For some, Christmas telly is all about the nuns in The Sound of Music. For others, it’s the romance of Love Actually, the adventure of Bond or people facing the ghosts of their pasts in A Christmas Carol.
BBC One’s festive three-parter Black Narcissus, happily, combines all four. Based on the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden and then a 1947 Oscar-winning movie adaptation, it sees Gemma Arterton donning a habit as Sister Clodagh.
Sent in the 1930s to establish a convent school in the Himalayan Palace of Mopu, she faces scepticism from the dissolute but dashing local planter Mr Dean (Alessandro Nivola) and disinterest from the locals.
A former harem, the palace throbs with tragedy and grim secrets that gradually infect Clodagh and her charges, the fragile Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) among them, as they confront past mistakes and present desires.
We’re at Pinewood Studios, hanging out in the laundry – formerly the opulent harem bathhouse, whose racy murals are now covered up with muslin sheets.
Arterton cuts a suitably incongruous figure in full habit amid all the faded luxury. After a cheeky cigarette off-set, the actress explains how she has coped in such an unforgiving costume.
‘I’m used to it after three months,’ she laughs. ‘The habit really helped with the character because nuns weren’t supposed to touch or place their gaze outside the habit so the outfits act like blinkers. Our ears are covered and hands concealed so there’s nothing you can really do with your body. I became really stiff, which was a real anchor.’
After a youthful affair in Ireland goes wrong, Clodagh has decided to devote her life to God, only for her evident love-hate rapport with Mr Dean to spark jealousy in Sister Ruth.
‘Clodagh is all about maintaining control,’ says Arterton. ‘We wanted to explore why she is the way she is, this wild, free-thinking rebel who gets shut down by joining the order.
Mopu reminds her of Ireland, the beauty of the place gets under her skin and that sense of control crumbles as she starts to reawaken her true self. Ruth is a challenge for her to deal with, like Mr Dean, and she starts to unravel.’
While the original film was shot entirely at Pinewood, the team behind the BBC series managed a week of filming in the Himalayas.
Despite a journey of two-and-a-half days, precarious flights on small planes and an awful lot of rain, Arterton will treasure the experience, not least for the bonding sessions at libellously named local eatery Yakdonald’s.
‘We were so lucky to go to Nepal,’ she says. ‘It’s in the middle of nowhere, no phone signal, nothing. The journey was so fatiguing but nothing compared to what the nuns would have experienced.
‘The air is really thin and you get altitude sickness but it makes you feel alive too. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been and that beauty is a huge part of why the nuns unravel – the godliness of the place makes them start to question God.
‘When we came back to Pinewood, it was invaluable to have that in mind. It was magic, really.’
Black Narcissus airs on BBC One at 9pm from December 27 to 29.
Credit: Original article published here.