Monday 9 December 2019

Pat Stacey: His Dark Materials is definitely not for children, but neither is the Toy Show

His Dark Materials, War of the Worlds, The Late Late Toy Show

Ryan Tubridy pictured with some of the participants on the set of the Late Late Toy Show 2019 at a preview Friday's Late Late Toy Show, which will be broadcast at 9.30pm on RTE 1...Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Ryan Tubridy pictured with some of the participants on the set of the Late Late Toy Show 2019 at a preview Friday's Late Late Toy Show, which will be broadcast at 9.30pm on RTE 1...Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Pat Stacey

There have been grumblings in some quarters that the first season of His Dark Materials is messing a little with the source by introducing plot elements that don’t show up until the second book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, The Subtle Knife.

Not having read them – yet – I have no idea how much screenwriter Jack Thorne has shifted around, changed or left out completely. Still, if it’s good enough for Pullman, who’s one of the executive producers and seems delighted by the adaptation, it’s good enough for me.

What I do know is the BBC and HBO have gifted us a marvellous fantasy adventure as gripping and addictive as it is gorgeous to look at.

Last night’s fifth episode plunged deep into the darkness at the story’s core. Guided by the alethiometer, Lyra (Dafne Keen) and armoured bear Iorek Byrnison (gruffly voiced by Joe Tandberg) took a detour to a deserted village where poor little Billy Costa (Tyler Howitt) lay at death’s door. The forces of evil had somehow separated him from his daemon, which means one thing only: certain death.

Pullman apparently wrote the trilogy with no particular readership in mind, yet it’s usually bracketed under young adult fiction. This week the series gave us a dead child, throat slittings and our first look at the cruel and monstrous child abuse at the heart of the Magisterium.

Despite the 8pm slot, whatever else His Dark Materials is, it’s definitely not just kid’s stuff.

A surprising number of critics in the UK seem to be quite fond of The War of the Worlds, though I’ve yet to find a single positive review of the three-part adaptation of HG Wells’ novel from viewers on social media.

Maybe I’d been unduly harsh on it. Perhaps I’d missed something when I watched all three episodes back to back several weeks ago.

Nope. I re-watched last night’s finale. It’s still terrible on a second viewing. One tense, genuinely unsettling scene of a Martian feeding on a human wasn’t nearly enough to compensate for the numerous weaknesses and missteps.

The plodding pace and dreary characters; the lack of action and indifferent special effects; the clunky anti-imperialist message; the pointless flash-forward structure; the excruciatingly “woke” spin writer Peter Harness put on the story.

Fatally for a tale so dependent on spectacle, it chose to tell rather than show every single time. Most of the destruction took place off screen, and the Martian fighting machines were seen sparingly.

Presumably, this was down to the limitations of the budget, but if you can’t do the thing properly, why bother doing it at all? It’s not hard to see why The War of the Worlds had been sitting on the shelf for a year.

No dramatic change of opinion on The Late Late Toy Show, either, I’m afraid. I’m fully aware that to criticise the show is to offer my head on a plate. Well, here it is – tuck in.

Yes, there were some heartwarming moments, as there always are, and yes, the message about inclusiveness was lovely; but I repeat the question I asked in a column last week: who exactly is the show aimed at? Not, apparently, the children watching at home.

In my own experience (three daughters), kids are less fond than adults of watching other kids sing, dance, tell jokes and do magic tricks. Our three always grew restless during these parts – what they wanted to see was the toys.

However, the toys now seem to be less important than the big opening musical number (Frozen this year), the polished child performers, the celebrity guests and the emotional Christmas reunions.

Every year, more than 100,000 people apply for the roughly 200 places in the studio audience (which, oddly, never includes children). A cynic might say it’s because of all the freebies on offer. Friday’s show was barely 10 minutes in before everyone in the audience was given a new smartphone.

I’ve already handed over my head. I might as well be the cynic, too.

His Dark Materials - 4 stars

The War of the Worlds - 1 star

The Late Late Toy Show - 2 stars

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