The week in TV: His Dark Materials; The Sound of TV with Neil Brand; The Queen's Gambit; The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown

Ruth Wilson and Ariyon Bakare in His Dark Materials
‘Conflicted villain’: Ruth Wilson and Ariyon Bakare in His Dark Materials. Photograph: Adrian Rodgers/BBC/ © Bad Wolf/HBO
‘Conflicted villain’: Ruth Wilson and Ariyon Bakare in His Dark Materials. Photograph: Adrian Rodgers/BBC/ © Bad Wolf/HBO

Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter was consumed by jealousy in the finest episode yet of His Dark Materials, while all our yesterdays were explored through the TV jingle

Euan Ferguson
Sun 13 Dec 2020 04.30 EST

His Dark Materials (BBC One) | iPlayer
The Sound of TV with Neil Brand (BBC Four) | iPlayer
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown (BBC One) | iPlayer

While Steve McQueen’s Small Axe has (rightly, as it happens) had much limelight-wattage spilled over its Sunday nights, it’s easy to forget we are being doubly spoiled that particular evening. His Dark Materials has gained less publicity than the first season but remains a staunch highlight of my week. The most recent episode, The Scholar, was a joy.

That title referred nicely to both Mary Malone, Oxford’s finest (if now a little sleepless and troubled) dark matter specialist, and Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter, the finest conflicted villain to slip icily into our souls this televisual year, who has clevered her way through from HDM’s “other” Oxford, Lyra’s Oxford. Marisa Coulter is suddenly confronted with, basically, the woman she could have been: confident, educated, head of her own department. Mrs Coulter’s spitting mix of bewilderment and jealousy is grim to behold, as she must realise how much of her own world has been carved up and tyrannised by the patronising dotards of the Magisterium. It is currently tearing itself apart with the kind of sly betrayals and righteous finger-pointing common to every bureaucracy that eventually values power above people.

I’m not sure whether the youngest children watching will grasp every one of the subtleties. In fact, I’m not even sure whether some educated thirtysomethings will grasp them at all, given their apparent inability to shop at a corner store without stopping to slouch over their phones every 30 seconds. Nor whether they’ll get the wise co-condemnation of the writing: the Magisterium world’s veneration of religion is near matched by worship of consumerism in this world.

Pullman’s original works have been both matched and expanded by the likes of writer Jack Thorne and, for this episode, Francesca Gardiner: the sight of the golden monkey daemon fuming in a seatbelt spoke too of a lovely wit being inserted. As did Lord Boreal, all his worldly travels and cunning magic now reduced to boasting about “really quality speakers” while playing Lighthouse Family’s Lifted, whose beige 1990s likability sent those with musical taste scurrying to drape themselves on meathooks. As ever, it’s impeccably acted and shot: and any series that can dispense with Terence Stamp in half an episode, and get Andrew Scott and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as walk-on or voice-on parts, and feature the surnames Sosanya and Suchet has to get some nods. This oozes quality and beats the first series.

Talking of beige, one of the cruellest terms I’ve recently heard applied to that tonal shade is “the Gary Barlow of the colour spectrum”. He was apparently doing something or other at the Royal Variety Performance: and, surely, this of all years would have been a good one to just let slide past, given it featured neither royals nor audiences. Just saying. Anyway, a quite fascinating, alarmingly watchable, tour de force by Neil Brand continued his three-part Sound of TV panoramic trawl by focusing on the opposite of beige. Grabbability if you will.

Neil Brand in The Sound of TV: ‘a great little history’
Neil Brand in The Sound of TV: ‘a great little history’. Photograph: Ian MacMillan/BBC/Brook Lapping Productions

On adverts, idents, jingles and “stings”, Brand made a rather decent argument that these, once seen as the fripperies of a TV soundscape, the doilies and valances, have, because of the length of our TV age, become “the real soundtrack to our lives”, even more than pop’s ephemera. He’s right, you know: who now can hear the four-note sting of the Channel 4 logo, BBC News’s beeps-set-to-a-rolling-boil (at 120 beats per minute, which so many musics love to dance to) without snapping fast to that branding?

This was just a great little history of how that awareness came around. Via money, of course: it began with selling something, and you had to catch an audience ear and not be beige. There were some classic examples: though I’ve never eaten Smash, Shake n’ Vacced, smoked a Hamlet cigar, or partaken of Tchaikovsky’s Fruit & Nut, they were among the first global earworms.

A great section on the fraught making of Coca-Cola’s 1971 I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing intrigued: it could have gone badly wrong, but resulted, almost accidentally, in a global, mixed-race, youth-and-dandelions sunny hilltop hope (back when we had hope), which can still linger. Indeed this series showed so much of social history it deserves a primetime reshowing. When commercial television was threatened, one Quintin Hogg opined in the House: “If it is financed by advertising, even people with good taste would have their taste depreciated.” And the fact I never bought the brands is what has kept panicked, overpaid advertising executives sweatily awake since the 1950s. Glad to have been of service.

‘A glorious all-you-need watch’: Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen’s Gambit
‘A glorious all-you-need watch’: Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen’s Gambit. Photograph: Ken Woroner/Netflix/Ken Woroner

Many months past, when what some people think of as our year began – mid-March, lockdown – I came to Tiger King a little too late. Today, similarly, I’m coming to another Netflix phenomenon, The Queen’s Gambit, with similar apologies. In my timorous defence, there’s a big-ass amount to watch out there every week. And I’m delighted to report that it’s just so much better than anything tigerish or kingish: a sublime little seven-episode sitter, with no room for sequels, which throughout managed to be tense without melodramatic, yearning without cloying, popular without pandering.

Two chief points to be made. First, it simply could not have been made without Anya Taylor-Joy (as chess prodigy Beth), who brought to the screen an endlessly variable selection of jolie laide looks that could take her utterly credibly from dung-beetle orphan to world champion, sexy toast of Paris and Moscow. More crucially, it brought to her acting a kind of stoic vulnerability. Nor would it have worked without a certain skill in getting our hearts beating to the rhythm of chess: via jump-cuts, time clocks, tense audience mumblings. The makers were shameless in their pretence that filmed chess could be made fascinating and yet somehow managed to make it so. Unimpeachably good co-casting didn’t hinder, with Marielle Heller a standout as Beth’s adoptive mother. A glorious all-you-need watch.

Years ago, a book review on the radio whanged on about Glenn Hoddle’s autobiography. It featured a section in which he, as manager, had to sit Paul Gascoigne down to tell him he wouldn’t be starting a certain game: he put on a CD of tootling sax muzak asshat Kenny G to make the moment “kinder”. I tried to invent a word, then, to encompass the ball-aching spectrum of emotions I felt in that instant: savage ennui mostly, allied to a surprisingly gentle, wide-eyed wonder that I share my planet with people possessed of rather distant taste.

So it is with The Vicar of Dibley. Which returned to our screens after 13 years, in lockdown format yet inexplicably in 10-minute chunks… and why, exactly? Perhaps Dawn French and Richard Curtis just felt our need. Thanks. Click.

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