The Ruby in the Smoke

Lately I’ve been seeing many people cursing the name of AA Gill (a TV critic for the Times), declaring that if they see his name, they skip to the next page. Given that I don’t watch any British television, I haven’t had much cause to join in on the cursing until now.

I quite enjoyed the BBC production of Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke. While the story was rather dense and very fast-paced, I didn’t have much trouble keeping up, and that’s without having read the book. Apart from that, it was a fun, mysterious and dramatic adventure of the types that we rarely see on TV or film these days.

Since this was both the first book in Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series, and of course the first adaptation, I expect things to improve quickly, although I have few complaints,: the casting was excellent, and while Billie Piper didn’t have much to work with, I wasn’t let down by her performance; and as usual, the atmosphere and sets were wonderful. To me, the production demonstrates that the BBC is quite capable of making world-class drama, particularly when it’s set in the Regency/Victorian era, and it adapts stories and doesn’t try to do the writing in-house (I’m looking at you, Torchwood).

Back to AA Gill. He reviewed the show in today’s Sunday Times:

The Ruby in the Smoke (Wednesday, BBC1) was an Edwardian-style adventure in the manner of John Buchan. It was adapted from a book by Philip Pullman, whose work my daughter reads. The story had all the elements of a boys’ adventure — an orphan hero, buried treasure, deathbed conundrums, shady characters from the East, mysticism and a really evil villain. It all rollicked along at a terrific pace and was stuffed with more plot than a Victorian municipal cemetery. It was replete, robust, flatulent with red herrings, dead ends, MacGuffins, nods, winks, threats and enigmatic ciphers. And, all this considered, it was a pretty good pastiche, though I’m sure Pullman would have called it a homage. Only two things were modernised. The hero and the villain had both changed gender: Billie Piper, a girl, played the orphan adventurer; Julie Walters, the very, very wicked nemesis.

Though I’m usually a great fan of Piper, she was rather lost in the role. I don’t think it was entirely her fault. She was called on to be both laddishly up for a scrap and femininely vaporous and lovelorn, all in a frock that precluded much physical activity in either department. The usual trusty sidekick had to double as the romantic interest, which confused, diluted and held up the narrative. Walters, though, was a brilliant villain, properly menacing, avariciously psychopathic. But making the boys’ roles female ranked as an improvement only to the publishers and producers, with their smug sense of political correctness. The damn good tale of The Ruby in the Smoke was spoilt by casting Violet Elizabeth Bott as Just William.

On my first reading of the review, I was dumbfounded. Did AA Gill really think that the BBC changed the sex of both the hero and villain from male to female? Certainly, Philip Pullman’s novel had a female hero and villain. I then re-read it, and realised that that wasn’t what he was suggesting (although given his writing, confusion was inevitable) – instead, he was saying that the story would have been much better if it was like the stories in the old days, that is, with male lead characters.

The only reason he gives for this belief is that the trusty sidekick’s romantic interest in the heroine held things up. This is laughable – would it have been a better story if Sally Lockhart, the heroine, was changed to Simon Lockhart, with a female romantic interest? Does he somehow imagine that the novel originally written by Philip Pullman had male leads and the evil publishers made him switch their sexes? Given that pretty much all of Philip Pullman’s novels had female leads, I find this rather unbelievable.

So, it seems that AA Gill is a sexist fool who doesn’t have the guts to insult Philip Pullman – who wrote the story, after all – and instead goes for the weaker prey of publishers and producers. No wonder people curse his name.

Watching and Playing

Usually I crack around Christmas and actually write a whole series of posts, perhaps due to the complete lack of work. And in fact I have several hundred words of notes lying around in various text files on my desktop, glowering at me whenever I press F11 on my keyboard and watch all of my windows fly out of the way. But I don’t think I’ll use those notes – that’d just be too easy. Instead I’m going to ramble on about the various things I have watched and played over the last couple of weeks.

Watched: Deja Vu, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Air Force One (and also The Ruby in the Smoke, which I’ll talk about in another post).

Played: Wii Sports, Zelda, Rayman. Continue reading “Watching and Playing”

Belgian Split

The ghost of Orson Welles strikes again – according to the BBC, ‘the Belgian public television station RTBF ran a bogus report saying the Dutch-speaking half of the nation had declared independence.’ Lots of faked footage of celebrations, traffic jams, and 2600 calls were made to a phone number given out during the show, which was intended to spur debate given growing real separatist sentiment in Flanders. Apparently a number of foreign ambassadors were fooled and sent urgent messages back to their capitals. It just goes to show that TV news is still an immensely powerful and trusted medium, and that tricks like these still work.

Post Office

Try as some might to avoid the rest of humanity, there are two places where you’re obliged to spend time with them – post offices, and planes. Nice segue into a weblog post about both, eh?
(well, the one about planes might have to come a bit later)

I had to pick up a special delivery from the post office this morning. Since the sorting office is about one minute from my flat, you wouldn’t think this would bother me. On the contrary, receiving one of those ‘the postman visited and you weren’t in’ slips fills me with dread. See, the sorting office serves a reasonable chunk of Clapham, and given that Clapham is full of recent graduates and young professionals who like nothing better than ordering lots of stuff off the internet, there’s always a lot of mail.

Now, this wouldn’t automatically mean that the sorting office should be bad – just because there’s a lot of people using a service doesn’t mean it should be a bad experience… unless you have about twenty people all queuing up to collect parcels, and only one person serving them. After I’d been waiting in the queue for about fifteen minutes, someone asked one of the post office workers whether it would be possible to have more people working on the counter. “Sorry, already had staff cuts, we just can’t afford it,” was the answer.

Under such circumstances, you’d think that the response would be to work out an efficient sorting mechanism so that the one person at the counter would at least be able to serve people quickly. Unfortunately, judging by the highly variable search times for individual packages, I can only assume that they’re employing a serial, random search pattern (i.e. packages just chucked randomly onto a shelf).

All of this amounted to a 30 minute wait to pick up a letter. Multiply that by the number of people who use the sorting office, and you have dozens – maybe a hundred – hours wasted per day. Of course, I doubt the sorting office has any intention or real obligation to improve waiting times – not only does the post office have a monopoly on domestic mail, but they apparently have very little oversight.

In light of the recent protests over the closure of thousands of post offices in rural areas, many of which only received a few customers per week, my experience this morning highlights the fact that a one-size-fits-all policy cannot possibly work for mail delivery in the UK. I can understand, partly, the logic of post offices in metropolitan areas subsidising those in rural areas, but not when the result is chronically underfunded and inefficient post offices in those same metropolitan areas, which end up costing an awful lot of money to the economy.

Unless the government or the post office can improve its service, then the only answer is privatisation. I would willingly pay more in order to avoid wasting hours in queues, but only if that money goes to improving the services that I actually use.


I have my Wii, preordered from Woolworths about three weeks ago. If I tried ordering through Amazon or, there’s no change I’d have it today. High street retail clearly still outranks the Internet, at least in some areas.

Notes on the Futuremedia TV conference

“No-one’s watching TV any more, and even worse, all this user-generated content is killing us.” That was the cheerful attitude at the C21 Futuremedia TV conference I went to last week. The audience was composed mainly of TV executives, with a smattering of smug ‘internet people’ like myself, who alternately confirmed their worst fears and then told them that they still had something to offer (well, some of them, anyway).

Everyone seemed to be reasonably aware of the difficulties facing the TV industry, although there were many differences on how best to adapt, let alone thrive. As the conference went on and we heard more and more speakers talking about user generated content and how wonderful it was, there was definitely a sour mood among some executives. Anyway, I’ll explain all of this in time. First, to the keynote! Continue reading “Notes on the Futuremedia TV conference”