BBC’s His Dark Materials keeps all the seriousness of the original novels

The TV and books I loved best as a child flattered me by seeming to treat me as an adult: this adaptation will do the same for many children.

In His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman’s epic saga of innocence and experience, every human has a daemon: an animal that represents his or her inner self. The daemons of children can change form; the daemons of adults “settle” as a creature that strongly reflects their character. In the noisy new adaptation of the first two novels in the trilogy (3 and 10 November, 8pm), a co-production between the BBC and HBO, the CGI daemons are brilliantly lifelike, whether a pine marten or a bat, a snow leopard or a monkey, and as a result you start to ponder quite seriously what form your own might take. For a while, I happily pictured the whippet that would henceforth be always at my side: a contented, affectionate creature with big, round eyes and a pointy nose. But let’s face it, I was deluding myself. I think I’d like a wasp, the better to sting my enemies – or even just those people who don’t answer my emails.

Anyway, suffice to say that I’m very happy with the BBC’s daemons. I’m also happy with its airships, which float above Oxford like huge silver bullets (in Pullman’s parallel universe, planes do not exist). When our young heroine, Lyra (Dafne Keen), and her new guardian, Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson), leave Jordan College, where Lyra grew up having been deposited there as a baby by her uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), they catch the airship to London, and its interior is as lovely as that of a pre-war Tube carriage. Speaking of Lyra, I’m also happy both with her, and her friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd). Usually, I’m allergic to children on screen, a legacy of the gruesomely mannered performances of my childhood (I still have nightmares about the knickerbocker-clad child actors in the BBC’s 1976 adaptation of E Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet, whose poshness had to be heard to be believed). But these two are great, particularly Keen, who makes the determined and inquisitive Lyra likeable without being wholly lovable. And yes, in case you’re wondering, I’m very happy indeed with the chilly and mysterious Mrs Coulter. Wilson is one of those actors who can make you shiver even as she smiles. Plus, there’s no one on this earth who looks better in a belted trench coat.

But I must be honest: fantasy is not my thing. For me fully to enjoy His Dark Materials, with its Gobblers (who kidnap small children), its Gyptians (who are nomads that live on the river), and its Magisterium (who are what you might get if you put a Catholic priest and a freemason in a blender and then asked John Galliano to dress the result), I would need to have swigged more than one limoncello. I would also require the presence of my most invigorating niece, E, who would doubtless be so irritated by my failure to accept the plot – “look, stupid, an alethiometer is just a machine that tells the truth!” – that I would have no choice but to suspend my disbelief. (Also, she could run to the kitchen for ice, crisps etc.) This doesn’t mean that I don’t see its odd beauty, or grasp its weird internal logic. It just means that I will be less excited than some to see what Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) does with the character of the Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby – the Han Solo of the show, as Miranda has put it – when he finally appears on screen.

I also understand absolutely its appeal for the young. Certain things set me off as a kid, and pretty much all of them are here: secrets, spying, exploration. More vitally, there’s the fact that Jack Thorne, who has adapted the stories, has kept all of their seriousness. The TV and books I loved best as a child flattered me by seeming to treat me as an adult; in their sophistication, I felt sophisticated myself. “Are we lunching at the Arctic Institute?” Lyra asks Mrs Coulter in the second episode – a line that was delivered as though it was at once the most exciting thing in the world, and the most ordinary – and which made me, as a result, feel like punching the air. Yes, this is the stuff that little girls are made of, and how lucky for this generation that they get to see it. Had it been on when I was small, it would have had me spreading out my maps on the carpet, carefully plotting my course to the future. 

His Dark Materials
BBC One

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 06 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong