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Dr Who's assistant no more

01/01/2007. Contributed by Jessica Martin

Buy The Ruby In The Smoke in the USA - or Buy The Ruby In The Smoke in the UK

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Steampunk fans, drink your fill. Billie Piper returns to the small screen in her first lead role and first period drama to star as Sally Lockhart in the BBC's adaptation of fantasy writer Philip Pullman's The Ruby In The Smoke. SFcrowsnest interviews Billie and looks behind the series of The Ruby In The Smoke.

Introduction: The Ruby In The Smoke

Billie Piper returns to our screens in her first lead role and first period drama to star as Sally Lockhart in the BBC's adaptation of fantasy writer Philip Pullman's The Ruby In The Smoke, adapted for television by Adrian Hodges.

Julie Walters takes on the role of the charismatic and deadly Mrs Holland, a woman determined to mastermind Sally's demise. JJ Feild, Matt Smith, Robert Glenister, David Harewood, Hayley Atwell, Miles Anderson, Ramon Tikaram and Don Gilet also star.

The Ruby In The Smoke is the first book in Pullman's fictional quartet and charts the adventures of Sally Lockhart (Piper), a feisty young Victorian heroine. Armed with a pistol, a thorough grounding in the principles of military tactics and a working knowledge of Hindustani she embarks on a journey to discover the truth behind her father's death, and unravel why his colleague died of fear after she utters the three little words: "The Seven Blessings".

Adapted by writer Adrian Hodges (Charles II, Rome, The Lost World), The Ruby In The Smoke is a tale of mystery, danger, puzzling letters and a blood-soaked jewel. The film is set in the heart of Victorian London.

Producer Kate Bartlett says: "I am thrilled that we were able to attract such a talented, dynamic and popular cast to this production. It is a real credit to Philip Pullman, who is without question one of Britain's leading and brilliant novelists; and to Adrian Hodges, for his superb adaptation of this exciting action adventure. This is an enthralling drama that will appeal to both adults and children alike."

Executive Producer Sally Woodward Gentle said, "I am delighted that we have the opportunity to bring Philip Pullman's extraordinary novels to a television audience. The commissioning of The Ruby In The Smoke is a further example of BBC One's commitment to offer more inspiring and varied drama which appeal to a wide ranging audience."

The Ruby In The Smoke is directed by Brian Percival (Bafta winner for Much Ado About Nothing, North & South, Clocking Off).

The Executive Producer is Sally Woodward Gentle and the Producer is Kate Bartlett (North and South, Canterbury Tales). The Ruby In The Smoke will be followed by the second novel The Shadow In The North, which will transmit later in 2007.


Sally Lockhart has just struck a man dead. Not with a weapon, though she has a pistol and probably the heart to use it. Sally killed Mr Higgs with just three words - "The Seven Blessings". Unfortunately, she has no idea what they mean. They were sent to her by her father, just before he drowned in the South China Seas, in a letter warning Sally of danger to come.

She had hoped that her father's colleague, Mr Higgs, might have explained the mystery. Instead he died of fear. The only other person to witness this strange turn of events is Jim Taylor, the young company dogsbody at the Lockhart and Selby shipping firm.

With his passion for solving mysteries, Jim helps Sally answer the questions surrounding her father's death. Together, they are quickly drawn into a mystery filled with opium, Chinese Triad gangs, secrets from Sally's own past - and, at the heart of it all, the Ruby of Agrapur…

Sally's father came into possession of the Ruby many years earlier, during his time in India, and had since hidden the gem, leaving Sally a series of clues to follow. However, Sally is not the only person trying to locate the priceless stone. Her nemesis, a sinister old hag called Mrs Holland, is desperate to get her hands on it - and will stop at nothing, including murder.

Whilst trying to escape Mrs Holland, Sally crosses paths with a young photographer called Frederick Garland who takes her under his wing. Soon, he and Sally are firm friends - though a growing attraction between them may one day develop into something altogether more romantic.

Together, Sally, Fred and Jim pit their wits against the deadly plans of Mrs Holland and her cronies.

But as they are drawn deeper into the mystery, they realise that "Lockhart and Selby" was involved in dark and treacherous dealings in the Far East. In so doing they invoke a villain altogether more terrifying than Mrs Holland, whom Sally will have to overcome if she is to learn the truth about her father's murder, and solve the riddle of her own identity…

The Ruby In The Smoke cast

Sally Lockhart - Billie Piper
Mrs Holland - Julie Walters
Frederick Garland - JJ Feild
Matthew Bedwell/Rev Nicholas Bedwell - David Harewood
Jim Taylor - Matt Smith
Rosa Garland - Hayley Atwell
Mr Berry - Tony Maudsley
Samuel Selby - Robert Glenister
Mr Hopkins - Don Gilet
Major Marchbanks - Miles Anderson
Adelaide - Chloe Walker
Mrs Rees - Sian Thomas
Maharajah - Ramon Tikaram

Crew credits

Screenplay by Adrian Hodges adapted from Philip Pullman's novel
Director - Brian Percival
Producer - Kate Bartlett
Director of Photography - Peter Greenhalgh
Composer - Martin Phipps
Editor - Kristina Hetherington
Production Designer - Donal Woods
Costume Designer - James Keast
Make-Up Designer - Chrissie Baker
Executive Producer - Sally Woodward Gentle
Executive Producer WGBH - Rebecca Eaton.

Billie Piper Interview

When Billie Piper left her hugely successful role as Rose Tyler in Russell T Davies' Doctor Who it was possibly the most heart-wrenching time of her professional life.

She had been part of the Doctor Who family for two years and it was during filming of the first series starring Christopher Eccleston when her marriage to Chris Evans ended. Although it was her choice to leave it was nevertheless a sad time for Billie but a time that is packed with great memories and where life-long friendships were forged.

"When I told the producers that I wanted to leave they were so supportive and gave me words of encouragement that I took with me on my next adventure which was Philip Pullman's brilliant Sally Lockhart series. Russell put pen to paper and gave Rose a wonderful exit," she says. "When my last episode of Doctor Who was screened I clutched a pillow and sobbed my heart out... I miss them all so much and thank them for the springboard they gave me. It was an experience that was out of this world!"

Even though it was her choice to leave the show it was still hard to leave the great friends she had made in the show's Executive Producer Julie Gardner, writer Russell T Davies and co-star David "Ten-inch" Tennant as she "wickedly" calls him.

"David and I didn't just get on because we were thrown together - we were proper mates and neither of us can remember what it was we found so funny for nine months but we giggled for a straight nine months," she laughs.

"When I left I was pretty scared at first because The Ruby In The Smoke was my first drama since leaving Doctor Who - I wasn't sure if I could pull it off," she explains. "It was not just that but also my first lead role and a period drama. Lots of firsts there but I had the support of people around me... JJ (Feild) and Julie (Walters) had both worked on loads of period drama as had Brian Percival the director, so I was in really good company."

"I suppose there is a danger in working on a show like Doctor Who because audiences fall in love with a certain character and they can't get used to seeing you in something else. It must be the same for soap actors who move on," she continues.

"I found it difficult to look at footage of Sally Lockhart when I was doing the ADR work because I've only really ever seen myself as Rose - I know I've done The Miller's Tale and Much Ado About Nothing but it really felt that Rose was mine," she adds.

While she was filming the Sally Lockhart Mysteries Billie was simultaneously writing her autobiography with the help of Gay Longworth.

"Writing my book was really cathartic for me and I'm often asked if I was scared about writing it but no it was a load of fun," she laughs. "I learnt a lot about grammar and really basic things like spelling and how to construct sentences and make sense of a story. Gay Longworth helped me with the process, which was that we would sit and talk for about three days on growing up in Swindon, and then she would go off and interview Mum, Dad, members of my family and friends and dig up old press cuttings which would help put the pieces together.

"I met with quite a few writers that were recommended by the publisher but I liked Gay because she had helped Gloria Hunniford write her book about Caron's death and it was handled really carefully. When I met her she was really feisty and a bit of a trouble-maker, a mum and just good company and since I knew I had to enjoy spending time with the person I was going to sit down and tell my entire life story to... it was imperative that I trusted her."

Since Billie was first propelled into the limelight by Hugh Goldsmith at the age of 15 her life has been in the public eye and most of her growing up has been done via the papers.

Winning a two-year battle with anorexia, meeting, marrying, separating from Chris Evans, disappearing from view for two years and returning to begin an acting career - Billie has packed more into the last six years than most people achieve in a lifetime. She now feels like she has finally found her forte in life and is constantly pushing the perimeters of her comfort zone to embrace new challenges.

"I feel like I am fulfilling all the big dreams I had as a kid and the thought of not being involved in the acting world makes me really sad," she says. "I hope to be growing and adapting and learning different things and I am so ready to have a good crack at the whip now with the Sally Lockhart Mysteries and my first lead role. I love all the different areas of this profession and I do feel like I am finally on my way."

Despite being offered a number of film roles she hasn't quite found the right one for her.

"If the right movie came along I would love to do it but I am enjoying my television work at the moment. I have seen a few big action scripts for film but I would love to do something a bit more domestic like current affairs or a political thriller... anything with a social conscience but we shall see what comes along."

But for the meantime she had great fun shooting the Sally Lockhart Mysteries despite having to wear a corset and about four layers in the middle of the hottest summer for years!

"I wore layer after layer after layer but I found the corsets really helped me get into character. It is actually really hard to become a Victorian woman without donning one because the minute you put it on you hold yourself differently - your hair is up and you are wearing period jewellery.

"In the beginning you find you eat very little because it sits on your chest but after a while I got so used to it that I was totally able to wolf down a shepherd's pie for lunch without blinking," she laughs. "I felt dainty and feminine in the costume and a lot more happens in your head in terms of the role because you don't have the freedom of movement which is great for this part because she is a deep thinker and true to her emotions. She isn't oppressed despite the world she is living in but she is quite free."

Billie loved playing Sally Lockhart because of the modern nature and personality of the young investigator: "Sally is a very modern woman who doesn't get beaten down with stuff that society dictates at that time. She likes freedom of thought and is headstrong and that's what gets her through this very strange time in her life and the realisation that there are things and mysteries within her own family that she had no idea about.

"Sally receives a note with a warning saying 'Beware of the Seven Blessings', and she realises that this is a note about her father's death and from there the thriller begins to unravel," she says.

"She meets goodies and baddies and people who have been involved with both her father's death and the mutiny that happened at sea. She then runs into her nemesis Mrs Holland (Julie Walters) who is also searching for the Ruby of Agrapur and the whole mystery begins to unravel. It is almost like an Indiana Jones meets Tomb Raider."

Playing a Victorian character isn't just about donning a corset and costume - it involves learning about the whole picture at that time - the dos and don'ts of that society particularly for women.

"James Keast our costume designer gave me a book on etiquette to read which was invaluable - how to sit at a table, who to acknowledge on the street and how to acknowledge them; do you pass to the left or the right in order not to collide with someone and it was all fascinating," she explains.

"The only women who were seen to be working were prostitutes - women didn't have a big place in the world which was just so tragic it was such a male-dominated time," she continues. "I learnt about basic things like class systems to economy and found I really got into it. I'm pretty thorough when it comes to background and always research a project for about a couple of months but the minute I start working I stop the research and get into it because you could go on forever."

Since leaving Doctor Who Billie Piper hasn't stopped working and is probably one of the most in-demand actors of her era.

After filming The Ruby in the Smoke, Billie went straight on to film the second book in the quartet, The Shadow In The North, to be shown on BBC One in 2007.

A role as Fanny Price in ITV's forthcoming production of Mansfield Park followed hot on the heels of Sally Lockhart and with her book publicity tour there wasn't much time for a holiday until recently when she spent a few weeks in New York.

It is a city which offers her anonymity: "I love going to New York because nobody has heard of me and I can literally do what I like and go where I want with no hassle... so I relish my time there."

But Billie Piper's days as an unknown in the States must surely be numbered as her successful career builds and builds...

Character profiles

Sally Lockhart

Sally may only be 19 years old but she's a remarkable young woman - beautiful, with extraordinary strength and determination. She was orphaned when her father, shipping agent Matthew Lockhart, drowned when his ship went down in the South China Seas.

Sally and her father were very close. Her upbringing was pretty eccentric: he taught her all about bookkeeping, how to fire a pistol, and how to speak Hindustani like a native. Not exactly the ideal accomplishments of a Victorian lady.

But Sally's remarkable assets will prove very useful indeed, as she is drawn into the dark web of secrets surrounding her father's death.

Sally receives a note from a stranger that puts her in grave danger - particularly when she crosses the path of a terrifying old hag called Mrs Holland. But Sally also finds new friends in Jim Taylor, the company dogsbody at her father's firm, and the handsome photographer Frederick Garland. Together, they set about solving the mystery - and form close new friendships along the way...

Mrs Holland

Mrs Holland is evil through and through. She runs a dingy lodging house in Hangman's Wharf in the darkest corner of Wapping, near the London docks.

She rules this world with an iron fist, treating all who work for her with cruelty and contempt. Her young maid, Adelaide, lives in a constant state of terror. Even the burly thugs who do Mrs Holland's dirtiest work are too scared to cross her.

But Mrs Holland was not always a malevolent old crone. In her youth, she was a great beauty and buried deep in this past-life is a secret that will lead Mrs Holland straight to Sally Lockhart.

For she is totally obsessed with getting her hands on the famous Ruby of Agrapur. And, unknowingly, Sally is the only person who can stop her...


Mrs Holland's small maid, only ten years old and covered in grime. But somewhere beneath the filth is a sweet young girl with flaxen hair and huge eyes - eyes haunted by a permanent and soul-destroying fear.

Because Adelaide is scared to death of Mrs Holland's threats. If she makes a mistake, tries to run away, or even just stews the tea, then Mrs Holland swears she'll murder her and throw her body in the yard. It's no idle promise either - Adelaide has seen the bones of the last maid and she's desperate not to meet the same fate.

But Adelaide can't help but be drawn into the mystery surrounding Sally Lockhart and the Ruby of Agrapur. And even though she finds some firm friends in the shape of Jim Taylor, Sally and Frederick Garland, it is all but inevitable that Mrs Holland will discover Adelaide is working against her...

Frederick Garland

Frederick is a photographer, boyishly handsome, in his late twenties with straw-coloured hair and good-natured features. He meets Sally Lockhart by chance when he helps her escape from Mrs Holland, who is in hot pursuit.

Soon, he becomes Sally's closest friend - and takes her under his wing when she needs somewhere to stay in London. It's not long before an attraction grows between him and Sally, which could turn into something special.

Frederick runs a small photography studio and shop in Holborn with his feisty sister Rosa. But whilst Frederick has a fine creative brain, he isn't up to much when it comes to accounting so the business is not doing very well.

When Sally moves in, she takes over the bookkeeping and helps bring some order to the business side of things. In return, Frederick supports Sally in her quest to solve the mystery of her father's death, and overcome the evil Mrs Holland.

Jim Taylor

The company dogsbody at the Lockhart and Selby shipping firm. Jim is in his late teens, with a slightly unkempt and grimy appearance. He's lively, intelligent, and above all a true and loyal friend.

In his spare time, Jim loves reading Penny Dreadful comics - their boys' own adventures and fiendish riddles appeal to his spirit of adventure.

He's a great amateur detective too. Which makes him an absolutely indispensable help for Sally as she attempts to piece together the mystery surrounding the Ruby of Agrapur.

Jim quickly becomes great friends with Frederick and Rosa, and takes little Adelaide under his wing. He'd do anything to save her - even if it means going against the evil Mrs Holland.

Rosa Garland

Frederick's sister, a fiesty and incredibly smart actress. She's unconventional, outspoken and knows her brother so well that they tend to finish each other's sentences off. When they're not arguing, that is.

When Sally comes to live at Garland's, Rosa is a strong ally and friend to her and they grow almost as close as sisters. Rosa also finds herself growing very fond of the Reverend Nicholas Bedwell - who is drawn into her life because of his connection with Lockhart and Selby, and the death of Sally's father.

Matthew Bedwell

Matthew Bedwell worked for Sally's father, and was aboard the very ship which sank drowning him. Now, he's back in London with one mission. To tell Sally the truth about what happened.

But unfortunately Matthew is an opium addict, a dark obsessive habit which threatens to overcome him. He falls into the wrong hands, ending up in Mrs Holland's lodging house. Matthew manages to get word to Sally through Mrs Holland's maid, Adelaide.

It will take all their best efforts - and those of Matthew's twin brother, Nicholas - to get him out of harm's way...

Nicholas Bedwell

Nicholas Bedwell is the curate of St John's, Summertown Oxford. He's also got a remarkably fine right hook, having boxed for his university. It's a skill which comes in very useful when Nicholas has to fight Mrs Holland and her thugs in order to rescue his poor twin brother, Matthew.

Nicholas is loyal, strong, wise and kind - a great friend to Sally Lockhart, and a real thorn in Mrs Holland's side.

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