Did we like it?
This BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel was an atmospheric murder-mystery/Girls’ Own adventure following the orphaned Sally Lockhart (Billie Piper) who receives a mysterious note that leads her into a world of opium dens, cursed jewels and a story-stealing turn from Julie Walters. Reminiscent of the Sunday afternoon serials that the Beeb used to do so well, this was more grisly fare and even a slightly rushed denouement couldn’t detract from a rollicking good yarn.
What was good about it?
• Julie Walters was absolutely fantastic as the lying, blackmailing, murderous, ruby-coveting Mrs Holland. This was a role for Walters to really get her teeth into. Which was ironic, as her first scene showed her putting in her dead husbands ivory dentures to make herself intelligible… “I whipped them out of his mouth before they shut the coffin lid – there’s a lot of life left in these teeth!” By turns hilarious, threatening and horrifying (murdering her serving girls) the story moved up a notch every time she was on screen. Superb.
• A great supporting cast – Philip Glenister as slimy, crooked shipping agent Samuel Shelby, and David Harewood in the dual role of opium-addicted sailor Matthew Bedwell and his twin brother, fighting priest Nicholas Bedwell were standouts.
• The hard-hitting storyline, which involved the opium-addicted former soldier Major Marchbanks selling his baby daughter Sally for the eponymous ruby.
• We also loved Mr Berry – Mrs Holland’s dim-witted henchman, whose moral strength in ‘taking the pledge’ regarding drugs and alcohol was somewhat undermined by his willingness to murder anyone who crossed Mrs H.
What was bad about it?
• The somewhat rushed ending, which threw in two new characters and a load of plot exposition in the last ten minutes just to tie up the loose ends.
• We’re not convinced that the makers were sure of their target audience. The 8.30 start time, frequent trailers and presence of Piper seemed to indicate they were aiming at teenagers; but the violence, depiction of opium addiction and convoluted storyline were far more adult-orientated,