Peter Harness Interview: Adapting Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

We chat to Peter Harness, writer of Doctor Who and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, currently airing on Sunday nights on BBC One...

Writer Peter Harness is currently on a roll. After attracting praise for his work on Wallander, his Doctor Who episode Kill The Moon brought him to more mainstream attention. But it’s his current work which should propel him to the A-List of British writing talent, a place fully deserved. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the 800+ page period fantasy novel, considered by many to be unadaptable, has debuted as a TV series on the BBC to rave reviews.

One of the adaptation’s key strengths is the streamlined nature of the script, which still captures perfectly the world and characters created by novelist Susanna Clarke. For that, Perter Harness must earn the plaudits. Proving to be a very charming and clever guy, he took the time to sit down with us to discuss the process of adapting such a huge novel, filming in Yorkshire, and future Doctor Who work.

I just want to say I think you’ve done truly brilliant work with this series. I saw a two-episode preview of the series, and came back buzzing from it.

That’s really nice to hear. We always worry about showing just a small bit of it to people because it kind of picks up as it goes. Ideally we would have just binge-watched it all!

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I would have happily have sat there for seven hours! I guess one of the first things I’d like to ask is why Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell?

Well it’s just such an amazing book, a fantastic book with a wonderful voice and characters that come alive off the page and walk straight out at you, and it’s very funny, and very imaginative and so the prospect of putting it on TV and doing it right was very exciting. I knew it would be a colossal challenge and that all appealed. The challenge of it it appealed, and I felt it would be enjoyable. And it was. Mostly… But no, starting something is very exciting and finishing something is very exciting and in between is always a pain in the arse and a bit of a grind. But I remember when I was doing the first drafts of this I didn’t feel that, and I knew that I always had a lot of things to look forward to. I think writing it was the happiest writing experience of my life. I knew that together with Toby (Haynes, the director) and Nick (Hirschkorn, the producer) we stood a good chance of doing it justice.

It’s an amazing mishmash of genres. How would you describe it to someone who’s still not sure about watching it?

I would describe it as a big BBC period drama like Pride And Prejudice but with magic in it, and wonderful special effects. I think you described it quite well in your article actually. It is a mishmash of genres. You can describe it as Harry Potter for grown-ups, which I don’t like. I think it’s a disservice to primarily Jonathan Strange, but also Harry Potter. It’s a combination of a lot of things the BBC traditionally do very well, and a lot of things Hollywood does quite well, but with interesting story-telling mixed in!

For fans of the book who might be nervous of this adaptation, how would you sell it to them?

I would say just watch it for an hour! You might not like it, but I think after the first hour you might decide we’re on course to not totally destroy the book. We all love the book and we all know it back to front. The book itself was always put out in any meetings we had like a totem. It came with us to the BBC when we got the green light, it was always sitting on set behind the monitors, and so we’ve treated it with a great deal of reverence. We’ve tried to make it work as well as a TV series as it does as a book. Obviously there are things you’ll miss if you’re a big fan of the book, but you can just go back and read it. Part of what we wanted to do was send people in the direction of the book anyway.

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Very well said!

The characters are recognizable, and like I said, they walk off the page. I think they’ve walked fairly directly off the page and onto BBC 1, and I hope we’ve captured the spirit and intention of the original novel. Sometimes I talk to Susanna (Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell author) and she’ll say about a scene, ‘was that you, or was that me?’ and sometimes we’re not entirely sure, which is a very high compliment.

What made you think that you’d be the one able to do this?

I’ve been doing adaptations for a while, with Wallander and Case Histories and I was thinking after the last series of Wallander I wouldn’t do another adaptation for ages, as I didn’t want to be stuck doing them. But then Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell came up, and after I knew that I would be doing it with Toby directing it, and I couldn’t possibly have said no to this. I felt we were in the right stages of our careers to be doing this, and that we we were the right constellation of people. We were a bunch of people who would give reverence to the book, but not be afraid to be creative with it. I was quite sure we would be the ones to make it, even though it’s been hard and precarious along the way.

Was there anything that surprised you when it came to adapting it?

What surprises you are things that you don’t notice about the book. When you’re reading a novel, and to a certain extent writing a novel, you can afford to be a bit more vague then when you’re writing and making a TV series, when you have to realise the world, you have to fill in all the blanks. That doesn’t just apply to the sets and the costumes, it also applies to the story, and the reasons people have for doing things. For instance, it was a bit of a surprise to discover that Strange is trying to summon the Faeries from fairly early on. The first couple of times I read the book I thought The Gentleman was just there with him, poking his nose in, but once you go over it again it seems clear that Strange is trying to summon him, and that’s not something Susanna really points out. There’s a few of those little surprises where you find out why something was happening.

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It must be amazing to spend so long with these characters…

Well you want to make them as compelling to the viewer or to other people who might be reading the scripts as they are to me after spending a few weeks in their company. People like Stephen Black and Lady Pole, and to an extent Drawlight and Lascelles, who come across very vividly in the book, but who are quite hard to get right on screen – especially Stephen and Lady Pole who go through so much they are unable to speak about, or can’t speak about due to magic, and it’s all very much in their own heads. So it was a process to make them as compelling and attacking on-screen as they are in the book.

Lady Pole is the character we’ve played around most with, as in the book she’s taken away and basically put away where she becomes a mad-woman for a very long time. But with her being one of our main characters and a catalyst for a key event, we needed to follow her throughout, thread her throughout and make her story bound in with everyone else’s. So with her I think the most invention has been done, and I guess the most liberties taken. We couldn’t have gotten away with sending her mad, or bringing her back to life in Episode One and then seeing her again in episode six. We wanted to make sure our nine or ten leading characters were present with us at all times, and were all part of the same story, with all there narrative threads gathering together at the end. There are a lot of plates that we needed to keep spinning, but after a lot of head scratching I think we cracked it.

On that note, I found that you definitely bring the Raven King into very sharp focus much earlier on in the series than in the book. What was your process for distilling the story?

(Laughs) Oh God…

You know, just explain your entire writing process…

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It was trying to find a way to tell the story that was simple, yet complex and compelling. I’m not a big planner as a writer. I knew when I was writing this where the start and end of every episode would be, and vaguely some of the things that happened in between, but what I tend to do is try all sorts of combinations of how things might work, and that way I know I’ve been thorough and gone through it all and eventually with a lot of pushing and shoving the jigsaw pieces come together. I find that way brings it to life a bit more rather than if you sit down and plan everything. It’s a more exploratory process which brings things to life better in my opinion.

Can you give an example of this at all?

In terms of what I did with the mythology it was exactly that – trying different pieces and seeing what worked where, and how far we should go with it beyond the book. Toby and I had hours and hours of conversations. He was in Prague shooting The Musketeers and I ended up costing him an awful lot of money on his phone bill. We had long, long conversations about who the Raven King was, as nobody is very sure who he was, and chatting through the whole mythology of it just so we had it right in our heads. We took a long time to understand what magic was, what magic really meant in this world in a physical way, what the rules were, and how it was done and what it came from. Some of that comes across in the series.

If you were watch it again and again there are little elements that reflect in a bit more depth what we came up with. For instance you may notice that Strange’s hair goes greyer as the series goes on, as does Lady Pole’s and Mr Segundus’. We just had this idea that magic takes stuff away. It seems to be about transferring energy, as well as the whole exchange and bargaining element, and so this seems to be a physical symbol of that. But we could probably write a whole book on the magic of Jonathan Strange’s world.

I’d read that book!

Susanna would be horrified I think, because whenever I’d talk to her about that she’s go, ‘hmmm, that’s interesting… I don’t know what I would think.’ But it was part of the whole process of finding out what this series was about, and who the characters are. People can come to this because it’s a lavish BBC period drama, or it’s a SFX-driven fantasy show, but for someone to spend seven hours watching it it has to be the characters that keep them coming back. So it’s primarily a character drama, and the rest of it is gravy.

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You’ve mentioned Susanna Clarke a couple of times now, how involved was she in the adaptation?

She wasn’t very involved with the process of adapting it. We sent her a nice letter when we started, from me, Toby, and Nick the producer, and she sent a very nice one back warning us not to get involved with magicians basically. She was quite firm on that actually! She didn’t think anyone should get involved with Mr Strange & Mr Norrell because they’re so very vain and selfish (laughs), and there have been times when they’ve been awful. But from that we knew she was supportive and not long before we started shooting she read the scripts and we went out and had a very nice dinner with her before we decamped up to Leeds, and I think she’s been delighted with it. She became a fairly regular presence on set, and when they were shooting the York Minster sequence I came over with my wife and we all had a very fun few days wandering around the Minster watching everyone else work very hard, and feeling very relaxed about it!

You’re originally from Yorkshire, is that right?

Yes, I’m not very far from York, from a place by the coast called Hornsea.

Does the fact that a lot of the story is set in that part of the world appeal?

Yes, it was very appealing that it could be a Yorkshire story as well. There are lots of different dualities in it. Rationalism versus instinct. Madness versus reason. And north versus south is quite an important one. So it was nice to bring the northern side alive and paint Yorkshire as somewhere with more of a mythology and somewhere ‘different’, and I remember Susanna saying she was glad they’d picked a Yorkshireman to adapt it.

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Me too! My girlfriend is from Bradford and one of the things she’s always loved about the book is, as you say, the fact it gives the north its own mythology.

I was delighted we ended up shooting it there. We could have easily have ended up not doing that, but we actually shot the York Minster stuff in York Minster itself, which was absolutely amazing.

The story offers a range of genres beyond fantasy. It’s a period piece, a political intrigue, and I’d argue that it’s also a love story?

Oh definitely. That’s the biggest change I feel from the book. The spine of the series is a kind of love story, as it’s kind of a bromance between Strange & Norrell. But it’s also the love story between Strange and Arabella. In the book, Strange’s number one preoccupation is magic, and Arabella comes a close second. In the TV version, Arabella is number one and magic is a decent second, but most definitely a second, and I feel that’s the biggest change we made. It opens it up and makes it a more emotional story, and that’s what you need.

Did you ever have any actor in mind for the roles when writing?

No I don’t think so. Often you do, but I had such vivid pictures of them from the book. So it was more of a case of seeing when an actor inhabited the role and was so obviously right for it. And all of them had that in the audition tapes or read-through tapes. It was a fairly unanimous ‘it’s obviously him’, or ‘it’s obviously her’. Our casting director, who’s called Kate Rhodes James, deserves a huge thank-you. I don’t think casting directors always get the kind of praise they deserve, but she really instinctively got what the characters were, and came up with a fantastic bunch of actors for it, who are all starting to make significant waves themselves now.

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Was there a character you particularly enjoyed writing for the most at all?

Probably the Duke of Wellington! It would have been nice to do a spin-off series with any of the characters, but I found the Duke of Wellington so entertaining, so rude, and so tough, that I wanted to write more. There are a pair of minor characters called Mr Gatcombe and Mr Tantony, who you’ll remember from the book as the two brewers from Nottinghamshire, who meet Mr Strange when he’s playing billiards at The Bedford, and I enjoyed writing for them so much that they come back in episode six, and then I find a way to bring them back in episode seven!

Is that why is became a seven part series?!

Yes, probably! More space for Gatcombe and Tantony! But they were the sort of incidental characters who surprised me with how fun it was to write them. But it was great fun writing all of the others as well, and I’m hard pressed to choose one stand-out. For instance The Gentleman is an enormous psychopathic toddler with huge magical powers. He’s not actually particularly evil, he’s just totally self-absorbed.

He wants what he wants, and he’s incredibly capricious and rather petty. So of course he’s a joy to write. But I’m in love with them all in different ways. It was very important to make sure Norrell was sympathetic, as it’s quite hard to explain him if you haven’t read the book and spent time with that character. You do end up loving him when you’ve read the book, although very few things that he does are remotely sympathetic.

Well he’s lonely isn’t he? I just think that all the time when reading it.

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Yes, he’s a poor lonely little boy who was presumably orphaned and sent off to live in his uncle’s remote forbidding house. But then he found a scrap of paper in his uncle’s library one day with a magic spell on it and then he dreamed of becoming, well Jonathan Strange really, and it’s his great tragedy that he’s unable to, and that’s why he loves Jonathan Strange so much and why he is so jealous of him. So it was important to bring that hurt, shy little child out with Norrell and make sure that while not necessarily at the beginning, but definitely at the end, people love him as much as they love Strange.

Now that Jonathan Strange is finally being broadcast, what’s next on your plate with projects?

Well I have this Doctor Who shooting at the moment, episode seven and eight of the next series, which I’m looking forward to seeing as it’s got all sorts of interesting things in it…

Is there anything you can tell us at all about it?

Well I can say it’s got Osgood and the Zygons in it, but I’m not entirely sure what else I can say really.

Any clues?

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Any clues? No I can’t give you any clues! (Laughs) I was actually surprised they announced that it had Osgood and the Zygons in it, but I guess as they were filming outside there wasn’t much they could do about that getting out. It’s not up to me to drop cryptic hints really, that’s Steven (Moffat’s) job.

Was it enjoyable to write?

Yes it was, but it’s always a bit terrifying to write Doctor Who as I’m a lifelong fan, so I’m probably my own harshest critic. But yes it’s always fun to write, and I’d love to go on and on writing Doctor Who if I possibly can. It’s interesting to do a two-parter as well.

Definitely, I’m glad to see them back.

Well Steven tries to experiment with a different way of doing it every season which I think is a very good way of keeping it fresh and I’m astounded at how fresh it felt last year. It felt like a totally new and different era.

It felt like a first series again

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Yes, and it’s amazing he can do that after five years in the job. But it’s a real privilege to write for it.

Beyond Who?

Oh I’ve got a few things…

Anything you can hint at?

No sorry! I’ve got a couple of series coming up, and maybe despite myself another adaptation of a fantasy-style book. But I am going to try and strike a balance between adaptations and my own stuff. I do like adapting things, but I don’t want to just do that forever.

Well I look forward to watching it all! Peter Harness, thank you very much!

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell continues on Sundays on BBC One at 9pm.