His Dark Materials

8pm, BBC One

Like it says on the cover, things can get dark in the vast, wild and dusty world(s) Philip Pullman conjured up across the three books of the His Dark Materials series. Settling down to watch the ambitious new TV adaptation, however, what disturbed me most was nothing to with the story. Rather, it was the sudden realisation that, somehow, 12 whole years have passed since the last attempt at putting Pullman’s vision onscreen.

That 2007 movie, The Golden Compass, an adaptation of the first book in Pullman’s trilogy, came on like it meant business, boasting a cast including Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, a mega-budget, and more effects than you could shake a giant talking polar bear at. If you didn’t know the novels, it might have seemed a diverting-enough fantasy, if somewhat baffling. For fans, though, it was a disaster for the ages.

Famously, Pullman’s novels have been branded “anti-religious” – the sinister empire to be overcome, The Magisterium, is generally read as metaphorical stand-in for the Christian church at its most doctrinaire. But the movie nervously neutered that theme, jettisoning the novel’s sophisticated approach and dense, twisting inner myths and subplots to fit a running time of under two hours. Audiences failed to respond, and any plans to film the sequels were abandoned.

Co-produced by the BBC and HBO, the sumptuous new TV show has two great advantages: time and nerve. In this telling, The Golden Compass will unfold over eight hours as the first series. Pullman’s excellent sequel, The Subtle Knife, will be series two – a third, adapting the trilogy’s final novel, The Amber Spyglass, has not been confirmed, but must be on the cards.

Still, even with so much time, the opening episode can occasionally feel a little rushed as, rather than throwing us in and letting us find the way, clunky opening title cards explain Pullman’s world, which is quite like our own, but not quite. Much of the first episode takes place in Oxford, a university town with a roofscape of spires, like the real place, except, above these spires float giant airships, ferrying people from place to place, and no one has a mobile phone.

Here we meet the headstrong but naive protagonist, 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), an orphan raised by the university masters, who, unbeknownst to her, has some great destiny ahead. This may have something to do with her enigmatic uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), an explorer who has made startling discoveries in the frozen north, concerning a substance known as dust – a mystery strictly forbidden by The Magisterium.

Written by Jack Thorne, this is a faithful, canny adaptation. In a detail fans will adore, the series begins with a flashback featuring baby Lyra – a scene not present in these three novels, but actually lifted from Pullman’s recently published follow-up series, The Book Of Dust. Sometimes, though, the attempt to stick faithfully to Pullman founders, because he can be a slippery customer. Another opening caption tries to neatly unpack the most crucial detail of this alternative world: “Here, a human soul takes the physical form of an animal, known as a daemon.”

While that helps explain to newcomers why everybody is walking around accompanied by leopards, monkeys and ermines, this “soul” business is a blunter explanation than is offered in the novels, where Pullman avoids any black and white definition, leaving the reader to ponder the relationship between human and daemon. Importantly, however, reinstating The Magisterium’s theocratic leanings, the series retains Pullman’s themes and tones. While there are exhilarating rushes and fantastical visions, the show is often sternly grim, serious in a refreshingly old-school manner. Epic, thrilling and grave, and rendered in shades of grey, it’s perfect material for dark Sunday nights.


The End Of The F***ing World

10pm, Channel 4

Charting the adventures of Alyssa (Jessica Barden) and James (Alex Lawther), messed-up teens who ran away on a romantic odyssey through abuse and murder, the first series of this black comedy went out on Chanel 4 in October 2017, grabbing a small cult following. But it has since been seen by many more viewers around the world thanks to a run on Netflix, leading to this second outing. Where the original was adapted from a bleak, sweet comic book by American artist Charles Forsman, the show’s writer, Charlie Covell, and director, Jonathan Entwistle, now set out to continue the story beyond Forsman’s tale, picking up after the traumatic finale to find out what has become of Alyssa and co. But first, we encounter a new character, Bonnie (Naomi Ackie). Nicely weird and hazy stuff, opening with a double bill tonight.


Rich Hall's Red Menace

9pm, BBC Four

Another excellent essay in the intermittent series by the grouchy comedian. For this film, Hall tackles the 40-year-long stand off between the USA and the USSR, and how crazily close that Cold War came to going hot in a nuclear conflict. It’s a multi-faceted exploration, with Hall, who takes it personally, drawing on comic books, TV shows, movies, literature and even sporting confrontations to show how the era’s paranoia and propaganda seeped into every aspect of life. The main focus is America and its anti-Commie obsession with the “Red Menace,” but he also considers the view from the other side of the Iron Curtain. While that flip, acerbic wit is always there, Hall’s documentaries on various aspects of American history and pop culture have been getting increasingly more serious, more complicated, more gnarly, ground-down and strange, and all the better for it.


The Truth About Killer Robots

9pm, Sky Atlantic

Alexa, show me one of the most unsettling documentaries of recent times. This film by Maxim Pozdorovkin considers how humankind is happily handing things over to machines, with deadly results. In many of the examples he presents, that death is literal: cases including a car factory worker grabbed and killed by a production-line robot; “drivers” killed by driverless cars; and a Dallas police bomber drone killing a suspected sniper. The main thrust, though, is a larger, more insidious “death” – the impact on people, communities, and society at large as more and more people are displaced from jobs by robots who can do it faster, longer and cheaper. Interviews with workers who have lost out, and lost the will, drive the point home. The film never digs too deeply, and the attempts at injecting quirky, edgy style get distracting. But plenty food for thought.



9pm, Sky Atlantic

I, Hammius. David Morrissey girds his loins to the max as this preposterous, stoopid, but entertaining drama returns – imagine the cast of Carry On Cleo tripping on some bad shrooms then running into the hills of Glastonbury with some hardcore prog. Set circa AD 43, Morrissey is swaggering, obsessed Roman General, Aulus Plautius, leading a bloodthirsty mission to conquer Blighty, and plumb its mystic mysteries. He’s up against the druids, and especially arch-druid Veran (Mackenzie Crook), a nightmare character one-part Max Schreck’s Nosferatu, one part Marlon Brando’s Kurtz, and one part Evil Bod. They’re joined this week by Emperor Claudius (Steve Pemberton) who has haemorrhoids, thanks to his elephant. By some weird, ancient magickery, after tonight’s first episode goes out, the entire series will be available on Sky Go.


The Beatles: Made On Merseyside

9.30pm, BBC Four

We’re hardly short of Beatles documentaries, but the familiar story gets remade in Alan Byron’s film about the Beatles’ earliest years, and how those formative experiences made them the culture-shaping phenomenon they became. Exploring how the sudden influx of American rhythm and blues ragged post-war Liverpool into the future, the film charts the various musical adventures the future Fab Four had before they became Beatles, from school bands to colleges, and how they eventually found success on the trip that took them to Hamburg, then back to The Cavern Club. Good archive, a bit of skiffle, and interviews with some of those involved in the early years of The Beatles in Liverpool and Germany help tell the story of how four working class teenagers remade the world, armed only with rock 'n' roll.


Novels That Shaped Our World

9.45pm, BBC Two

According to someone, it’s the “300th anniversary of the English language novel,” and thus the BBC is rolling out a season to talk about some of them. The centrepiece of the project is this three-part documentary, which, because it’s always nice to put things in neat little boxes these days, hammers the form down into three particular categories. The next two programmes will consider books on “Empire And Slavery” and “Working Class Experience,” but the series begins with a film about “Women’s Voices,” zipping through writers from Austen and the Brontës, to Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood, with other writers including Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy waving along the way. The show features readings by performers including Lily Cole and Tuppence Middleton.