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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Episodes 1 – 3

Strange and NorrellIt feels like fantasy for adults has almost become respectable of late. Game of Thrones keeps raking the viewers in, while the adulation for the BBC’s lush adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel has been almost universal.

There have been, predictably, a few whispers from those who still have hang ups about liking – whisper it – fantasy, because apparently people still exist who are behind the zeitgeist and think magic is for children and can’t be ‘serious.’

The episodes have passed and those whispers have died, been stomped on, and then resurrected as murmurs of awe. Strange and Norrell is a TV series that truly understands the spirit of its original telling, delighting in the spectacular melding of genres that Susanna Clarke concocted.

The alt-universe of a Regency-era England where magic once thrived, but has not been seen for three hundred years, was a fantastic story for the BBC to adapt. Historical dramas are a speciality for the broadcaster, while the fantasy elements and Clarke’s progressive, satirical commentary have added something new to their primetime slot.

The show starts slowly, with the inevitable character introductions and narrative set-ups, but the quality of the writing and acting is such that not only is every scene necessary, but wonderfully enjoyable.

Mr NorrellEddie Marsan’s reluctant, owl-like practical magician Norrell haunts his little Gothic abbey until prodded into revealing his magical prowess to the world by theoretical magicians Segundus and Honeyfoot. It is clear that he prefers hiding away in his library to performing in front of people, but his brooding, capricious manservant Childermass (Enzo Cilenti, channelling more northerness than Yorkshire Tea) declares it’s time to do something with Norrell’s magic, and off they go to London.

Marsan captures Norrell’s loneliness and ruthless ambition, as well as the fear that poisons everything he experiences. It’s a wonderful performance, matched by Bertie Carvel’s pitch-perfect turn as Strange, the archetypal rich heir whose potential lapse into idleness is cut off by his no-nonsense wife and Strange’s discovery of his unexpected talent for magic. Feckless but good-hearted, arrogant but charming, intuitive and more emotional where Norrell is studious and shut-off, Carvel pulls off a brilliant portrayal shot through with an amazing comic ability.

Jonathan StrangeIt all looks beautiful – unsurprising, given the BBC’s history of sumptuous period dramas – with the locations being particularly lovely, from Hurtfew Abbey to magnificent York Minster. The warmth of the human world contrasts sharply with the unnatural otherworldly sheen of Faerie castle Lost Hope – the corpselike green atmosphere was fantastically done.

Marc Warren’s Gentleman is a classic self-absorbed psychopath, his unconcern for the wants of others betraying his claim to ‘loving’ the humans he takes. He captures that dangerous boredom and demanding nature that has been a feature in every faerie story in British folklore, but the eerie otherworldliness, that fey bestial side of Faerie is not quite there.

In part that is due to the costuming and set design of what we’ve seen of Faerie so far – the decaying Regency costumes in the early episodes were still a tad too tailored for my liking. I do love the organic elements however, with trees sprouting from the middle of ballrooms and the path to Lost Hope being through a forest.

There are big themes running through Strange and Norrell – underneath the main narrative of two men fighting over magic are sub-plots involving Lady Pole’s magical kidnapping being dismissed as ‘madness’, and manservant Stephen Black’s abrupt discovery of his origins. Neither of them are listened to. Clarke showed very simply how power uses and then silences marginalised voices, and was also not afraid to tell us how the riches of polite, elite English society came from the suffering of people in colonised and enslaved lands.

GentlemanOn TV, this manifests as a giant mirror that the Gentleman conjures up in front of Stephen to reveal the horror of a slave ship, and the wrenching scene of Stephen’s mother giving birth to him before dying. Stephen, until then content with his place in the world and defending the master who gave him that position, staggers away under the weight of history, his own and that of England. Ariyon Bakare’s stoicism melts away into confusion and pain.

Magic, madness, marginalised voices, the arrogance of men, the politics of marriages, the cost of colonialism: Strange and Norrell does not hesitate to serve up hefty themes alongside the undead and huge dollops of Pratchett-like wit. Bold, entertaining and, yes, also serious, fantasy for adults is here to stay.

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One Comment

  1. I loved the book and had no idea, until now, that it was being made into a series. Very excited to see what they do.

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