Tuesday, 19 May 2015

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL review, BBC1, Sunday 17 May 2015

'Pull out your purses and procure some curses.' Sunday night TV just got weird and wonderful.

Mr Strange (Bertie Carvel) and Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan). (Image: BBC)

Did you see the first part – or rather ‘chapter’, as the titles stylishly informed us – of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the BBC1 adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s modern Gothic novel? It was a truly wondrous thing.
If someone was telling you about it, you’d make a sceptical face and think the pitch for the series was unlikely fare for a primetime Sunday night TV drama. In the 19th century, two magicians (Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan, in the shoes of the eponymous pair) offer their skills to the British government in the war against Napoleon. Harry Potter meets Sharpe? Taxi for the writer please…
What’s so clever about the series is that, as it draws the audience into the familiar territory of a prestigious BBC costume drama, it treats magic as something real and historical, ‘as much part of this country as rain’ – a striking metaphor, suggestive of how literate and lyrical the dialogue and names are – so that you don’t question the authenticity of moving statues or revived corpses.
The story is a rich one. There’s the fascinating idea that magic is disreputable and not something that 19th century gentlemen, particularly those in the government, should be involved with. There’s also the very contemporary idea that once magic is presented to the fashionable houses of the great and good (the 19th century equivalent of Twitter), it will be restored to its rightful stature at the heart of the nation.
As well as all this intrigue and period detail, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell demands your patience, tantalising you with exotic hints of a dark, developing story – the coming of an ominous presence called the Raven, the identity of a spectral apparition called The Gentleman (a spellbindingly sinister Marc Warren), why magic suddenly stopped being practised 300 years ago – confident that viewers will take to this carefully constructed, quirky alternative England.

The takeover of a Sunday night audience pining for Ross Poldark’s reassuring pectorals is completed by the casting. The look of the series may owe a lot to the work of the artist William Hogarth, who had a taste for the grotesque, but the acting and characterisation is vintage BBC Dickens. Strange himself is bumbling, a drinker, potentially raffish but well-meaning, endearingly brought to life by Carvel. Marsan, simultaneously one of the most versatile and underrated actors on the planet, plays Norrell as a down-to-Earth, dour Yorkshireman. He’s the opposite of what you’d expect from a wizard, and because of that doubly effective. Elsewhere in the ensemble cast, Enzo Cilenti is an understated marvel as Norrell’s laconic manservant Childermass, while Paul Kaye’s malevolent trickster Vinculus almost steals the show, slyly suggesting that this deranged man is more powerful than he initially appears. Even if the ‘fantasy’ angle had put you off, the quality thesping of this lot would win you over.
Mission accomplished, then: the straightforward and safe BBC Sunday night drama slot has been hijacked by something that looks like a costume drama, but which has made the subversive and surreal mainstream and acceptable. The BBC’s attempt at their own Game of Thrones?
Of course, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell may completely bomb in the ratings, which would be a terrible shame. Not just for the series, but for the evolution of British television generally.   

See if this remarkable series can put you under its spell.

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