The week in TV: His Dark Materials; Britannia; Dublin Murders and more

Dafne Keen as Lyra and Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials.
Dafne Keen as Lyra and Ruth Wilson as the ‘seriously glam/unspeakably sinister’ Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials. Photograph: BBC/Bad Wolf/HBO
Dafne Keen as Lyra and Ruth Wilson as the ‘seriously glam/unspeakably sinister’ Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials. Photograph: BBC/Bad Wolf/HBO

An inspired adaptation of His Dark Materials appeals to newbies and Pullman devotees alike, while Dublin Murders rewarded even those who had lost the plot

Euan Ferguson

Last modified on Mon 11 Nov 2019 06.02 EST

His Dark Materials (BBC One) | iPlayer
Britannia (Sky Atlantic/Now TV) |
Dublin Murders (BBC One) | iPlayer
A British Guide to the End of the World (BBC Four) | iPlayer
The End of the F***ing World (All4) |

The appallingly ambitious His Dark Materials has burst fully formed on to our Sunday nights, and it is a thing of some glory. I employ the overused term “ambitious” advisedly: Philip Pullman’s epic trilogy is every bit as roundly imagined as CS Lewis’s Narnia, Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and anyone currently thinking it’s fine and dandy enough but still, y’know, a young-adult thing for Sunday evenings, like a Potter or a Doctor Who, will soon have their eyes opened.

That anyone should get that impression is, oddly enough, one of the strengths of Jack Thorne’s labour-of-love eight-part adaptation. It can, indeed, be seen at one level as the story of plucky Lyra Belacqua, in a just-alternative world, where a sort-of-Oxford exists, but with airships and truth-telling compasses, and one’s soul striding or prowling or flying beside you in the form of an animal known as a daemon.

On another level, it’s nothing less than an intellectual treatise on atheism and the grim levels any church will go to in order to guard its secrets, to deny pure truth and the freedom of reason. It had perforce to please both mild, what’s-on-telly browsers and diehard fans of that beloved trilogy. (Wiki has an entire entry on Dust, a manifestation of consciousness, including a section on the provenance of its naming, which itself includes the passage “the Mulefa, who are able to see Dust directly, use the word ‘sraf’, accompanied by a leftward flick of the trunk [or arm for humans] to describe it”. See what I mean?)

In this straddling of both jobs it succeeds, I think, with triumph. The acting – especially young Dafne Keen as Lyra, and Ruth Wilson as the seriously glam/unspeakably sinister Mrs Coulter – is marvellous, the daemon effects subtle, clever, understated and hugely effective.

The one thing Thorne wouldn’t have been able to control – and goodness knows he’s put the work in, reportedly spending two years and around 40 treatments on the first episode alone – was the title sequence. Stylish and steampunk enough, but it seemed to be pitched somewhere between Harry Potter and Game of Thrones (the music certainly was GoT-vainglorious). Still, it’s a hard task to pitch just-so, and it takes a singular vision to manage. Thankfully we had first Pullman, and now Thorne.

Mercifully, crucially, it’s almost wholly unlike the 2007 film of The Golden Compass, which studios attempted to make in God-ridden America with, remarkably, no reference to heresy or atheism. Thus rather missing the point: think Hamlet without the indecision.

Meanwhile, expect before Christmas a clamour for the golden age of airships and a rush to name at least animals, if not actual children, after the intriguing daemons/familiars. Salcilia, Sophonax, Kaisa, maybe even Pantalaimon; certainly Stelmaria.

‘Not just slightly loopy’: Britannia. Photograph: Sky UK

The handsome, scatological, crazed – and not just slightly loopy, full finger-in-mouth wibble-hatstand noises – Britannia returned for a second series. I’m not entirely sure where they got the permission from: probably not the viewing figures, for the first series opened with 1 million Barb-certified viewers, and by run’s end this was down by an impressively disastrous 90%.

I’m highly glad it’s back, though. It makes little historical, theological, tribal or any other sense, but we get to see much fire and naked madness in Jez Butterworth’s own vision; and Druids and the gorges and mudsmoke of Kent and Cornwall, and Mackenzie Crook with teeth filed to a point. And glorious non sequiturs of dialogue, such as turncoat Queen Amena explaining who had decided to bestow on her a crown. “A Roman devil. Twenty feet tall. Spitting fire. With a big, scaly dick.” Resolutely unimpressed loyal Brit chieftain, soon to die of course, and bloodily: “You get a herring each. Then you leave.”

I wonder whether it wasn’t asking a twitch too much, of writer and adapter and all the generally rather marvellous cast in Dublin Murders, which concluded last week, to manage to cram two full, different books into this opening outing. Certainly it was atmospheric, often terrific, never dull, but I suspect many were befuddled by the leaps between two plots – the missing Katy Devlin and the Cassie/Lexie undercover saga, with only Rob, the compromised cop, to provide the go-between link.

In a way it hardly matters, but it’s a shame for those who might have stopped watching. Along with adapter Sarah Phelps, I suspect we’ll be wanting to hear much more, and very soon, from writer Tana French and the two main stars, Sarah Greene and Killian Scott, who had such a winning chemistry together.

The conclusion was nicely but not cheaply wrapped, an opening left for follow-ups. Nothing has been other than complex about this series, and so it was until the end – and an absolutely virtuoso turn from young Leah McNamara as the butter-wouldn’t-melt Devlin sister, Rosalind. Her cold conclusions, her denunciation of her parents’ “boring, loveless, empty” lives, disturbed deep to the marrow.

A British Guide to the End of the World.
Ready for war? A British Guide to the End of the World. Photograph: BBC/Ewan Bauer

We smile at the pathos behind Dad’s Army, but we forgot that something very similar was going on in the three decades after that war. Until last week, with a telling, vital Arena: A British Guide to the End of the World. In the stern, kindly paternal wisp of “advice” from our establishment, about how to cower before nuclear bombs raining on these islands in the cold war, there was much of the laughable and the bizarre. The early-warning radios in country inns, which no one bothered to switch on, and which saw one poor publican, denied a siren during the exercise, frantically cycling round his village, shouting. In Italian.

The good-natured stoicism of middle Britain in the 70s, the WI packing blankets and sandwiches and a touch of lippy to keep the spirits up. The yawning giggle of a gulf between the chances we thought we stood and the chances we actually stood. Laughable, yes, but in hindsight goosebump-chilling.

The delightfully bleak, obsidian-black The End of the F***ing World deserved its return for a second series on Channel 4. But it was a poor idea, for any binge-watchers (and you’ll be tempted), to have promised full availability, after broadcast, on All 4: it’s a dreadful, mismanaged, ugly clunking beast of a “free” platform, and the ads will drive you tootsie.

But… aww, sweet, clever, murderous James and Alyssa are really back! And joined in their vulnerable teen anger by newcomer Bonnie, a great Naomi Ackie, who at midweek count had managed to bump off a mere three, admittedly appalling, souls! Teen noir with savage class. Kids will love it.

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