As a screenwriter, Pirie has achieved a reputation for his noirish original thrillers, classic adaptations and period gothic pieces (see the BFI critique below), including most recently the hit ITV series Murderland starring Robbie Coltrane (2009), with ratings Digitalspy called "impressive" and The Guardian noted drew a 26% share and 6.3 million people for its opening episode, beating all other shows in its slot each week and averaging 5.8 million throughout its run. Pirie was nominated for a BAFTA for his adaptation of Wilkie Collins's 1859 novel The Woman in White into "The Woman in White" (BBC, 1997). The two part film was described by The Observer as "simply the best TV drama has to offer."
He also took a new approach to Sherlock Holmes both in TV and later in novels with the 'Murder Rooms' cycle, of which Publisher's Weekly wrote "This brilliant debut mystery from British screenwriter Pirie offers a novel twist on the Sherlock Holmes pastiche". It first saw life as a two episode pilot Murder Rooms (2000) which was partly based on Arthur Conan Doyle's early life. Echoing many other reviews from The Mail, The Times, The Independent and The Guardian (all viewable on murderrooms.com), the UK's Telegraph wrote, "a premise with a real touch of genius ...the script skillfully weaved episodes from Doyle's own past into a richly textured, constantly wrong-footing plot ... with a denouement as clever as anything that had gone before." Variety wrote, "Writer David Pirie has crafted a clever blend of historical evidence and fiction in the grand manner of a traditional Holmes mystery." The show was the second highest rated of all dramas on BBC2 in its year, spawning the series of books and TV shows, most notably Murder Rooms: The Patient's Eyes (2001). Pirie was credited as associate producer.
Pirie's work for TV and film includes the New York TV Festival award-winning Rainy Day Women (1984), recently described by Mark Lawson in The Guardian as "one of the neglected masterpieces of British TV." Element of Doubt (1996), Natural Lies (1992) and Ashenden (1991). He also worked (uncredited) on the screenplay for Lars von Trier's Oscar-nominated Breaking the Waves (1996)
Before he became a screenwriter, Pirie worked as a film critic for such publications as Sight and Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin while for some years he was the Film Editor of the London listings magazine Time Out.
His first book, A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946 – 1972 (1973), the first book-length survey of the British horror film, has according to Kim Newman in 'Sight and Sound' "long been regarded as a trail-blazing classic" and is described by SFX as among the small category of essential books on horror cinema. In it he analyses the films of Hammer and Amicus, and other British horror phenomena, including the works of Michael Reeves and what Pirie referred to as Anglo-Amalgamated's "Sadean Trilogy", beginning with Horrors of the Black Museum in 1959. An updated version of Pirie's book, entitled A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema was published in 2008. Film-maker Martin Scorsese described it as "the best study of British horror movies and an important contribution to the study of British cinema as a whole". Pirie's other film related works include The Vampire Cinema (1975) and Anatomy of the Movies (1981, as editor).
He has written several novels, including Mystery Story (1980), and the Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes trilogy which includes The Patient's Eyes (2002), The Night Calls (2003), and The Dark Water (2006). The New York Times wrote of the first: "It is the combination of style and scholarship ... that gives this atmospheric yarn the heightened thrill of intellectual challenge." Publishers Weekly described it as "a brilliant debut mystery...and several passages are truly spine-chilling."
Current work includes a modern remake of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, a feature version of his earliest TV production Rainy Day Women and a thriller set in the 60s Six Zero for Carnival Films the makers of Downton Abbey. He is also updating the study New Heritage of Horror, currently on its fourth reprint.
Below is a study of David Pirie's work by Tise Vahimagi excerpted with permission from the British Film Institute site Screen Online:
'His first television film, Rainy Day Women (BBC, tx. 10 April 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 Eastern Europe's Black Triangle for the Screen Two presentation Black Easter (BBC, tx. 4 June 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 for "The Woman in White" (BBC, 1997) of Wilkie Collins' novel The Woman in White, 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 appetiser 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 December 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 Vahamagi