TV Review: His Dark Materials episode 1

His Dark Materials is an adaptation of Philip Pullman's novel Northern Lights, set in Oxford and partly filmed in Gloucestershire. The Oxford in question is, in the words of the opening crawl, part of "a world both like and unlike our own", where souls take the form of animals known as daemons, and where Oxford University is run by a powerful church known as The Magisterium. The TV adaptation is a hugely expensive co-production between the BBC, HBO and a number of independent production companies, as evidenced by the vast army of executive producers listed in the opening credits.

I have never read the books, though I have seen the film The Golden Compass, which bombed at the box office back in 2007. The film version was criticised for supposedly soft-pedalling Pullman's anti-religious message. This message was not very much in evidence during the first episode of this TV series. We are told that the Magisterium is not very nice, but the portrayal so far seems more like garden-variety anti-Catholicism than anti-religion per se. You will find stronger criticisms of the Church in pretty much any comic written by Pat Mills.

Other people who have not read the books have complained that the opening episode was impenetrable to those not familiar with the world of the novels. I personally didn't find it difficult to follow. I did find it a bit of a slog, though, with its running time feeling much longer than an hour. But there was enough mystery to keep me interested, and Dafne Keen (Wolverine's clone daughter in Logan) is a likeable lead, so I intend to keep watching. I hope the pace picks up a bit, though, in future episodes.

Wessex Attractions: Fyne Court

Fyne Court is a National Trust owned garden set among the ruins of a burnt-out Georgian house rumoured to be the original Castle Frankenstein!

Before I explain what I mean by that, a little overview of the garden as it is today. Set in the Quantock Hills, Fyne Court covers 65 acres. It provides a popular venue for orienteering, and three walking trails. one of which forms a part of King Alfred's Way. Species that can be found here include red deer. skylark, and Dartford warbler.

The house formerly belonged to Andrew Crosse (1784-1855), a pioneer in the field of electricity. Sir Humphry Davy visited Fyne Court in 1827, and the two of them were among the first to create voltaic piles. a type of primitive battery, Cross later experimented with separating copper from its ores using electricity. During one experiment, he noticed a number of mites, which he believed had been hatched from eggs laid in the ores. He was accused of blasphemy, usurping the role of God by "creating" the insects (which he never claimed to have done). A popular legend claims that this was the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It's a nice story, but unfortunately, the experiments took place some 20 years after Frankenstein's publication, so it could not possibly be true.

Fyne Court was burned down in 1894, not by an angry mob of villagers carrying flaming torches, but by an ordinary kitchen fire. Parts of the structure still remain, and the National Trust has tried to recreate the layout of the house, for example by placing doors in the same position as they would have been when the house was still there.

The postcode, for satnav purposes, is TA5 2EQ.

Wessex Attractions: White Barrow

White Barrow is a neolithic long barrow south of Tilshead in Wiltshire, which was the first property to be bought by the National Trust purely for archaeological interest. Prior to that, the Trust had mainly been interested in stately homes, parks and gardens. But in 1909, the Committee of Imperial Defence, forerunner to today's Ministry of Defence, was buying up land on Salisbury Plain for military use, and so the Trust decided to preserve it for the nation. They bought it by subscription for the princely sum of £60.

The barrow is approximately 77.5m by 47m, and carved out of the chalk, giving it its name. It has never been fully excavated, keeping it well-preserved, and was first described by the archaeologist William Cunnington. Human skulls were found that were believed to have been subjected to cranial trauma, suggesting that the people buried there had died by violence, but later examination showed the "wounds" to have been inflicted post-mortem.

Rare bees and wild flowers can be found at the site. In 1998, a badger sett was relocated in order to prevent the badgers from burrowing further into the burial chamber.

White Barrow can be accessed on foot from a byway leading south-west from the A360. The postcode, for satnav purposes, is SP3 4RX.

Wessex Worthies – John Hanning Speke

Light blogging for the next couple of weeks, as I have to make a trip to Greece on family business. The miracle of post scheduling means that blogs will still appear, but they may be somewhat shorter than usual.

For a region supposedly filled, according to popular stereotype, with ignorant bumpkins, Wessex has produced more than its fair share of scientists, philosophers and explorers. One example of the latter was John Hanning Speke (1827-64), discoverer of the source of the River Nile.

Speke was born in Buckland Brewer, Devon, in a historic manor dating back to Saxon times. in 1845, his family moved to Dowlish Wake, Somerset, where they ran a small natural history museum in their home. It is not known exactly when John started collecting specimens for the museum. but there is record of him having been refused permission to cross into Somaliland for that purpose while serving in the army, as it was considered too dangerous. He did undertake several solo expeditions during his army days, however, including one into Tibet. This brought him to the attention of the famous explorer Richard Burton (1821-90), and he finally achieved his ambition of going to Somaliland. The army appered to have been correct, though, as the expedition was viciously attacked, and Speke barely escaped with his life.

In 1856, Speke and Burton went on an expedition to Africa's Great Lakes. Accompanied by the experienced Bantu guide Sidi Mubarak Bombay (1820-85), they reached Lake Victoria. Speke believed this to be the source of the Nile, but Burton vehemently disagreed. Subsequent expeditions appeared to confirm Speke's hypothesis, but the results were inconclusive.

Upon their return to England, the better-known and more charismatic Burton was able to sway public opinion to his side. He was not about to be upstaged by this upstart who had discovered Ripon Falls without him. It didn't help that while in Uganda, Speke had fallen in love with an African woman, much to the disgust of Burton, who was notoriously racist even by the standards of Victorian England.

Burton and Speke were due to debate before the Royal Geographical Society in September 1864, but before the debate could take place, Speke was killed by his own gun whilst out shooting, at the tragically young age of 37. It is not clear whether his death was an accident, or whether Burton's public humiliations had driven him to suicide.

Speke was subsequently found to be correct, too late, alas, for his reputation to be restored. He was buried at Dowlish Wake. The rivalry between Burton and Speke was dramatised in the 1990 film Mountains of the Moon, in which Speke was played by Iain Glen and Burton by Patrick Bergin.

Wessex Worthies – William Tyndale

The monument to William Tyndale at Nibley Knoll in Gloucestershire has been in the news this week, as Extinction Rebellion protesters chose it as the site of a gigantic banner proclaiming their message. It was chosen for its visibility from the M5, rather than its connection to Tyndale, but it nonetheless seems like a good excuse for blogging about Tyndale's own rebellion.

On a clear day, the aforementioned monument was visible from my primary school, where we learned about Tyndale's courage in translating the Bible into English, whereas the Church at the time didn't want people reading the Bible at all, in case they got ideas above their station. Like much primary school history, this was a gross oversimplification, and strongly influenced by the traditional Whig view of history, in which the Protestant reformation is presented within an overall narrative of progress from the ignorance and superstition of the so-called "dark ages" to the rational enlightenment of our own era. In reality, the Church's objections to Tyndale's translation were a little more nuanced, as we shall see.

William Tyndale was born in Stinchcombe, Gloucestershire, around 1494. He was educated at Oxford, and became private chaplain to the family of Sir John Walsh of Little Sodbury. He soon found himself in trouble for expressing controversial, proto-Protestant views, perhaps influenced by the Lollard movement, which was strong in Gloucestershire at the time. He was summoned before the Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester, John Bell, though no formal charges were made against him.

in 1523, he left for London to seek permission from its bishop, Cuthbert Tunstall, to translate the Bible into English. After being refused the help of the bishop, he continued his work under the patronage of cloth merchant Humphrey Monmouth. He then departed for the continent, publishing his translation of the New Testament in Germany, and the Pentateuch and Book of Jonah in the Low Countries.

His translation attracted criticism for being based on Hebrew and Greek texts, rather than the Latin Vulgate preferred by the Church at that time, and for what were regarded as numerous translation errors. Particularly controversial was the Protestant practice of referring to God as Jehovah. Whilst Tyndale didn't think it ought to be blasphemy just saying "Jehovah", the Catholic Church at the time preferred to translate YHWH as simply "the Lord".

Nonetheless, Tyndale's translation proved to be a huge influence on subsequent English versions of the Bible, including the authorised King James Bible of 1611. An analysis of the KJV made in 1988 showed that Tyndale's words accounted for 84% of the New Testament, and 75% of the Old Testament books that he translated. He coined words that are now standard in English-speaking Christianity, such as passover, scapegoat and atonement. Among the familiar phrases that originated in Tyndale's Bible are "the powers that be", "salt of the earth" and "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". Melvyn Bragg, in his short biography of Tyndale, calls him the second most influential author in the English language, after Shakespeare.

Alas, Tyndale's rebellious nature put him at odds with the church authorities of the time. Foxe's Book of Martyrs attributes a famous quote to him, addressed to a "learned but blasphemous clergyman", that he may or may not have actually said:  "I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!" Thomas More in particular violently objected to Tyndale, and put a price on his head. He was eventually found by one Henry Phillips, an Englishman who had fled to the continent to escape his gambling debts, and betrayed to officers of the Holy Roman Empire. Tyndale was returned to England, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake in 1536. Three years later, the Great Bible, an English translation authorised by Henry VIII and largely based on Tyndale's, was published.

Today, as well as the monument on Nibley Knoll, Tyndale also gives his name to Tyndale Baptist Church in Bristol, and there is a statue of him in the city's Millennium Square. He is commemorated in the liturgical calendar of the Church of England on October 6th (had I known that before I wrote this article, I'd have tried to get it out a few days earlier!). The collect of the feast, taken from Common Worship, goes as follows:

Lord, give your people grace to hear and keep your word that, after the example of your servant William Tyndale, we may not only profess your gospel but also be ready to suffer and die for it, to the honour of your name; Amen.