One of the defining characteristics of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is the magical alternative world he created on the page – full of incredible places that have inspired wonder and intrigue amongst his devoted readers.
So bringing this world to the screen was always going to be one of the trickiest challenges for the BBC1 TV adaptation (along with creating the characters’ daemons). And you might be surprised to learn that despite visiting many weird and wonderful places, an awful lot of the series was actually filmed indoors on purpose-built sets.
Yes – even scenes set in the snowy wastes beneath the Northern lights of the Arctic were actually filmed in Bad Wolf studios in Cardiff.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com, executive producer Jane Tranter explained why she had opted to shoot so much of the show indoors.
She said, “I always had a strong Spidey-sense that the way to do His Dark Materials was to do it indoors. And that because it’s a fantasy world, you’re not building Oxford you’re building fantasy Oxford, you’re not building the north you’re building fantasy north. But it’s not that far fantasy.
“It has to have a slightly different feel to it for an audience than just going out and shooting a snowy wasteland. And I always thought that the clue to everything was to almost turn in on ourselves. And make it all about the text and performance. And then let the people who do the rest of it, do the rest of it. And just really, really let them off the leash.”
Many of the most iconic locations from the books – such as Lord Asriel’s lab, the interiors of Jordan college, Bolvangar and Iofur’s palace – were filmed in the studio.
And set designer Joel Collins told RadioTimes.com it was hard to pick a favourite set from the series. “We get on a set, we’re almost finished and we ask ‘What’s your favourite set?’ and I say ‘I think this one is now,’ so it’s really fickle,” he said.
But away from the studios, there were some locations that required going a little further afield…
Although the interiors of Jordan College were all shot at Bad Wolf Studios, the crew travelled to Oxford itself for the exterior shots, with New College moonlighting as Jordan. Other Oxford landmarks you can spot in the show include The Bridge of Sighs and The Botanical Gardens.
And the Oxford filming also marked an auspicious occasion – when original trilogy author Philip Pullman visited the set and met some of the cast for the first time.
“I mean, they said ‘Philip’s coming to set,’ and I was like ‘Help! SOS, someone save me’,” Dafne Keen, who plays Lyra in the series, told RadioTimes.com.
“But then he came on set and he was so nice about it. He was saying that I’d done a great job, and he was very happy and stuff. As soon as he said that, I was quite chilled out.”
Though of course, not every Oxford scene was actually filmed in Oxford, with some scenes – most notably when Lord Boreal (Airyon Bakare) travels to our own world – shot instead in Cardiff, with only B-roll shot in Oxford city centre.
Who knew there’s a portal to another world in Plasturton Gardens in Pontcanna? #HisDarkMaterials pic.twitter.com/FvSvi7xUGR
— I Loves The ‘Diff (@ILovesTheDiff) November 10, 2019
So yes, that leafy Oxford suburb was actually in Pontcanna, Cardiff. The more you know…
For scenes involving the Gyptians – a group of water travellers who live mainly on boats – filming was done on the River Severn, near Sharpness Docks.
Apparently, bad weather caused delays to shooting – again, demonstrating why Tranter was so keen to keep as much of the filming as possible away from the fickle Welsh weather.
“There have been some storms, and there have been some times when we’re meant to have been outside with the Gyptians, and we’ve had to keep cancelling, and keep cancelling,” she told us.
“Because every time we tried to do that scene we got blown away. But for a production that is as long as this one, we’ve had very little weather problems. But that has been because we’ve come into the studio after.”
Trollesund, a port town in the country of Lapland, doesn’t crop up until a bit later on in the series – but the process of filming it was especially interesting. The crew built an entire town out of nothing in Crickhowell, near Abergavenny in South Wales.
“Trollesund was amazing,” Keen said. “They built a whole town in the Valleys in the middle of nowhere – this whole northern fishing town which was supposed to be in Norway. It was amazing, they made ice with melted wax, sprayed things with fake snow – I don’t know how they did it.
“We went quite a lot in the mountains of Wales and stuff, pretending it was the north, fake snow-spraying it in September.”
A number of other locations across Cardiff and Bristol also show up in the course of the series – including a chase scene following a moving vehicle around the streets of Bristol and the Welsh Assembly Government foyer in Cardiff centre, which moonlights as a Magisterium building.
We’ll be keeping a look out for more locations as the series progresses.
Interviews by Huw Fullerton
His Dark Materials airs on BBC1 on Sundays at 8pm