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TV review: His Dark Materials

Feast for the eyes: Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in the lavish TV drama PICTURES: BBC/BAD WOLF/HBO


His Dark Materials

BBC One ★★★★✩

THE audience for His Dark Materials is going to be divided into two camps: those who cherish Philip Pullman’s books like life itself and those who’ve never read this fantasy trilogy and have somehow managed to evade the stage/film/graphic novel/radio adaptations (they’ve probably done it on Strictly too) for whom it is virgin territory. Yup, that’s yours truly.

So the key question is: does His Dark Materials work as a TV show if you have only the vaguest idea of the story? As the many characters tumbled off the page and on to the screen, and the criss-crossing themes each made their entrance, the initial impression was one of bafflement. I was quite glad there was a menagerie of beautifully realised cute critters — sorry, daemons — to keep hold of.

Convincing: Dafne Keen, who stars as the heroine Lyra, with her ‘cute’ daemon

But, as the smoke began to clear, it actually felt quite liberating to come to this lavishly realised vision of Pullman’s work — it’s a true feast for the eyes — without pre-formed ideas of child heroine Lyra, grizzly explorer Lord Asriel and foxy Mrs Coulter. Heaven knows if Dafne Keen, James McAvoy and Ruth Wilson are how fans see the characters, but as performances they sprang to life fully formed and convincing — once I’d got over the initial impression that Keen’s Lyra was a bit of an indulged brat.

Straddling the tricky middle ground between kids’ adventure and adult drama, back in the day His Dark Materials would have been a Sunday tea-time drama with balsa wood sets and played out by string puppets.

Elevated to prime time and given the full CGI, at times the epic production threatened to overwhelm the central story of Lyra’s dealings with duplicitous adults — the journey from innocence to experience — but it wasn’t hard to be swept along for the ride. What it really did, though, was spark in me a desire to read the source material. Which is about the best thing you can say about TV taking on a beloved work of fiction.