Death of an Expert Witness

Death of an Expert Witness

1983 - United Kingdom

Phyllis Dorothy James known professionally as P. D. James, was an English novelist and life peer whose rise to fame came with her series of detective novels featuring the police commander and poet, Adam Dalgliesh. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962, but it wouldn't be until 1983, when Anglia Television purchased the broadcasting rights for the ITV network, that both James and Dalgliesh became household names.

The first adaptation of James' novels was a seven one-hour episode series, Death of An Expert Witness, which was actually her sixth novel published in 1977. It was, fortunately for Anglia Television, set in the East Anglian Fens, an area that James had visited and very much approved of, saying, "I'm very excited about it and so pleased they have kept so closely to the original story".

Scotland Yard's Adam Dalgliesh has been given the case involving the death of forensic biologist Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, the expert witness of the title, at a police laboratory. It is quickly established that only people associated with the laboratory would have had the opportunity to commit the crime, but because of their forensic awareness, they are unlikely to have left clues.

Death of an Expert Witness

Cast in the all-important role of Adam Dalgliesh was acclaimed actor and theatre director Roy Marsden, the star of the acclaimed Yorkshire Television Cold War espionage series, The Sandbaggers. Under Marsden's exquisite portrayal, Death of an Expert Witness became a hit with the viewing public. Marsden effortlessly brings Detective Dalgliesh to life, embodying the character's immense intelligence, unwavering determination, and intriguing vulnerability. His portrayal captures the essence of Dalgliesh's multifaceted nature, leaving viewers captivated by his sharp instincts and stoic demeanour as the short series seamlessly adapts P.D. James' intricate plots and tangled characters.

Death of an Expert Witness
Geoffrey Palmer

Another of the standout elements of the series is the superb ensemble cast who bring a multitude of intriguing characters to life. With their nuanced performances, the actors effortlessly convey the depth and complexity of their respective roles, ensuring that each character becomes an integral part of the narrative. At the start, Edwin Lorrimer, played by Geoffrey Palmer, is confident that he will be chosen as the Head Scientist at the laboratory. However, his happiness quickly fades when the position goes to newcomer Maxim Howarth, portrayed by Barry Foster.

Death of an Expert Witness
Barry Foster and Meg Davies

Upon arriving at the facility, Maxim brings significant changes alongside his half-sister Domenica, played by Meg Davies. Things take a bitter turn when Domenica callously ends an affair she'd been having with Lorrimer leaving him resentful and causing him to lash out at his colleagues. One of his primary targets is Clifford Bradley (Andrew Ray), a trainee scientist who suffers from neuroticism and nervousness. Lorrimer mercilessly bullies him. Additionally, he clashes with Paul Middlesmass (Stephen Thorne), who holds a grudge against Lorrimer for the suicide of another trainee under his guidance.

Death of an Expert Witness
Brenda Blethyn

Even Lorrimer's cousin Angela Foley (Brenda Blethyn) becomes entangled in the chaos as she seeks financial assistance from him but is ultimately excluded from his will. Pathologist Henry Kerrison (Ray Brooks) faces conflict with Lorrimer after Nell, Kerrison's somewhat unsettling daughter with childlike tendencies (memorably portrayed by Annabelle Lanyon), is abruptly thrown out. Everyone, it seems, has a motive for Lorrimer’s eventual murder. Every actor imbues their character with authenticity and conviction.

Death of an Expert Witness
Annabelle Lanyon

Under the direction of Herbert Wise, the adaptation admirably captures the essence of James' masterful storytelling. The episode does justice to James' gripping narrative, skilfully weaving together the intricate plotlines, unexpected twists, and spine-chilling suspense that became the hallmarks of her works. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the forensic laboratory is brilliantly conveyed through the expert cinematography, immersing the audience in the unsettling world of the investigation. Every scene is meticulously crafted, with attention to detail that showcases the precision of both the novel and the adaptation.

Death of an Expert Witness
Ray Brooks

Death of an Expert Witness is not merely a murder mystery; it is a captivating exploration of the human psyche, complete with its myriad complexities and hidden motivations. Through the eyes of Dalgliesh, the audience is drawn into the dark recesses of the human soul, confronted with the most visceral aspects of humanity. The series masterfully explores themes of obsession, betrayal, and sacrifice, elevating the narrative beyond a simple whodunit to a thought-provoking exploration of the human condition.

And while both James and Marsden were unsure of his lead; she was quoted as saying that he wasn’t her conception of the character but magnanimously admitted, “everyone who reads the book must have an individual interpretation of the character”, whilst he hinted that he did not see himself continuing in the role, the series was a critical success and paved the way for a second adaptation in 1984, Shroud for a Nightingale. As it transpired, Marsden played Dalgliesh in 10 adaptations.

Death of an Expert Witness stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of both P.D. James' beloved character and the masterful adaptation brought to life by Herbert Wise and his talented ensemble. Through its impeccably crafted storyline, exemplary performances, and unwavering attention to detail, the episode showcases the timeless appeal of Adam Dalgliesh and his enduring place in the pantheon of iconic literary detectives. It will undoubtedly leave viewers enthralled, eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to enter the thrilling world of Dalgliesh's investigations.

Published on January 17th, 2024. Written by Mark Turner-Box for Television Heaven.

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"More Morse than Regan, Dalgliesh is an intensely cerebral and private person who writes poetry, lives in an expensive flat above the Thames at Queenhithe and drives a Jaguar."

Also released in 1983