How His Dark Materials “moved mountains” to add a shock James McAvoy cameo for season two
Exclusive: Executive producers Jane Tranter and Jack Thorne reveal how after losing an episode starring Lord Asriel, they filmed a secret scene during the pandemic to bring him back.
His Dark Materials was luckier than many TV shows when it came to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, with season two of the Philip Pullman adaptation already mostly filmed by the time lockdown began.
However, as has been widely reported the smash-hit BBC/HBO drama did have to cut a special episode starring James McAvoy due to COVID issues, with fans devastated by the news that his character Lord Asriel would be absent from season two – or so we thought.
Because in the His Dark Materials season two finale, Asriel actually makes a surprise cameo towards the end of the episode, with executive producers Jane Tranter, Dan McCulloch and Jack Thorne working round the clock to realise and shoot the extra scene during the pandemic.
“We couldn’t film the standalone Lord Asriel episode because of lockdown, but we really wanted to include him in the season,” Tranter exclusively told RadioTimes.com.
“VFX became our new weapon and James came in and shot a final scene giving a rallying cry as Lord Asriel in total secrecy.”
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"When we lost Asriel's standalone episode we were heartbroken and had to change how the show would work,” screenwriter Jack Thorne added.
“We wanted to do justice to the story of Asriel that we heard so much about from the other characters, and the thought occurred - from Jane Tranter - to use part of a speech that I'd already written for him at the very end of our show.”
Accordingly, McAvoy was recruited to come and film on a green screen for a special ‘COVID day’ of filming, with the rest of the scene – which sees him standing in a vast expanse, flanked by his daemon and countless angels – created by hundreds of VFX workers who Tranter says “worked round the clock to finish the scene.”
In the finished episode, the long-absent Asriel appears to turn the vast army of angels to his cause, hoping they’ll lend their aid in his war against the all-powerful Authority.
“I have struggled through many worlds to get here. But you know this,” he says. “I have sacrificed things… things that I did not want to.
“My fight is with the Authority, and those doling out cruelties in his name.”
“Executive Producer Dan McCulloch moved mountains to make it happen, and James McAvoy, very brilliantly and generously, came in and gave us a COVID day,” Thorne told RadioTimes.com.
“It's one of the things I most admire about James, he planted his feet and shouted at the sky, and it was glorious to see him do so. I am so so pleased it was kept a secret up to this point, and grateful to the previewers for not spoiling it.”
Happily, the secret was kept – as was the second big twist of the episode, which saw season one star Lewin Lloyd return as Lyra’s (Dafne Keen) friend Roger after his character was murdered in the first series.
Appearing in an unusual TV post-credits scene, Roger calls out to Lyra to save him, with both Tranter and Thorne hinting that fans may take the scene as a clue for where the series intends to go in future episodes.
“I wrote a post-credits scene into the last episode,” Thorne told us. “The BBC have never made one before, and Jane brilliantly suggested that we bring back Lyra’s friend Roger.
“We desperately wanted elements of him in this show and he is so important for what comes next....."
“We have worked hard to keep it a surprise for fans,” Tranter added, “and as a hint at what adventures might be around the corner.”
Overall, pulling off both twists was a big relief for the team at Bad Wolf Studios – and with season two concluded, they suggested that the finished sequences now seem especially poignant after the year we’ve all lived through.
“What Asriel says at the end of the episode speaks to so much that is at the core of His Dark Materials,” Tranter concluded.
“At the end of 2020 it feels both emotionally resonant and relevant.”
We’re sure the fans will agree.
Read more about the His Dark Materials cast, the His Dark Materials release schedule, the His Dark Materials books and the His Dark Materials age rating, plus find out where His Dark Materials is filmed, including the scenes set in Cittàgazze.
His Dark Materials seasons one and two are now streaming on BBC iPlayer. Want something else to watch? Check out our full TV Guide.