WHAT on earth did Sunday school do to Philip Pullman? BBC1’s magnificent dramatisation of His Dark Materials (Sundays) shows even more clearly than the novels his deep hatred of organised religion — meaning Christianity, and, above all, the Church of England.
The focus of evil which drives the plot is the Magisterium, a twisted parody of our hierarchy, exercising a malign range of control and power, way beyond the dreams of our real Archbishops’ Council. It is the Sunday-evening blockbuster, scheduled so as to undermine whatever scraps of religious fantasy us benighted few who still attend divine worship might have imbibed earlier in the day.
The rich irony — right there in the foreground for all with eyes to see and ears to hear — is the extent to which it relies entirely on theological and biblical themes. Pullman brilliantly creates a myth, but it engages with themes entirely familiar to us: innocence/experience; redemptive suffering and sacrifice; the truth that will set us free. Might such wholesale subversion be, actually, subconscious homage?
We recognise many of Oxford’s other profound resonances: Pullman is pulling to bits C. S. Lewis’s Narnia; recasting Tolkien’s quest to destroy the powers of darkness; creating a Wonderland in which Lyra is Alice for our own bitter age. And it inhabits another seemingly inescapable genre — it is essentially reactionary, in love with the Oxford of yesteryear, a superior version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, even Billy Bunter’s Greyfriars: a structured classbound society with privileged scholars, honest servants, outcast Gyptians.
It seems that Edwardian tweeds and gaslit panelled rooms provide the only adequate settings for works that straddle children’s and adult literature, that construct epic moral fantasy, and that feed and challenge imagination. The animal daemons, the creatures that embody the soul of each character, are wonderfully realised, quickly becoming entirely natural. Perhaps — as in the books — there is rather too much exposition, but it is splendid television: visually glorious, provocative, and powerful — a triumph.
I eagerly scanned the schedules for All Hallows’ Eve, expecting a slew of commemorative programmes either, on the one hand, celebrating the final liberation of the plucky little UK from the suffocating embrace of European machination, or, on the other, the most sombre of requiems bewailing our sundering from the lifeblood of our continent’s culture and polity.
The TV channels are either clairvoyant enough to know that the date would pass without anything happening, or are paralysed about knowing which line to take. All I found was How Europe Stole My Mum (Channel 4). This complex parody presented our decades of political struggle and domestic strife over the EU in a series of impersonations, by Kieran Hodgson and Harry Enfield, of all the key players from Macmillan to Blair. There were several good gags — but not quite enough.