His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials (BBC One)

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is arguably the finest work of fantasy in modern fiction (sorry, Potter fans – that’s just the way it is). So it was a crushing disappointment when the 2007 Hollywood film adaptation turned out to be such a misfiring dud.

To be fair, it’s not the easiest story to translate to the screen. Rich in allegory and subtext, it’s probably best described as a teenage-friendly rewrite of Milton’s Paradise Lost, set in ‘a world both like, and unlike, our own’, where the skies are filled with vast, steampunky airships, and human souls manifest as ‘daemons’ – pet creatures you can talk to, like an existential Dr Doolittle.

Our plucky hero, Lyra Belacqua, is an orphan raised in the cloistered confines of an Oxford college, but who dreams of accompanying her famous uncle, Lord Asriel, on his voyages to the frozen north. Here, in a land of armoured, talking polar bears, Asriel is investigating the phenomenon of ‘dust’ – effectively particles of original sin that cluster around adults once their childhood innocence has been lost. (Told you it was complicated.)

So it’s a coming of age story, and a sexual awakening story – one that pitches Lyra against the imposing forces of the Magisterium, arch-atheist Pullman’s thinly-veiled take on the Catholic Church. But it’s also a rip-roaring adventure tale, full of heroes and villains (like the child-snatching ‘Gobblers’), magic and wonder, triumph and heartbreak.

For this blockbuster TV adaptation, the BBC has very sensibly turned to Jack Thorne, JK Rowling’s co-writer on the Olivier and Tony Award-winning Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. They’ve also assembled a stellar cast, led by James McAvoy as Asriel and Ruth Wilson as the mysterious and seductive Mrs Coulter, alongside 14-year-old Dafne Keen, who’s as close to a perfect screen Lyra as fans could wish for.

With Ofcom warning last week of a ‘lost generation’ of young viewers being snatched away from the BBC by the Gobblers of Netflix and YouTube, this is the perfect Sunday night spectacle with which tempt them back. It’s pretty fantastic for us grown-ups, too.

 

Riding a Dream (ITV)

This summer, Khadijah Mellah, an 18-year-old Muslim from Peckham, defied the odds by galloping home to victory in the Magnolia Cup charity race at Glorious Goodwood. A rank outsider, who three months earlier had never even sat on a racehorse, the smart, grounded teen’s triumph against more experienced (and much posher) opponents riding better horses rewarded the filmmakers who’d been following her progress with the perfect, punch-the-air Hollywood ending.

 

Rich Hall’s Red Menace (BBC4)

Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Rich Hall’s witty but scholarly take on the Cold War traced how successive Soviet and American leaders and their spooks and scientists put the MAD into Mutually Assured Destruction. Alongside the usual suspects like Khrushchev and Kennedy, we learned about the surprising roles played in the atomic stand-off by, among others, a screaming baby, a spying cat and cartoon moose/squirrel combo Rocky and Bullwinkle.


Published in Waitrose Weekend, 7 November, 2019

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