The Alternate Reality London Of His Dark Materials

By M@ Last edited 56 months ago

Last Updated 18 November 2019

The Alternate Reality London Of His Dark Materials

Tate Modern with three chimneys? A vast 12-sided building on the site of Buckingham Palace? Welcome to London according to the BBC's His Dark Materials.

Philip Pullman's multiverse-spanning fantasy series has been adapted for television in one of the most expensive series ever made. The books and show both begin in the familiar cities of Oxford and London, but there's a twist. We're in an alternate reality. Many things are familiar, and many strange. Everyone has their own personal spirit animal, known as a dæmon. Technology appears to be fixed in the early 20th century. History has played out very differently here.

How London differs in His Dark Materials

The BBC's new adaptation brings this parallel world to life in meticulous detail. London is shown from above, as though viewed from one of the many silver airships that criss-cross the skies.

Still from His Dark Materials

Let's take a closer look. At first glance, very little save the River Thames is obvious from this still. But one landmark, unchanged from reality, is visible in the distance, and that's Tower Bridge. With this anchor point, we can work out a few other landmarks.

The three chimneys at the centre of the image are now easily recognised as Tate Modern. The building, formerly Bankside Power Station, has only ever possessed one chimney in the real world, yet the original plans called for a pair. His Dark Materials has cleverly reworked a piece of genuine 'alternate history'.

His Dark Materials London with annotations

The two other bridges, besides Tower, are in the correct locations for London Bridge (in the distance) and Blackfriars Rail Bridge (foreground). You'll notice, though, that both have bascules like Tower Bridge, allowing masted ships to sail through. Our real-world bridges have always had fixed spans, but plans were once mooted to rebuild London Bridge with drawbridges. Meanwhile, the railway crossing at Blackfriars snakes off towards Elephant and Castle as in real life, though we can't see the link round to London Bridge.

Most of the rest of the skyline has been artificially created, or pasted in from some other place, but the north bank does retain genuine buildings. The relatively new-build Salvation Army headquarters on Queen Victoria Street is present, and a little out-of-keeping with the early 20th century feel of His Dark Materials. The dome of St Benet's is also just about visible behind a fictional office block. We're also tempted to suggest that HMS Belfast and its gangway have been left in the river near Tower Bridge, but its too distant to be sure.  

Where Is Mrs Coulter's Apartment

At the start of episode two, Lyra is taken to the swish, marble-lined apartment of Mrs Coulter. It's in a fine art deco building, partly based on the Temple of Peace in Cardiff, but with CGI additions.

Still from His Dark Materials

The location is easy to fathom. When Lyra, Mrs Coulter and their dæmons alight from a car, Waterloo Bridge and the Victoria Embankment can clearly be seen in the background.

This location heavily suggests the real-world Shell Mex House, a genuine art deco building that also happens to house London's largest clock (known affectionately as Big Benzene, as a nod to the building's associations with oil company Shell). Google Maps shows the location of this building in relation to Waterloo Bridge, which corresponds well with the 'getting out of the car' scene in His Dark Materials.

The similarity becomes even clearer later in the episode, when a night-time shot of Mrs Coulter's apartment block shows that it is crowned by a giant sundial, in mimicry to the real-world clock.

A further night shot in episode 3 shows us a little more of Mrs Coulter's neighbourhood. Turn's out that Lyra's London has its very own version of the Adelphi Building. No Cleopatra's Needle, though.

Where is the Magisterium located?

The Magisterium are a powerful and menacing religious organisation. Their headquarters are shown to be in London, in a fortress like building surrounded by trees.

The colour and pattern of the roads and gate structures are all unmistakably copies from the front of Buckingham Palace. It's heartening to see that the Magisterium have chosen to plant the same shape of flower beds as Her Majesty.

Back in the real world...

An establishing shot from episode one gives us even better geographical context:

Here, we can see that the Magisterium building is surrounded by dense woodland, corresponding to St James's Park and Green Park, along with additional trees towards Victoria (foreground). The buildings in the background correspond to the area of St James's (right) and Piccadilly (left). A high wall appears to surround the Magisterium's woodland, while a white arch marks the entrance to what we would call The Mall. Curiously, the buildings of St James's appear to be largely untouched. The Ritz, the Economist Tower and Carlton House Terrace, for example, can all be identified.

The Magisterium's location, where one would expect to find Buckingham Palace, is an unsubtle way of saying 'we rule; we are in charge'. The organisation bears superficial similarities to the Catholic Church, albeit in a much more menacing form. Curiously, the Pope did toy with the idea of moving to London, along with the whole Vatican machinery, during the mid-19th century — at least if rumours at the time are to be believed. Whether deliberate or coincidental, this is another occasion in which the alternative reality of His Dark Materials neatly mirrors London's own 'might have been' history.

Spotted any other intriguing sights in alternative London? Let us know in the comments. We will update this article with any additional tidbits from future episodes.

With thanks to John Player for identifying the Temple of Peace as the basis for Mrs Coulter's apartment block.