Yesterday I listened to the prequel to the prequel – or rather, the accompaniment to the whole, which was Phillip Pullman talking about his art in Book of the Week. Now, I confess that although I love the work, I had conceived a prejudice about the man – due to believing that JK Rowling’s Professor Lockhart, the inept and narcissistic character in Book Two of Harry Potter, was based on Pullman (because of Sally Lockhart, a character in his series of potboilers.) So I conceived an idea of Pullman as a narcissistic academic, long blond-grey hair swept back, striding around Oxford in a billowing gown.
Well, from the sound of these programmes, my conception was dead wrong. Pullman started out as a schoolteacher; and his tone as he talks about what informs his writing is solid and down-to-earth. He is particularly good at debunking Richard Dawkins’ ridiculously Gradgrindian theory that reading children fairy tales is likely to discourage them from accepting scientific ideas. Plus, like me, he is a huge fan of William Blake. What’s not to like? I have to wait until this afternoon for the last installment, but here’s the link to the rest:
Anyway, the thing I was going to talk about today was the BBC mini-series (I have to hyphenate that word because otherwise it looks too much like miseries) about the Gunpowder Plot. This is a story that never fails to capture the imagination, as it contains not only thrills and spills but the very real danger of the overthrow of government. The idea of Guy Fawkes as a popular hero is ill-informed as he and his co-conspirators were no friends to democracy: however this production gives us something of the background of oppression which gave rise to the Plot. Catholics were tortured and killed in the most brutal ways: while at the same time Protestants were being burned at the stake in Catholic Spain.
The production does get a bit Game-of-Throne-ish in the last episode: there’s rather a lot of swashbuckling and male back-slapping. But there’s enough of a counterbalance by way of serious drama and a Horrible Histories-style detail in the telling: the Tower of London is shown in grisly and depressing detail as the Lubyanka of its day; we see details such as the storing of the gunpowder in an underground store and their concern about keeping it dry. King James is down-to-earth and very non-regal and the true villain of the piece is the Richard III-like Cecil, whose web of spies intercept letters and people and interrogate both with an equal detachment. So on the whole I think serious drama won over the GOT – but it was a close thing.
It’s interesting though, that we can still be gripped by a drama whose outcome we already know. I wonder if Richard Dawkins would understand that? He certainly wouldn’t understand Catholics and Protestants killing each other – but then neither do I…
Anyway, here’s the series: