The Dark Side of the Sun

The Dark Side of the Sun

Peter Egan's publicity still at the time of the series

In the early 1980s Michael Bird's television career was at its height and his work was in great demand. His friend David Cunliffe, who had directed episodes of The Lotus Eaters, became Head of Drama at Yorkshire Television and wanted Bird to write for him. The BBC was understandably eager for a new series. Not a man to shrink from a challenge, Bird found himself in the Autumn of 1983, at the age of 55, in the unique position of having major drama serials running on rival channels.

On Tuesday evenings on BBC1, The Dark Side of the Sun introduced us to a darker side of Michael Bird. Set once more in his favourite corner of the Mediterranean, this time on the beautiful island of Rhodes, Bird's newest creation left viewers in no doubt from the outset that evil forces were at work. A tale of supernatural terror, it concerned the discovery of a secret brotherhood of international financiers and politicians meeting clandestinely on Rhodes. The head of the brotherhood, Raoul Lavalliere, had his own secret concerning his ancestor Tibald de Montrefort, a particularly unpleasant individual from the middle ages when the Knights Templar settled on Rhodes.

September 2008 marked the 25th Anniversary of
The Dark Side of the Sun.

As a bit of fun Dr Marianne Gilchrist (see below) decided to celebrate the 'silver jubilee' by drawing up a chronology to see how the series' back-story dovetailed with real world events.

It works rather well ...


Bird gave Lavalliere the ability to cloud minds and to take on the form of another person - specifically that of photographer Don Tierney, played by Patrick Mower. It was a handy talent and one that enabled Mower to appear throughout the series even though his character was killed in the first episode. Lavalliere used his power to bed Tierney's widow leaving her believing her husband had returned. If it sounds vaguely sordid, it was, and Peter Egan's flawless portrayal of pure selfish evil was one of the highlights of the series and Lavalliere a truly memorable screen villain.

Peter Egan recalls that filming on Rhodes took place during a very cold February and March 1983. Emily Richard also recalls the cold. Radio Times reported the production was fraught with difficulties. "The weather was unseasonably bad and there were illnesses and rows and that sort of thing." Emily Richard says there was a taxi strike while they were there and the walk into the centre of Rhodes took one hour. Radio Times stated that a friend had warned Bird not to write about the Knights Templar, saying that bad things would happen.

Although disliked by some critics (one even complained that Patrick Mower's trousers were too tight) The Dark Side of the Sun was immensely popular with viewers. Bird had deliberately left the ending ambiguous. Since his character is seen purchasing a Scottish castle in the closing minutes, and the series was produced by BBC Scotland, Peter Egan confidently expected a sequel - a sort of demonic Monarch of the Glen. Why the BBC never followed it up remains a mystery, as does the fact that this excellent drama has never been repeated or made available on video or DVD.

I am not a fan of the Internet Movie Database, IMDB, but it does feature an intelligent critique of the series that is worth a look.

The Templars


Dr Marianne Gilchrist, a fan of the series and author of the above mentioned critique, says she was at St Andrews studying mediæval history when she first saw it. "The series became something of a cult. A mock-baronial wing of our hall somewhat resembled the Scottish castle in the last episode; also some of my friends in another hall spotted the fact that the owners of an adjacent house had a light coloured Mercedes …"

Dr Gilchrist says: "It crosses my mind that the historical back-story owes something to the dubious end of Foulques de Villaret's career as Master of the Hospitallers on Rhodes. He had conquered the island for his order. However he seems to have gone off the rails in his behaviour, and was forced to abdicate after his order rebelled against him in 1317 (they apparently tried to murder him!). He holed himself up in the castle at Lindos for a time, and was besieged. He eventually retired quietly to France, after the Pope authorised his demotion.

I find the series interesting as another example of the negative 'Templar Myth'. They have never really recovered from their framing by Clement V and Philippe IV, being posthumously co-opted by the Masonic movement in the 18th century, and used as all-purpose villains by Walter Scott. The Cyprus trial material is interesting, as torture was not used (unlike in France), and their innocence was well attested by a range of people. In fact, the Templars had a rather better moral reputation than the Hospitallers (who profited greatly from their suppression).

In terms of the fictional narrative of the serial, Foulques de Villaret is probably the Hospitaller Grand Master who orders the murder of the fugitive Templars and the villagers. Brother Philibert's not-so-very-hidden narrative in the margins of the account book would make sense as a message to his other brethren in engineering de Villaret's overthrow. (Something to pass around at the chapter meeting that ousted the old rascal, perhaps?)

The 'Dracula' overtones are quite strong. The 1973 Jack Palance 'Dracula' was the first to use the idea of Mina as the Count's lost love reincarnated (something the Coppola version also used), and I wonder if this influenced the Anne/Agnès plot-line?

I'm very fond of the series although I think more could have been made of some of its elements. The back-story was potentially very powerful. Had the 14th century Templars been depicted as innocent as they were, Thibaut/Raoul going off the rails would have actually had more force - someone who has lost his moral compass after experiencing a horrific injustice."

To delve further into the history of the Templars on Rhodes, Dr Gilchrist recommends:

  • For good, up-to-date, factual accounts of the military orders, Helen Nicholson's 'The Knights Templar: A New History' (Sutton, 2001) and 'The Knights Hospitaller' (Boydell, 2001). She teaches on the military orders, and has a good course website with bibliography: The Military Orders

  • Another useful link for historical background: ORB Online Encyclopedia to Military Orders

  • The Trial of the Templars in Cyprus by Anne Gilmour-Bryson a summary of the evidence from the trial in which torture was not used. (One assumes that Lavallière/de Montrefort was one of the Cyprus contingent!)
Check out Marianne's own web page, TEMPLARIANA , devoted to the treatment of the Templars in fiction. She devotes a whole section to The Dark Side of the Sun. Marianne has even penned a sequel to Bird's story. So far as I am aware it is the first time anyone has attempted that. You can read more about it on the 'Novelisation' page.

And now a little oddity ...

In September 2012 website visitor Natalia Tzenou (herself Greek) e-mailed me to say "when I went out to buy my usual newspaper this morning, I couldn't help browsing at another one, where I read a piece of amazing news; in an extensive article it is claimed that the Knights Templar, just before they left Rhodes, hid a vast treasure somewhere on the island. This is really uncanny, as most people know that the Knights that occupied Rhodes in the Middle Ages were the Hospitallers (aka Saint John's Knights). The Templars did come to the island, but stayed for a very short period.

What is also amazing, is the fact that the alleged existence of the treasure is mentioned in a document kept in the Rhodian Municipal Library (does this ring any bells?). Lots of treasure hunters, both local and foreign, have been digging in different places (Monte Smith hill, the moat below the D' Amboise Gate, Lindos, Filerimos archaeological site, Attavyros mountain, to name a few), in order to find the treasure.

And hold on, there's a third piece of uncanny news: one among the many foreign treasure hunters is a rather shady multi-millionaire who claims to be a descendant of the Templars!"

Natalia concluded: "It made me wonder whether the late M. J. Bird was an Allison Dubois type of medium who could write about things without even knowing they existed, or he had access to top secret information!"

Not surprisingly, my friendly Templar specialist Dr Marianne Gilchrist was sceptical. She concluded:

"I'm afraid this is typical of a lot of mythmaking that gets written on the subject. There were no Templars on Rhodes (except perhaps some who'd been co-opted by the Hospitallers), as the Hospitallers' role on Rhodes post-dates the suppression of the Templars, and the 'Templar Treasure' legends (in all their forms) are just that. See Helen Nicholson, Malcolm Barber and Peter Partner's books on the subject. The Templars seem to have taken their celibacy vows rather seriously (fewer known aberrations than with the Hospitallers!), so 'descendants' are unlikely to be direct. It's more likely that – if they exist – any valuables buried may be from the Hospitallers before they left the island, and may well be the main sort of treasure these orders had: richly decorated religious items & c. that they did not want to fall into Turkish hands (although they took a fair amount of their belongings to Malta)."

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