While not quite a ghost story for Christmas, the Sally Lockhart dramas adapted for television by the BBC and shown over the festive period are the next best thing. From their setting at the tail end of the nineteenth century, the Sally Lockhart mysteries feature a London on the cusp of a new century. The turning of the years into that century would bring the motor car, the telephone and radio but the dank alleyways of Sally Lockhart's London have a surplus of opium dens, mediums and boarding houses, a place where there were still enough shadows in the capital to conceal casual murder and where bodies could be buried beneath mud floors. It is into this world that a priceless ruby comes, a precious stone that brings only violence and death in its wake and, for Sally Lockhart, the memories of a murder in the cloud of opium smoke.
The Ruby In The Smoke opens in 1872 with young Sally Lockhart finding a message from her father, joint owner of the Lockhart & Selby shipping firm and who recently went down with all hands on the Lavinia in her sinking in the far east. The letter tells Sally to beware of the Seven Blessings, which means nothing to her but which is something of a dire warning for others as, when Sally asks the company's secretary about its meaning, he drops dead of fright before her very eyes. In the same office, Sally meets Jim Taylor, a young man with a liking for penny dreadfuls and together they investigate why death seems to follow the Seven Blessings. The road to the truth takes in murder, the smuggling of opium and the mysterious Ruby of Agrapur. And all the while they are watched by the wicked Mrs Holland.
Meanwhile, six years later and in The Shadow In The North, Sally Lockhart, who now advises on financial matters, is asked by a client to inquire as to what occurred to a particular investment that Lockhart recommended, one that is now worthless after the sinking of one of their ships. Lloyds of London agree, saying that no insurance will be paid on a ship that sank without good reason. Honour-bound by her respect for her clients, she sets her mind to uncovering the truth behind the matter, one that sees her crossing paths with Axel Bellman. Elsewhere, Jim Taylor and Frederick Garland, who, between them, run the Garland Detective Agency, are encouraged by a most peculiar case, one of a magician claiming that he is to be murdered having seen a vision of a killing. A seance, a wedding and, once again, the offices of Axel Bellman, are where their investigation takes them and into the web of corruption that surrounds the Steam Gun.
In the interview with Philip Pullman that accompanies these films in this two-disc set, the author describes his setting the Sally Lockhart mysteries in the late-1800s as being one of convenience. As well as the maps produced by the Ordnance Survey of the London in which Pullman's characters live and breathe, the last years of the nineteenth century saw photography becoming commonplace, not only amongst the gentry but in the working classes having their pictures taken in makeshift studios. Pullman even describes such a photograph, telling the viewer how the man in it would later find form as Trembler Molloy in The Ruby In The Smoke, the first book of, so far, four thrillers.
Trembler Molloy doesn't actually appear in this television adaptation of The Ruby In The Smoke, one of a number of cuts made in an effort to bring Pullman's thriller to the screen. There are more obvious ones, though, ones that are obvious even in the watching of the film as cuts are made to Pullman's book to bring it to television. There's a moment in The Ruby In The Smoke when logic goes the way of the horse-drawn carriage and one is left wondering how Mrs Holland gets word to two of her men and crosses town in search of Sally Lockhart's young charge, Adelaide Bevan, when she is, at that same time, overseeing a beating being handed out to Frederick Lockhart. Even as quite a forgiving viewer, one notes that time doesn't so much pass quickly by in this ninety-minute film but, at times, it positively zigzags in across London and between evening and nightfall. Time, however, is treated rather respectfully when compared to the plot, which drifts as lazily as a drunk. Mrs Holland, by fortune rather than guile, works out the riddle as quickly as Jim Taylor and a body simply disappears into thin air never to be mentioned again. Perhaps the later books resolve this somehow (The Tiger In The Well does explain the whereabouts of Hendrik van Eeden) but with these coming one a year to television, the film, rather than the novel, leaves a good many loose ends hanging even as the credits roll.
It is that year between The Ruby In The Smoke and The Shadow In The North that creates the most savage of cuts. Without a quick refresher before The Shadow In The North or a repeat of The Ruby In The Smoke, one is left wondering who has remained in the story and who has not. Adelaide, who was in Sally's guardianship at the end of the first film, is now absent, Jim and Frederick are running a detective agency and Sally hasn't just found herself a dog but now operates a well-regarded financial consultancy. That Pullman engineered a gap of six years between his books explains this turn of events but this also allows for a more entertaining adaptation, one that ratchets up the melodrama at the cost of reason. Flashbacks are suitably blurry, the cast visit a seance and murderers wait in music hall audiences with their cudgels hidden beneath their coats. In spite of a quite dreadful performance by Julian Rhind-Tutt with a Scottish accent straight out of an am-dram Macbeth - "Och aye the noo!" is on his lips throughout - The Shadow In The North is slightly the better of the two films here but only in its going for broke as regards the tossing out of the story in favour of atmosphere. As such, it makes even less sense that did The Ruby In The Smoke but does feel more complete, having at least an ending that doesn't depend on a later story to be resolved with.
It's really Billie Piper that lets these adaptations down, though. Her efforts to appear vulnerable leave her looking blank while she might as well air guitar-ed to Sweet Child Of Mine than cried in The Shadow In The North as one has as little meaning as the other in the hands of Piper. Fear, revenge and love are but a small selection of emotions that Piper cannot bring to the screen with even her smoking of opium looking as though she has caught a sneeze. However, both films work very well when taken as Christmas entertainment when their gas lamps, music halls and opium dens seem to be quite the thing for evenings that are cold, dark and miserable. They'll probably work less well in the spring and summer so watch these now and put them aside until this December when, if these stories are anything to go by, one will need to watch them again before this year's showing of The Tiger In The Well and 2009's The Tin Princess.
The BBC broadcast these films in 1.78:1 and they are anamorphically presented as such here. Neither film looks a great deal better than they did on television, only being a little sharper and carrying only a touch more detail. Certainly the last ten minutes or so of The Ruby In The Smoke is no great shakes as the fog that lingers about the wharf where Sally meets Mrs Holland proves too much for the transfer but there are other scenes that cause it just as much trouble, including the opium den. The Shadow In The North is slightly better but, once again, the atmosphere that is draped across the film causes problems with it lacking sharpness. Indeed both films can look out of focus as times such is the heavy blurring in certain scenes. However, they were no better on their television broadcast.
The DD2.0 audio tracks that accompanies both films are fine but neither one offers the viewer any surprises. There is a clear separation between the left and right speakers but they don't do very much more that present the dialogue is as plain a manner as they can, even scrimping on ambience to do so. However, the dialogue is always clear in spite of Rhind-Tutt's efforts to do otherwise.
An Interview With Philip Pullman (20m50s) is the only bonus feature included in this two-disc set in which the author discusses his background, his writing of the Sally Lockhart mysteries and his method of working, all the while making the point of his particular talent being one of persistence. Granted, this is probably Pullman playing down his talent but he talks in a very straightforward manner about how he writes, about the inspiration for The Ruby In The Smoke and The Shadow In The North and how his persistence in sketching led to his publisher agreeing to let him provide the little drawings that open each chapter in the His Dark Materials trilogy. What with being one of the country's most famous atheists, what with the subject matter of His Dark Materials, Pullman clarifies the issue somewhat, describing himself as having moments of atheism and, in habits and superstitions, some of agnosticism. Neither of which will much endear him to the Vatican.
These certainly work very much better on DVD than they did shown a year apart on television with the viewer having the opportunity to watch one and, that same night, the other, thereby avoiding some of the problems with these adaptations. Certainly it's easy to see where the BBC is headed with these Sally Lockhart dramas. They scored some success a few years ago with a couple of Sherlock Holmes stories, one a solid telling of The Hound Of The Baskervilles and the wholly original The Case of the Silk Stocking, and these stories allow the corporation to continue their period thrillers at Christmas in a fair manner with another two to go. Pity they haven't kept their ghost stories at Christmas going in a similar manner, at least outside of BBC4, but we clearly can't have everything.