1 January 2008 | LouE15
Hmm...oddly unengaging considering the good story and talent
In the second in Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart trilogy, his heroine Sally Lockhart, parentless and alone, has found a ramshackle, surrogate family in Fred Garland's photographer-cum-private investigator, his uncle, and cheeky cockney Jim Taylor. Protected by her enormous hound, Chaka, she is now a financial consultant, using the patchy education her father had given her to advantage and staunchly defending her independence in Victorian London. The story kicks off with two events: one of Sally's clients explains that she has been ruined by the failure of a business she invested in on Sally's advice. At the same time a magician named McKinnon seeks Fred's help as he believes he has witnessed a murder. These circumstances combine to make a thread that leads straight to a dangerous businessman and sinister work in a factory in the north, and great danger for all of Sally's friends.
I'd really enjoyed "The Ruby in the Smoke", the first of the adaptations of the brave and modern Sally Lockhart trilogy, when it aired on British TV last Christmas. I was very excited to hear a sequel was planned; thought the chemistry between the radiant Billie Piper's Sally and J J Field's pleasing Fred Garland had worked well, and the stories are strong base material, even if squished into a TV slot.
But...maybe it was watching this with my parents when it aired over New Year on British TV - but I found this strangely detached, even a bit mechanical. This time round the leads' chemistry seemed to be absent, the script dry, the story rushed (as was the previous one) - the relations between the characters insufficiently explained. Considering we'd had to wait a year for this one, I was a bit disappointed. Perhaps the aim was to make a classroom-suitable programme for Victorian History lessons? - if so, why air it post watershed?
I wouldn't mind watching it again to find out whether it was just a false first impression. Sally is the Victorian heroine girls need today; incidentally, I disagree with other reviewers' annoyance with her modern look - it's exactly this quality that makes her a perfect poster girl to draw younger viewers into historical fiction. Ditto the thoroughly enlightened casting policy, reflecting actual, modern British society in a way you'll hardly ever see in historical TV shows. I've got a lot of time for both leads; and the baddie, Bellmann, was quietly menacing. It also looked amazing, packed with great period details. If they make it to the third in the trilogy I'd be very surprised, but would hope that they can find a way to better draw out the drama and excitement. Meanwhile, the excellent original books are a must if you enjoyed this even a bit.