floorboards… Turning slowly around she is greeted with the sight of the faceless Black Nun, who suddenly rises up out of the chair and advances menacingly towards the screaming woman… Watch the clip here. And the opening titles of Armchair Thriller here. And then imagine yourself watching them as a young child. Gah!
The series was transmitted before the traditional 9pm watershed, and was very popular with families – I guess much in the same way that Dr Who was (and still is). This is probably one of the reasons why it is still so fondly remembered – and so controversial at the time. Watching the scene now is creepy enough, but I’m sure if I’d seen this as a child, it would have had a much deeper, more troubling impact, and no doubt resulted in many a sleepless night… It ties in perfectly with the whole ‘behind the couch’ ethos – that wonderful feeling of nostalgia and safe fear in a domestic setting, linked to being scared of something as a child, and now really quite enjoying the sensation and the nostalgia it provides.