Black Narcissus was a huge bestseller on its publication in 1939. It’s not hard to understand why. This tale of a group of Anglo-Catholic nuns battling their demons as they try to establish a community in a remote Himalayan palace is still as heady and disturbing as the perfume that gives the book its title. How perfectly the author Rumer Godden tells her story of the Sisters of St Faith and their doomed venture to the former House of Women at Mopu. Part ghost story, part romance, it’s full of atmospheric detail about the landscape and its people, as well as psychological acuity about the failures of understanding, both cultural and personal, that lead to tragedy.
Yet when I was approached to write an adaptation of Black Narcissus for BBC One, I had to confess that I’d never read the book – although the film version, starring Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, was one of my most vivid memories from my student days. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger translated a charged fable of female desire into a masterpiece that Martin Scorsese described as “one of the first truly erotic films”. Seeing it on the big screen blew me away. Repression, sex, a struggle for power; the saturated Technicolor of Jack Cardiff’s cinematography; not to mention Kathleen Byron’s high-camp performance as the demonically lustful Sister Ruth… why would you try to make another version, I wondered?
But then I read the book, and was smitten all over again. I began to see it might be possible to bring the story to life for a new audience.
Key to the tragedy at the heart of the tale is the nuns’ attempt to impose a culture they have never thought to question, until Mopu begins to work its disquieting magic. Although the book makes the folly of their mission clear, the colonial mindset and its language play very differently at a distance of more than 80 years. Pre-Partition India was famously re-created at Pinewood for the 1947 film, where the only Indian actor cast was Sabu (full name Sabu Dastagir) as the Young General. In the search for appropriate actors for our production, it was a particular pleasure to find Nepali actor Dipika Kunwar. She makes her screen debut as Kanchi, a role originally taken by Jean Simmons, but which now, thanks to blackface and some dodgy “erotic” dancing, feels wincingly of its time.
Andrew MacDonald, one of our executive producers and the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, was determined to film as much of the new production as possible in the Himalayas. Exteriors were shot in the Mustang district of Nepal, requiring feats of endurance at altitude. In this everyone was inspiringly led by our near-superhuman director Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who did double duty as director of photography. She was keen to pay tribute to the look of the film in her shooting style, honouring some of Jack Cardiff’s most iconic shots, while incorporating the scale of the landscape with a skill uniquely her own.
The bungalow of land agent Mr Dean (Alessandro Nivola) was built in a stunning valley next to a glacial run-off. A baby goat makes a charming cameo appearance on his veranda, as does a yak who catches Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) spying on Mr Dean.
The seasoned frisson between Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean was an aspect of Black Narcissus that I was keen to realise in this adaptation. The book makes clear that Mr Dean’s sexiness has an impact on the nuns equal to that of the landscape. The unfortunate shorts sported by David Farrar in 1947 were banished, along with his comedy pony, and production designer Kave Quinn gifted our Mr Dean a more Indiana Jones vibe.
Sister Clodagh’s own past, crucially, is that of a sexually experienced woman, not a girl. As Clodagh’s memories begin to haunt her, the younger and more vulnerable Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) is haunted by the palace itself. Of course, what Ruth sees may be the product of her own overwrought imagination, fuelled by her increasingly overwrought desire…
Desire is at the heart of Black Narcissus. Thematically, that seems to draw a line to other shows I’ve written, such as Apple Tree Yard and The Trial of Christine Keeler. But the desire Godden brings to life isn’t just sexual. For Sister Philippa (Karen Bryson) it’s planting a garden, for Sister Blanche (Patsy Ferran) it’s the longing for a baby, while for housekeeper Angu Ayah (Nila Aalia), her heart’s desire is to have the House of Women to herself. This wonderful story tells us that the repression of desire is as dangerous as to be consumed by it. In the battle to deny what makes us most human, madness definitely lies, and there’s a terrifyingly long way to fall.
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.