This review contains spoilers.
If, like members of the fusty York Society Of Magicians, you needed proof that magic has been restored to England, that episode was it. Forget bringing half a hundred statues to life, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has pulled off an even unlikelier feat: bringing quality grown-up fantasy to UK television.
Susanna Clarke’s source novel was a canny choice for the task. Its Regency setting plays to the BBC’s period drama strengths and grounds the seven-part series in a recognisable context for any viewers who might ordinarily run a mile at the word “faerie.”
Not that Marc Warren’s chilling Gentleman (the sinister being in the Liberace wig and Norman Lamont eyebrows who showed up towards the end of tonight’s episode) is the sort of fay we’re used to seeing on screen. If the Gentleman flitted in to your kid’s bedroom to collect a tooth, you get the impression he wouldn’t stop at just one. Tinkerbelle, it’s fair to say, he ain’t.
Neither does Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s concept of magic align with the word’s soft, cuddly, wish-upon-a-star connotations. This stuff is real as rain, and until three hundred years ago, used to be every bit as everyday a part of life in England. And then it stopped, providing the first question of episode one: why?
Asking that question is Edward Hogg’s frustrated student of magic, Segundus, who ushers us into the story by discovering one half of its titular twosome, Mr Norrell, the self-professed “greatest magician of the age.” Played by Eddie Marsan, Norrell is a wealthy introvert with a streak of vanity about his powers and public reputation. He has ambitions for said reputation, urged on to take his rightful position in the world by mysterious manservant, Childermass (Enzo Cilenti).
As the bookish, ill-at-ease magician, Marsan, like the rest of this carefully assembled cast, is utterly convincing. Not having read the novel I can’t speak to how true his performance rings to the original, but the fluency with which Norrell’s social discomfort turns to umbrage in front of tabloid-in-human-form Drawlight (Vincent Franklin), and his pride turns to to knee-shaking terror in front of Vinculus and The Gentleman, built a complex character in a few short scenes.
We saw somewhat less of the title’s other half, Bertie Carvel’s rakish Jonathan Strange, but certainly enough to want to know him better, and to recognize the actor’s comic ability. (This is no po-faced fantasy story, but one flecked with Dickensian and Pratchettian wit, and even—thanks to Paul Kaye’s rural dancing—a stab of Monty Python And The Holy Grail). Charlotte Riley too, acquitted herself just as well in a her brief scenes as Strange’s bright, self-possessed love interest, Arabella.
If we continue listing the strengths in the cast, there’d be no room left to praise the look of the thing, which is magnificent in scope and detail. (Production company Feel Films made 2009’s Skellig, and thrillingly, are currently working on adaptations of David Aaronovitch’s Rivers Of London and Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother).
This Sunday night drama may not have the Cornish coast or ripped torsos, but its locations are something else. Our introduction to Norrell—discovered, like all the best Gothic secrets, at the end of a convoluted, candle-lit path—swept us into a library that boasted all the grandeur and tingling promise of Hogwarts’ great hall. From a snow-moted York Minster to grand London streets, from Gothic stately homes to exquisitely decorated Regency drawing rooms, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a beauty.
Most satisfying was the coherence of its multiple locations, all of which felt part of the same entirely plausible yet extraordinary world. Together, the cast, scenery, Toby Haynes’ direction and Peter Harness’ script conjured up a society England recognizable by its bleak houses and old curiosity shops, but which also felt new. Crucially, it all combined to build a place we want to return to, peopled by characters we want to get to know. If only all TV drama could achieve that simple formula and make it look so effortless.
Judging by the volume of crime drama and cookery formats on the TV schedules, you might conclude that ours too “is not an age for magic.” Just as conjury in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s world has yet to shake off its association with charlatans and vagabonds, fantasy storytelling on British television has still to shake off a continuing association with childishness. This sinister, complex alternate history couldn’t be more welcome, and just may prophesy exactly that rebirth.