The Ruby in the Smoke

Philip Pullman is best known for the bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy, but it was with an earlier novel - The Ruby in the Smoke - with which he "first found the voice that I now tell stories in". It's now been turned into a thrilling drama starring Billie Piper, and its screenwriter Adrian Hodges chatted to us about how it all came about.

Matt Smith as Jim Taylor

In your own words, what's The Ruby in the Smoke about?

It's a historical thriller set in the 19th Century, but I think Philip Pullman said it best when he described the original novel as "old-fashioned Victorian blood and thunder". We're talking action, melodrama, tight corsets, heaving bosoms and dastardly villains.

The central character played by Billie Piper is a feisty young lass named Sally Lockhart who is trying to unravel the truth behind her father's mysterious death. It leads her on the trail of something called the "Seven Blessings", and the story involves conspiracies, the drug trade and a cursed jewel. It's a really lavish adventure and it's only the beginning – the other Sally Lockhart novels are being adapted too.

What led you to become involved as the screenwriter?

Well, the BBC became interested in the Sally Lockhart novels after the His Dark Materials books made Pullman such a big name. Originally, Philip himself had intended to adapt The Ruby in the Smoke himself, but ultimately he decided he didn't really have the time. The BBC then came to me as I'd already written period dramas like David Copperfield and Charles II by that point.

I'd not actually read the Lockhart books when the commission came, but I was a big Pullman fan because of His Dark Materials. So the first thing I did was sit down and read The Ruby in the Smoke, and just fell in love with it. It's brilliant as it appeals to kids but has the maturity and complexity to interest adults as well. It was great to be asked to adapt such a book.

How did you tackle the job? Did you have to make many changes to the original plot?

I was largely faithful to the book, but Pullman's plots are brilliantly complicated and I knew I had to slightly streamline it for the purposes of television. After all, you can't convey all the finer points of a novel – even a relatively short one like The Ruby in the Smoke – within the running time of an average film. So I basically cut some corners to keep it all as concise as possible.

The one major change was with the character of Jim Taylor, who is a young boy in the book. I made him a good few years older, because in the next Sally Lockhart adaptation, Shadow in the North, he's meant to be 19 and to maintain continuity we didn't want to change actors. I was a bit concerned about this age alteration, but Pullman was completely behind it.

What did you think of the casting? Were you involved in that side of things at all?

Being a lowly screenwriter I wasn't really very involved in picking actors for each part. But that said, the producers did ask my opinion of people they had in mind for different roles, such as Julie Walters as Mrs Holland.

One part that was never in question was Sally Lockhart, as the series was basically given the go-ahead with Billie Piper in mind. She'd become such a hot property thanks to Doctor Who that she really helped The Ruby in the Smoke happen just by being interested. She's actually an extremely serious performer and was keen to stretch herself – hence taking on the part of a gunslinging Victorian heroine.

Where was it filmed? Were there any bumpy moments along the way?

While some bits were shot on the Lancashire coast, most of it was filmed in various locations around London. It was a very smooth and happy production, although trying to maintain the period atmosphere was often a bit of a challenge.

The fact is that Londoners are a savvy lot, and care more about their sought-after parking spaces than the concerns of yet another film crew. This was particularly true when we were filming Mrs Holland's house, which is near Liverpool Street Station. So many people refused to shift their cars that the crew decided to literally film around them – carefully manoeuvring and winding their cameras in between vehicles and to ensure only the period houses were caught on film. It was really rather difficult, but all credit to them – they got there in the end.