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Northern Lights: BBC Radio 4 Dramatisation

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Author: Philip Pullman / Genre: Children's Books / Sci-Fi & Fantasy / BBC Audiobooks

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      30.04.2008 19:53
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      Very bad audio version of a sublime story...shame

      His Dark Materials - part 1 (Northern Lights)...made with dodgy materials!

      (Please note: this is a review of the BBC 4 radio play audio CD. Not the unabridged version read by Phillip Pullman.)

      I'm a massive, massive fan of Philip Pullman's trilogy 'His Dark Materials'. I've read them countless times and put them amongst my most favourites books of all time. Having listened to the audio CD of Harry Potter, and enjoyed it very much, I thought I would try the audio version of Pullman's books.

      I wanted to start off with the first book of the series 'Nothern Lights' (well it would be silly to start at the end??). Now, there are two difference versions of the books on audio. There's the regular unabridged version that is basically the books being read verbatim from the text. Then there's BBC's radio 4 play adaptation. My intention was to hear the books being read out loud, as I would read them, however, I picked up the wrong one and got the radio play. Getting over my frustration, I didn't want this to put me off, so thought I'd try the CD anyway. My partner and I had a long car journey approaching, so used this as the perfect accompaniment for us. Also, knowing that a reputable organisation such as BBC radio 4 had worked on it, then it couldn't be that bad, surely.

      After about fifteen minutes listening, I had to turn it off. It was awful. I found it incredibly cheesy and VERY altered from the original text. The first thing that got my goat, was the narrator they used to guide us through the story. He is a character who we don't meet until book 3, and when we do meet them, it sort of adds another dimension to the stories, introducing us to another conceptual idea in Pullman's head. However, meeting them so soon, so early on, takes away the impetus of when it comes to the part when we should meet him.

      The main character of the books is a girl called Lyra. She's head strong, confident and cheeky. She's also an 11 year old tomboy. However, in this version, she sounds incredibly babyish, which almost takes the character two steps back, instead of taking us forward into the story. In Lyra's world, each character has what is called a Daemon, which is a physical embodiment of a person's soul, in the form of an animal. They can talk and interact fully with their human counterpart. Lyra's Daemon is called Pan, and to be honest, he sounded OK, I didn't gasp in horror when I heard him, however the actor taking on the role gave me the impression that he was reading, rather than acting, which bugged me, as it defeated the purpose of having a radio play at all!

      As I like to listen to audio tapes/CDs in the car, there are often things that impair the sound, namely traffic. So, having lots of whispering, made for difficult understanding. When turning the volume up, this just distorted the sound. I found this very annoying, although not really a fault of the CDs as such, but the producers must have realized that a good few minutes of whispering isn't going to benefit anyone, only hinder the storytelling...as it's hard to hear and understand! Another thing I didn't like about this version, was that were really, really, incredibly annoying musical interludes, which wouldn't normally bother me, but having them every 5 minutes or so, puh-lease! So by only a short way into the CDs, I have already lost my faith in the ability of the people who made this CD, to make a decent radio play. What's wrong with just reading the story out???

      I remember when I was little I had a book with a tape that you had to follow along with. When ever we had to turn the page there was a twinkly sound. Well, this twinkly sound kept popping up here too. Weird, I thought, as I don't have the book (and even I did, it would be different because the CD has changed the story somewhat). On closer listening, I realized that the twinkly sound came up whenever the alethiometer was mentioned. By this point I was ready to pull my hair out, this really was a CD made by people who can't let the story speak for itself, and have to play a certain tune, every time a certain object came up in the story...as if the listeners are at infant school! Even if that was their intention, they've got their audience completely wrong as the books are aimed at 'young adults' (originally they were classed as sci-fi, but the publishers launched them as 'childrens' books to get a wider readership, but that's by the by). For anyone confused about what an alethiometer is, it's like a 'golden compass' (you've probably seen pictures of it from the film version) that can tell the future, hence the studio's urge to add magical and twinkly noises when ever it pops up in conversation.

      Another gripe of mine (oh dear, can you tell, I'm not exactly trying to sell these am I?) is that as it is a radio play, there is an EXTRA narrator called on, who reads out the stage directions, or rather what each character is doing. Which to me, contradicts the idea of having a radio play at all, I can't ever remember having a narrator in 'The Archers'??? (I could be wrong, I only listened to it on few occasion round my friends house, when his Dad insisted on having it for 'dinnertime' accompaniment...oh the joys). This was the last straw and irritated me so much, I switched it off.

      Maybe I was in mourning, that such a great book series, didn't have it's merits rewarded by being read by someone as wonderful as Stephen Fry, I don't know. But in either case, this series felt so badly executed as an audio version. It just didn't work for me. I want to listen to the unabridged version, so if you do too, don't be fooled by this hideous excuse for an audio version of Pullman's masterpiece. Not recommended.

      The first book 'Northern Lights' by BBC Radio4, is on 2 CDs and lasts 2 ½ hours and you can buy it online for around 10GBP. But don't waste your money.

      Thanks for reading :)


      © MarcoG 2008
      (also on ciao)

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    • Product Details

      Philip Pullman's thrilling fantasy comes alive in this BBC Radio 4 full-cast dramatisation. The award-winning "His Dark Materials" trilogy is a breathtaking epic adventure spanning a multitude of worlds. "Northern Lights", the opening instalment, sees Lyra and her shape-changing daemon embark on a dangerous quest. In Oxford, Lyra learns that children are being kidnapped by the mysterious Gobblers. When her friend Roger vanishes she determines to find him, and is given a powerful alethiometer which can reveal the truth in all things. After discovering that the adults around her are not what they seem, Lyra and Pantalaimon join forces with a band of gyptians.Travelling north they encounter witch-queens and armoured bears, before being captured and taken to Bolvangar - where children are being used in terrible and secret experiments. Gripping, full of suspense and often funny, "Northern Lights" has an all-star cast including Terence Stamp, Emma Fielding, Bill Paterson, Kenneth Cranham and Ray Fearon. It is now a major motion picture, "The Golden Compass", starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.