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Pirie, David (1953-)


Main image of Pirie, David (1953-)

A one-time film critic for Time Out magazine and presenter of the BBC World Service's Soundtrack, David Pirie was also a frequent contributor to Sight and Sound magazine and the Monthly Film Bulletin. His first book about the cinema was A Heritage of Horror (1973), a groundbreaking study of the British fantasy genre. In 1980 his first novel, Mystery Story, was published.

Turning to screenwriting, his first television film, Rainy Day Women (BBC, tx. 10/4/1984), directed by Ben Bolt for producer Michael Wearing, was set in rural England during the early days of the Second World War. Here, a detachment of the local Home Guard are at war with a forceful farm widow and her land girls, the latter group suspected of being German sympathisers or lesbians, or even of witchcraft. The imaginative effect to which Pirie put his script in establishing an atmosphere of strangeness - suppressed hate and passion, parochial paranoia - remains the most striking thing about the film.

When Pirie (with director Bolt) returned with the three-part Never Come Back (BBC, 1990), an adaptation of an obscure wartime thriller by author John Mair, his love of the film noir atmosphere of 1940s cinema was brought across to remarkable effect. The sharpened air of menace was always left unexplained, suggested but never explicit.

However, Ashenden (BBC, 1991), a four-part adaptation of Somerset Maugham's spy stories, was an oddly static affair. Concerning a young writer who is recruited by wartime intelligence into a world of moral ambiguity, the mechanical narrative of the original material allowed few of the side-tracking excitements of action.

Having worked with producer Michael Wearing on both Rainy Day Women and Ashenden, Pirie's 1992 conspiracy thriller Natural Lies (BBC) became something of a return to the form of the producer's acclaimed Edge of Darkness (BBC, 1985). At the centre of the plot was the then-current subject of BSE, or 'Mad Cow Disease', spreading to humans with lethal consequences. Like Edge of Darkness, with its subject matter of nuclear waste cover-up, Natural Lies took its alarming theme and cleverly enveloped it within a thriller; resulting in a suspenseful story capable of standing up to the Hitchcock comparisons that it occasionally invited.

Continuing his exploration of serious issues about society, Pirie researched Poland's 'Black Triangle' for the Screen Two presentation Black Easter (BBC, tx. 4/6/1995). Although the drama was set in a near future world, in an immigrant exclusion zone guarded by advanced electronics, the real-life background was that Polish landscape which adjoins the eastern border of Germany and the EU, populated by a mass of refugees and dislocated people. The dark thriller focused on an investigation of an apparent race murder, leading to a disturbing underworld of would-be immigrants, border police, corruption and cover-ups.

While Pirie's film noir-influenced works may be among the most satisfying of television's occasional excursions into that cinema style, it is with his Gothic screenplays that he excels as a genre writer. His screenplay of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (BBC, 1997), as a two-part Victorian fever dream about frantic obsessions and desires, not only confirmed the period detective story and psychological mystery as a potent television form but also served as an appetizer for Pirie's following work, Murder Rooms.

In offering a rare glimpse into the genesis of Sherlock Holmes through an imaginative weaving of the early years of Arthur Conan Doyle as a student at Edinburgh University and his relationship with forensic science pioneer Dr Joseph Bell, Pirie crafted perhaps one of the television genre's finest crime and mystery presentations. Beginning with a two-part, introductory story, Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (BBC, 2000), Pirie developed a remarkable series of feature-length mysteries for the BBC during 2001. The series, suggesting an expert blend of early Hammer Films and 1940s American film noir, interlinked the Doyle-Bell investigations with the published Doyle-Holmes mysteries to superb effect.

Seen also during this period was his two-part The Wyvern Mystery (BBC, 2000), an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's gothic horror-piece concerning, once again, women of the purest white, menacing men in dark old houses, and sudden appearances of 'mad women' from out of the shadows. While perhaps not the best of Le Fanu's work, its actual presentation seemed like a splendid small-screen tribute to the moody-gloomy Gainsborough melodramas of the 1940s.

Apart from the conventional 'Sad Cypress' episode (ITV, tx. 26/12/2003) of the Agatha Christie's Poirot (ITV, 1989-) series, Pirie's work suggests that the extraordinary, the nightmarish, is simply one step further on from the everyday, and it is this deliciously uncanny feeling that is effectively evoked throughout his work.

Tise Vahimagi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989-)Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989-)

The casebook of Belgium's finest detective

Thumbnail image of Ashenden (1991)Ashenden (1991)

Spy drama adapted from Somerset Maugham's stories

Thumbnail image of Black Easter (1995)Black Easter (1995)

Thriller set in strife-torn Eastern Europe at the turn of the millennium

Thumbnail image of Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (2000-01)Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (2000-01)

Fascinating detective drama based on Arthur Conan Doyle's real life

Thumbnail image of Natural Lies (1992)Natural Lies (1992)

Bob Peck stars in a tense thriller inspired by the BSE scandal

Thumbnail image of Rainy Day Women (1984)Rainy Day Women (1984)

Poignant drama about wartime tensions in a remote English village

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