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.