Midway through the second episode of His Dark Materials (BBC One), the BBC’s vast-budget adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novels, the enigmatic Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) has her young charge, Lyra (Dafne Keen), fitted for a party dress. Lyra, who until now has found her new surroundings more comfortable than Jordan college, is reluctant. Coulter replies that the clothes you wear determine what people think about you. The friction between the two women is growing.
We might have added that you can tell even more by someone’s taste in interior design. Anyone can throw on a frock for a night. Fixtures and furniture are a much more reliable personality test, the aggregate of a thousand small decisions. Mrs Coulter’s gaff is pure oligarch psycho: marble corridors, designer chandeliers, oppressive bedrooms, absolutely no mess anywhere. Lyra doesn’t need an alethiometer to work out who the wrong’un is here. She could just look at the curtains.
Coulter assures Lyra she’s doing all she can to track down Lyra’s missing friend, Roger, but the girl would rather join the hunt herself. Creeping around her opulent new dwellings, she overhears titbits of suspicious information, slowly realising that she is a prisoner.
Elsewhere in alt-Oxford, the plot’s machinery is cranking into gear. The Gyptians’ guerrilla efforts to free the children are causing headaches for the Magesterium. When the Master (Clarke Peters) refuses to cooperate with menacing Lord Boreal’s (Ariyon Bakare) investigations, Boreal decides to cross into the other side, real-world Oxford, which has worse clothes, better coffee and, in a neat updating of the books, smartphones. Compared to the steampunkish elegance of the imagined universe, ours is crass and noisy.
The central revelation about the identity of Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), is inelegantly done. Coulter has been upset by the arrival of a couple of goons from the Magesterium, who threaten to shut down her research. When Lyra confronts her afterwards, Coulter sets her vicious monkey daemon on Pantalaimon. It is a one-sided proxy conflict, an act of pure bullying, and in the aftermath Coulter blurts out the truth. Keen is an expressive physical actor, but less convincing in the angry moments that follow.
There are a couple of other clunky notes, such as when Coulter tells Lyra about her fear of heights. But perhaps programmes made with children in mind must signpost some of their beats more clearly than an adult series. In a way, it’s a compliment. Because the look, feel, scope and imagination of the series are equal to the glossiest of HBO dramas for adults, it’s easy to forget this is meant to be dark material for the whole family.
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