Talking animals, lavish effects and full marks for the £40m BBC gamble as CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials 

Rating:

Even for a broadcaster with an annual budget of nearly £5billion, the BBC's fantasy epic His Dark Materials comes with one heck of a price tag – a rumoured £40million, mostly spent on cinematic special effects.

And as the first episode premiered this week in an exclusive industry screening at the British Film Institute on London's South Bank, the corporation was desperate for good press.

Though the cost has been split with American cable network HBO, this is still the most ambitious serial the Beeb has ever attempted. 

The story revolves around 12-year-old orphan Lyra, Lord A's niece, whose daemon is called Pantalaimon or Pan. He frequently changes his shape, but mostly he's a white stoat, scampering close to her heels

The story revolves around 12-year-old orphan Lyra, Lord A's niece, whose daemon is called Pantalaimon or Pan. He frequently changes his shape, but mostly he's a white stoat, scampering close to her heels

The only show with a bigger budget is the royal Netflix costume drama The Crown, thought to cost £5.6million per episode.

There must be many at Broadcasting House with a nagging fear that it's a lot of money to splurge on the sort of story which once belonged in the teatime slot on Sundays.

His Dark Materials is a tale with talking animals and sneaky child-snatchers called the Gobblers.

With its two-dimensional villains and 12-year-old heroine, set in a snow-bound world of magic, it's like Narnia seen through the malevolent imagination of Roald Dahl.

The animals are perhaps the hardest element of Pullman's vision to realise. In the hugely readable books, they are an ethereal presence called daemons, a visible manifestation of each character's soul. On TV, they tend to look like free-range pets

The animals are perhaps the hardest element of Pullman's vision to realise. In the hugely readable books, they are an ethereal presence called daemons, a visible manifestation of each character's soul. On TV, they tend to look like free-range pets

The series is based on a trilogy of novels for young adults by Philip Pullman. 

They have already been turned into a triumphant 2004 production for the National Theatre, much praised for its innovative use of puppets – and a disastrous film with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig called The Golden Compass in 2007, lambasted for its stale acting and stilted pace.

With the global success of the Harry Potter franchise and the enthusiasm of younger audiences for every kind of sci-fi, fantasy and superhero film, it seems obvious that His Dark Materials is ripe for the boxset era.

But there's just one problem. Pullman's story is a philosophical allegory with strong echoes of John Milton's epic 17th century poem, Paradise Lost. Try pitching that line in Hollywood and see how far it gets you.

More troublesome still, the trilogy attacks organised religion and paints the Catholic church as a form of fascist superstate.

Even for a broadcaster with an annual budget of nearly £5billion, the BBC's fantasy epic His Dark Materials comes with one heck of a price tag ¿ a rumoured £40million, mostly spent on cinematic special effects

Even for a broadcaster with an annual budget of nearly £5billion, the BBC's fantasy epic His Dark Materials comes with one heck of a price tag – a rumoured £40million, mostly spent on cinematic special effects

The Catholic League tried to get the movie banned in America and Pullman's books were stripped from library shelves by Christian activists.

And the novelist loves to court controversy. Not only does he boast of being in the 'top ten banned books' but last August he called on Twitter for the Prime Minister to be lynched: 'When I hear the name 'Boris Johnson', for some reason the words 'rope' and 'nearest lamp-post' come to mind as well.' He later retracted the tweet.

All this makes the BBC's decision to invest so many millions in His Dark Materials the biggest gamble the drama department has ever taken.

They really are in it up to their necks: pre-production has already begun on the second series.

No surprise, then, that the computer graphics are stupendous from the opening shot. 

We see a helicopter swoop low over a comicbook version of Oxford by moonlight, its spires decorated with monstrous gargoyles.

The city is half-submerged, chest deep in flood waters, and wading across a college courtyard with a baby in his arms comes Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). He thrusts the child into the arms of the college's Master, its arch-deacon, played by Clarke Peters. Evidently, like The Crown, this is going to be the type of serial where every part is played by A Famous Actor.

That's true even of the animated characters. Stelmaria, the snow leopard companion of Lord A, is voiced by Helen McCrory (better known as Aunt Poll from Peaky Blinders).

The animals are perhaps the hardest element of Pullman's vision to realise. In the hugely readable books, they are an ethereal presence called daemons, a visible manifestation of each character's soul. On TV, they tend to look like free-range pets. 

Stelmaria talks like a Disney character and lies down in front of a log fire like a cocker spaniel after a long, muddy walk: she lacks the mystery and the menace of the daemon in the book. 

With the global success of the Harry Potter franchise and the enthusiasm of younger audiences for every kind of sci-fi, fantasy and superhero film, it seems obvious that His Dark Materials is ripe for the boxset era

With the global success of the Harry Potter franchise and the enthusiasm of younger audiences for every kind of sci-fi, fantasy and superhero film, it seems obvious that His Dark Materials is ripe for the boxset era

The story revolves around 12-year-old orphan Lyra, Lord A's niece, whose daemon is called Pantalaimon or Pan. He frequently changes his shape, but mostly he's a white stoat, scampering close to her heels. 

As the girl (Dafne Keen) and her best friend Roger charge around the college corridors playing hide and seek, I couldn't help worrying that Pan was going to get trodden on.

All the lavish CGI has other limitations. The more ambitious it gets, the more studio-bound the acting becomes. 

You can't help remembering that the stars are performing in front of green screens, talking to imaginary animals and running through unseen buildings.

At moments, when McAvoy was pretending to battle hurricanes in the Arctic or riding on metal airships, the entire business looked like a Fifties Hollywood epic. All it needed was Charlton Heston in a loincloth.

Full marks for commitment, though. The soundtrack is symphonic, the imagery is panoramic, the magical effects are mesmeric. If you're going to gamble £40million, this is the way to do it.

His Dark Materials begins on BBC1 on Sunday November 3.

Full marks for the £40m BBC gamble as CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews His Dark Materials 

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