CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: All this epic lacks is a young Sean Connery

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: All this ravishing fantasy epic lacks is a young Sean Connery

His Dark Materials

Rating:

Escape To The Chateau

Rating:

How humiliating, if our souls really did take animal form and follow us around offering advice, as they do in His Dark Materials (BBC1).

Naturally I’d like to imagine that my immortal spirit would be something sleekly elegant, perhaps a long-legged secretary bird with glossy black feathers. 

But I rather suspect I’ve got the soul of a disreputable old bonobo or pygmy chimp, who rolls his own ciggies and has a laugh like Sid James.

The story, about an orphan girl’s mission to rescue her best friend from child-snatchers, has been beloved by literary Lefties since its first publication in 1995 because of its intense atheism

Lyra Belacqua, the heroine of this lavish eight-part fantasy drama based on Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels, doesn’t know what her soul-animal, or ‘daemon’, is going to look like. It won’t decide until she grows up.

Sometimes her daemon Pantalaimon is a butterfly or a scruffy polecat, but most of the time he seems to be a white ermine stoat. In the books, that’s a perfect image, blending innocence with agility and a fierce bite.

Unfortunately, on television, with his pointy nose and blackcurrant eyes, Pan looks just like Stuart Little — the white mouse from the children’s movie. Every time Pan twitched his whiskers to give 12- year-old Lyra a warning, I expected him to have the voice of Michael J. Fox. 

No surprise that the books’ first adaptation was on stage at the National Theatre. This retelling is inspired more by the fantastic world, with its airships, Arctic adventurers and invisible cities shimmering behind the Northern Lights

That’s the problem with animals created by computer graphics: as soon as they pipe up, they become cartoon-like. Lyra’s mysterious uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), has a snow leopard for his constant companion. 

It was a magnificent creature, until it spoke — then it looked and sounded like Eva Gabor as posh pussycat Duchess in Disney’s Aristocats.

It’s a reminder that His Dark Materials was conceived for young readers and nothing, not even a rumoured budget of £6.25 million per episode, can disguise that. 

But the story, about an orphan girl’s mission to rescue her best friend from child-snatchers, has been beloved by literary Lefties since its first publication in 1995 because of its intense atheism.

Lyra’s mysterious uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), has a snow leopard for his constant companion. It was a magnificent creature, until it spoke — then it looked and sounded like Eva Gabor as posh pussycat Duchess in Disney’s Aristocats

The baddies, known as the Magisterium, are a sort of Nazi version of the Catholic Church, and the whole narrative is relentlessly anti-Christian. 

Children paid no attention to that, but a certain type of adult adored it. No surprise that the books’ first adaptation was on stage at the National Theatre.

This retelling is inspired more by the fantastic world, with its airships, Arctic adventurers and invisible cities shimmering behind the Northern Lights. 

It looks ravishing, and the cast are terrific — especially Dafne Keen as the fearless, impetuous Lyra, and Lewin Lloyd, playing Roger the 10-year-old kitchen boy who regards her with awe.

The changes wrought on their dilapidated French castle by Dick Strawbridge and his wife Angel, in Escape To The Chateau (C4), are so sweeping that you could almost suspect them of using CGI too

Ruth Wilson is wonderful too as the debonaire Mrs Coulter, who seems so charming till you notice her soul-animal . . . a monkey with murderous eyes. Only McAvoy seems miscast: he’s a bit insipid, too decent to be dangerous. 

The role is perfect for a young Sean Connery — but even the best computer graphics can’t give us that. Not yet, anyway.

The changes wrought on their dilapidated French castle by Dick Strawbridge and his wife Angel, in Escape To The Chateau (C4), are so sweeping that you could almost suspect them of using CGI too. 

Where there were crumbling timbers and collapsing staircases, now every room is freshly renovated.

It’s been a mammoth, five-year undertaking and, at times in previous series, no amount of eccentricity and determination seemed equal to the task.

But the traumas are past now. These days, the couple’s young children take up as much of their time as the repairs. Job done. 

The Strawbridges have emerged triumphant . . . which is lovely, but there’s no longer much of a point to the programme.

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