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The Dark is Rising – BBC Sounds/ Theatre Complicité

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Susan Cooper, adapted by Robert McFarlane and Simon McBurney

Director: Simon McBurney

When the Dark comes rising

Six shall turn it back:

Three for the Circle

Three for the Track

The riddling chant of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, written in 1973, suggests we might in the world of Tolkien. But Cooper’s children’s novel is anchored firmly in our world. On the eve of his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton is delighted to see snow falling on his village. But as it falls with increasing relentlessness through the twelve days of Christmas, it seems to betoken something sinister.

Will Stanton discovers he has an awe-inspiring destiny – he is the last of the Old Ones, fighting to protect the world from the power of The Dark. But in between his terrifying encounters with supernatural forces he finds himself reassuringly back home with his many siblings.

This drama podcast for the BBC World Service is an imaginative adaptation of The Dark is Rising arriving just in time for Christmas, its twelve fifteen-minute episodes perfect mid-winter listening. The first drops appropriately on the winter solistice; the last on New Year’s Eve.

Headphones will give listeners the full immersive experience of Gareth Fry’s electrifying sound design. There are the comfortable everyday noises of Will and his siblings as they rattle up and down the cottage stairs, and enjoy the first delicious crunching of boots into newly fallen snow. But it’s the rendering of the book’s supernatural world that is so evocative. Unearthly sounds, ominous voices and strange chants conjure up a procession of terrifying evil powers which are unremittingly rising to take over the world.

There’s an excellent cast of characters, including Harriet Walter as The Lady, Toby Jones as The Walker and Paul Rhys as Merriman, but with the exception of latter, they are not characters we meet with sufficient frequency to get to know.

Newcomer Noah Alexander does well as protagonist Will, but his journey can feel a bewildering one. The imagery of the Six Signs that must be brought together gives overall unity, but the story can feel episodic. Cooper’s world is nowhere near as fully imagined as, say, that of Philip Pullman. It lacks the psychological depths of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series or the range of engaging characters created by J.K. Rowling.

There are other issues with Cooper’s book. We are encouraged to identify with Will, but Cooper doesn’t use his age to explore life on the cusp of adolescence. He certainly learns to be more authoritative, but the lessons from his early errors don’t have any real resonance. In A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), Ged’s naive insistence on demonstrating his new magic powers leads to his sinister haunting by the Shadow. When Will does something similar, trying out his new-found ability to create fire, the result is rather flat: the benign Lady finds her supernatural powers depleted. But Cooper is drawing an old fashioned, class-bound world where the Lady, her earthly avatar, Miss Greythorne, Lady of the Manor, and the patrician Merriman, are presented as the true upholders of virtue.

A difficulty with dramatising the character of Will is that in the book he’s often on his own and therefore silent, his reactions and intense emotions presented largely through narrative. Here Will is given slightly clunky internal monologue or repeated exclamations of ‘WOW!’ and ‘WHOA!’.

Younger listeners won’t complain about modern idioms, but adults may feel uneasy with some shifts in register. The setting of The Dark is Rising suggests rural England of the 50s. The villagers all speak like natives of Ambridge, whereas Will’s family use RP. His father is given to quaint archaisms. ‘Step in!’, he cries merrily to a visitor. It’s an odd mixture, but this is a fundamentally an adventure for children and there is much about this adapted drama that will captivate them.

Released daily on BBC Sounds from 20 December 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Good Christmas children’s entertainment

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  1. It’s not that good. There was an excellent dramatised adaptation some 40 years ago, and whilst right to find a new approach, this is far from it. As the reviewer here notes, the inner monologue of Will is a challenge and the (to me) lack of imagination of ‘staging’ the production but relying heavily on a narrater to move the story forward significantly weakens what could have ben a superb revisit of a great tory. The cast, on the whole, is excellent, well known and when we hear them, things improve. Noah Alexander is fine, but no more. I always wonder how radio and TV struggle to find high quality child actors when there are so many present in UK amateur theatre. Is their ‘ natural’ ability directed out of them? Else, just look to The Archers for a decent well.

    would I urge fans of the book to investigate this one? Not with any passion. Will I finish listening? Possibly. A pity as there is much potential in this. Perhaps losing the Theatre Complicité pretentiousness element would also help.

  2. Agree with the comment above and the article. The bland middle-class accents are annoying, as are attempts to shovel in contemporary politics. Cooper’s work is very much about place, and that place is Buckinghamshire (or Aberdovy and Megavessy), it’s the opposite of a global worldview. Cooper was ironically living in the US and very homesick when she wrote it.

    And, as usual, the Elect faithful at the BBC can’t resist pushing their religion into everything they do. So we have the narrative of the first episode bizarrely interrupted to bring in a Jamaican accent and to ‘Centre Blackness’ as they say in Critical Race Theory.

    Sad really.

  3. This is the most difficult of the books in the sequence to engage with, yet everyone seems attracted to dramatizing it. No wonder it seems episodic – it is almost entirely set in the world of the Old Ones rather than the world of the reader. The Grey King would have been more interesting. No matter. These are childrens’ books not political tracts, they were written nearly half a century ago, so I don’t think they should be expected to pander to modern sensitivities; they do have durability despite the 70s feel, so criticizing the book and therefore the dramatisation for extolling class authority and the middle classes is a bit pointless. This dramatisation condenses too much, so that it is sometimes difficult to visualise the scenes in the way they can be visualized in the book. Toby Jones is just right for the Walker and although the Wows and Whoas are really really irritating, Noah Alexander is OK as Will, But Merriman AKA Merlin is way too light weight! He should be much more sepulchral ….There is subdued aimless music continuously roaming around in the background, which mumbles along, and is too fussy. Less would have been more. Nevertheless it is a faithful dramatization in many respects despite these issues.

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