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DEBORAH ROSS: It’s a devil of a job making sense of all these daemons

His Dark Materials

Sunday, BBC1

Rating:

Smuggled

Monday, Channel 4

Rating:

His Dark Materials is an adaptation of the trilogy by Philip Pullman and it is a wonderfully handsome and lavish production. Financed jointly by HBO and the BBC to the tune of £40 million, it is set in a world like ours but slightly off, with airships hovering over Oxford. The main character, Lyra, who seems to be one of those special, prophetic children, is played by Dafne Keen, who is fierce and bewitching. Other actors include Clarke Peters, James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff and Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter, and I don’t know as I’ve never read the books, is she going to turn out nasty? So it’s all here. It has everything I suspect fans would wish for, as this Special Child Embarks On A Quest And Fulfils Her Destiny (I’m assuming), but it is still intolerable. 

It is adapted by Jack Thorne, who wrote the This Is England series, National Treasure and, most recently, The Accident, with all its strangely under-traumatised parents. It isn’t that I can’t do fantasy, as I can. It’s just that it must have an internal logic, or come with a list of rules we can consult, otherwise it’s an utter torment. 

Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter. I don’t know as I’ve never read the books, is she going to turn out nasty?

Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter. I don’t know as I’ve never read the books, is she going to turn out nasty?

The opening episode covered Lyra being delivered as a baby by her Uncle Asriel (McAvoy) to Jordan College for safekeeping, the abduction of Gyptian child Billy, The Master’s attempt to poison Asriel, Lyra’s discovery of Dust, the arrival of the perturbing Mrs Coulter and the disappearance of Lyra’s great friend, Roger (Lewin Lloyd. I think the Gobblers might have him, particularly after that beardy man shouted, ‘THE GOBBLERS ARE REAL!’ ). 

But throughout I was almost solely concerned with the ‘daemons’, the physical manifestations of a person’s inner self that takes the form of an animal. Lyra’s daemon appears to be a stoat that seems to change colour, for some reason. For Asriel it’s a snow leopard and for Mrs Coulter a little monkey. And already I am massively distracted from the narrative in hand by trying to work out the rules. Do these daemons poop? What do they do when their people have sex? Look away and whistle? Why do they speak in little girls’ voices? What would happen if a daemon met its counterpart in the wild? Does everyone have one? If so, why does Ma Costa (Duff) seem to be without, along with the women who work in the laundry? So a torment, like I said. 

But even putting the daemons aside, if we can, the storytelling often felt flat, switching very clumsily from the Gyptians to Jordan College and back again,  and you couldn’t help but feel for The Master (Peters), who was given most of the setting-up to do. (‘The girl… she is not long for this place!’) And certain aspects of the plot proved a torment too. Why did Asriel make Lyra hide in a box to spy on a meeting he was at anyway, for instance? 

Apparently, the narrative will eventually take on big issues and will question the value of organised religion but, for now, it seems like one of your bog-standard, child-of-destiny fantasy epics. I  would say I’ll stick with this but The Crown is back very soon – THE CROWN IS BACK VERY SOON! – so probably I won’t. 

Smuggled, the reality programme that sets British citizens with the task of entering the UK illegally was initially pulled due to the Essex migrant tragedy, but was aired this week with a disclaimer: ‘This series was filmed before those tragic events took place.’ So that’s OK then. 

In the first episode of two, one person travelled using a friend’s passport, another hid in a lorry cabin, a third took a dinghy across the Channel and the fourth, Carolynne, stowed away in a motorhome. Carolynne began every sentence with, ‘As a grandmother…’, so it was ‘As a grandmother, I want to know everyone coming into this  country is known.’ What does she imagine? That immigrants eat grandchildren or something? Drink their blood? All four made it through, which especially upset Carolynne – ‘as a grandmother… I wanted to be caught as that would prove they’re doing their job right’ – although is this a game, really? Can you compare British citizens, who have nothing to fear and aren’t, in fact, doing anything illegal, with the desperate refugees, say, who are fleeing some terrible atrocity and for whom everything is at stake? 

Iorek Byrnison, the armoured polar bear. It isn’t that I can’t do fantasy, as I can. It’s just that it must have an internal logic, or come with a list of rules we can consult

Iorek Byrnison, the armoured polar bear. It isn’t that I can’t do fantasy, as I can. It’s just that it must have an internal logic, or come with a list of rules we can consult

But you did also have to ask: would 39 Vietnamese nationals have been found dead in the back of a shipping container if border security had checked that particular lorry? Or should you just look at evading border security in the same way as any other crime? That is, one that will sometimes be detected and sometimes won’t? You can’t strip down every pootling motorhome, after all. I would only say that organised crime gangs and human trafficking should concern us much more than Carolynne crouched in a cupboard. This was an uncomfortable watch, and possibly an insensitive watch, but I have to say it: some interesting questions were raised.  

 

 

 

 

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