The Shadow in the North

Directed by John Alexander

Written by Adrian Hodges from the novel by Philip Pullman

Starring Billie Piper, JJ Feild, Jared Harris, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Matt Smith, John Standing and Hayley Atwell

I somehow managed to miss ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’, the first of the BBC adaptations of the Sally Lockhart Mysteries, when it was shown at Christmas 2006. I have not read any of the four Philip Pullman novels. In fact, I have never read any of Pullman’s work, including the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, from which the fantasy film ‘The Golden Compass’ is drawn. Therefore, I went into ‘The Shadow in the North’ with little prior knowledge of what to expect.

Pullman has written four Sally Lockhart novels. They are set in Victorian Britain during a ten year period between 1872 and 1882. The BBC plans to adapt all four for television. ‘The Shadow in the North’ is the second book in the series. In the first book the amateur sleuth Sally Lockhart, played by Billie Piper, is just sixteen-years-old. By the time of the second book she is twenty-two and a successful financial consultant.

The 95-minute television adaptation plays like a mixture of Charles Dickens, the Gothic novelist Wilkie Collins (‘The Woman in White’) and Sherlock Holmes, with lashings of extra hokum poured on top for good measure. It particularly reminded me of the 1970 Billy Wilder film ‘The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’, but that might just be because of the Victorian setting and the theme of destructive invention in the great industrial era of the 19th century.

The story is told at a breakneck pace and might have benefited from a longer running time, possibly being spilt over two parts. The climax of the story seemed a little rushed and didn’t quite manage to achieve the impact that was obviously intended, but the portrayal of Victorian London is a definite plus point and it was never less than an enjoyable hour and a half’s viewing. Some reviews have suggested it doesn’t quite have the charm of ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’, but I am unable to comment on that.

The constantly excellent Billie Piper is a peculiarly modern actress and I don’t think she is especially suited to period costume drama. The ITV adaptation of ‘Mansfield Park’ is a case in point. This might also explain why she was so good in the adaptations of ‘The Miller’s Tale’ and ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, which were both set in the modern day. However, it works to her advantage in ‘The Shadow in the North’ because although Sally is necessarily very straight-laced, prim and proper, she refuses to be held back by the constraints that Victorian society places on her as a woman. It’s just the latest in a sequence of impressive performances by Piper.

I will need to pick up a DVD copy of ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’ – and ‘The Shadow in the North’, allowing me to watch it again – and I now look forward to the third and fourth parts of the series.

Screencap courtesy of

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