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.

5 Replies to “The Ruby in the Smoke”

  1. Good heavens, Adrian! If we let girls have adventures in fiction then soon they’ll want to have adventures in real life too, and who knows where that might lead?

  2. Adrian, your cheap aside at AA Gill is really rather beneath you. For some reason over the past months and years I have occasionally looked upon your website to see some of your various musings. A pretty generic (Birkenhead School stylee) intellect of sorts was present undoubtedly , but why on earth you would waste your time using ridiculous logic and tabloid type ‘sexist fool’ rash judgements, and all seemingly solely extrapilated from one review of a (in my opinion) pretty poor piece of television is beyond me.

    AA Gill is a superb writer, whether or not you agree with his inevitably (given his job!) contentious points of view or not. This pretty tame review by AA Gill is a poor target for your pen. His travel writings are incredibly astute and well observed and more than that his reviews are generally tinged with humour. Something clearly lacking on your website might I add! Perhaps you were just having a bad day Sir?!

  3. What exactly about my ‘cheap aside’ didn’t you like? If there’s a problem with the reasoning, I’d be glad to know, but it’s hard to exactly what you disagreed with considering that your comment is constructed mostly of cheap asides (although the one about my old school was pretty good).

    Are you agreeing with AA Gill in that the lead and villain would have been better off as males? Do you disagree with me that his problem is really with Philip Pullman’s writing, not with the BBC or his publishers?

    AA Gill might be a fantastic travel writer, and my weblog might be terrible, but that doesn’t change the fact that his review of The Ruby in the Smoke was very poor.

  4. I did not say your weblog was ‘terrible’ merely that humour seems to be somewhat lacking (not that this is a prerequisite to anything of course) and that perhaps that is why you felt strongly about the AA Gill piece.

    It seemed that you were just using pretty poor post-hoc rationalization of his admittedly mediocre review of The Ruby in the Smoke to arrive at the conclusion that he is a ‘sexist fool’ when the evidence for that is non-existent in my opinion.

    AA Gill is many things but the notion that he does not have the guts to attack Pullman is frankly laughable. If you had read anything more of his you would soon see that he is not backwards in coming forwards and sticks by what he writes.

    In my opinion AA Gill was attempting to make a point about the political correctness running through Islington media-types in his (mistaken as you correctly point out) belief that they updated the gender in order to modernize what was perfectly acceptable to begin with.

    I agree it was a poor review but feel it surprisingly judgmental of you to label him a sexist fool. Is it not a valid opinion to believe that a male role is more suitable to a female (or vice versa)? I was surprised you were so quick to judge and as stated above, it felt as if what you were trying to do is to write a little entry to make some snide comment about AA Gill – which as you point out seems to be fashionable all of a sudden.

    I had you down as more of a lateral thinker than that, hence my original comment.

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