Rejuvenated Billie Piper to star in Pullman TV drama

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The Independent Online

Three years ago she was a retired teen pop star married to a millionaire media star with whom she shared a fondness for drink.

But Billie Piper, rejuvenated by a combination of Chaucer and the Time Lord, is now to star in a BBC adaptation of The Ruby in the Smoke by the award-winning author Philip Pullman.

The one-off drama is the first in a quartet of novels set in Victorian England by the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Piper, 23, will play Sally Lockhart, a feisty young heroine on a journey to discover the truth behind her father's death in which she becomes caught up in the corrupt world of the opium trade.

Laura Mackie, head of BBC drama series and serials, said Piper was exactly right for the role. "Billie Piper is an extremely versatile actress whose talent has deservedly been recognised by critics and audiences alike ... Billie is the perfect choice for bringing to life this engaging and fearless heroine."

Yet Piper's transformation into leading lady might not have been predicted five years ago when she married Chris Evans and, aged 18, quit the pop business in which she was already a Brits award-nominated veteran. (She had had four singles make the top three in the charts by the time she was 16.)

For a while the pair were inseparable, and their love of boozy evenings in the pub was deemed to have contributed to Evans's sacking from Virgin Radio. Many thought she was a teenage sensation whose star had burnt out - arguably with her husband's assistance.

So there was much surprise in 2003 when it was announced that she would appear in one of the BBC's adaptations of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Yet a perky and accomplished performance won plaudits, and she was snapped up to play the assistant, Rose, when Dr Who returned to British television.

The workload of appearing in the revival of the cult series contributed to the amicable breakdown of her marriage, but her reputation on screen continued to rise. Her most recent appearance was as Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, a modernised television version of the Shakespeare play.

What the sceptics had forgotten was that even before Piper caught the eyes of record producers, her first love had been acting. She had trained at the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London, and had an uncredited bit part in the film version of Evita in 1996.

Pullman wrote four Sally Lockhart mysteries after originally creating the main characters for a play. The BBC has bought the rights to the series, and the second title, The Shadow in the North, will be filmed straight after the first, also as a stand-alone drama. Transmission dates have not yet been agreed.

Ms Mackie said: "Philip's books are full of absorbing characters and engaging, multi-layered plots that appeal to both adults and children alike."

The British actors James McAvoy, best known for Shameless, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who starred in Kinky Boots, have been shortlisted for the Orange Rising Star Award at this year's film Baftas. The other nominees are Michelle Williams, who is in Brokeback Mountain, Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican heartthrob, and the Hollywood starlet Rachel McAdams.