Saturday, 23 May 2015


This article was originally published in The Courier on 23rd May 2015.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: Sunday, BBC One

1864: Saturday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

Based on the acclaimed fantasy novel by Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an intriguing curio. With its generous budget, redoubtable cast of character actors and pseudo-Grimm production design, it's like a trad BBC period drama hijacked by the wild imaginings of Terry Gilliam.

I applaud its ambition. But does it work? I'm not entirely convinced, at least not yet.

I haven't read the book, as I have an incurable blind-spot when it comes to printed fiction, but I'm aware that it's a dense, digressive tome crammed with footnotes. So I don't envy Doctor Who writer Peter Harness in adapting such an unwieldy work for the screen.

He's been tasked with condensing masses of material into accessible 60 minute chunks, hence why episode one felt oddly disjointed. Like a muddled conjuring trick, the focus shifted constantly. A character who drove the plot in act one later disappeared. Hapless co-protagonist Jonathan Strange wasn't introduced until halfway through, and appeared only fitfully after that. The sudden, and rather silly, arrival of Marc Warren as a demonic Billy Idol with the voice of John Hurt felt like one jolt of whimsy too many.

It's frustrating, as the premise and world are arresting: set in 19th century England during the Industrial Revolution and Napoleonic wars, it posits an alternative history where magic actually existed. No one had practised the craft for 300 years, until serious-minded artisan Mr Norrell – a wonderfully discomfited performance from Eddie Marsan – revealed his God-like skills to an impotent guild of “theoretical magicians”.

An instant sensation, he was whisked from Yorkshire to London, where, much to his chagrin, he was regarded, not as a rarefied craftsman, but as an amusing novelty. That is, until he offered to revive the dead wife of a prominent politician...

Meanwhile, a straggle-haired street magician (Paul “Dennis Pennis” Kaye on OTT form) mumbled ominous prophecies about the emergence of two magicians, one of whom will use his powers for good, the other for evil. A breathless set-up, but it got there in the end.

Harness worked hard to slot these pieces into place, and eventually the themes of snobbery, hypocrisy, morality, greed and art vs commerce had more or less coalesced.

Despite my reservations, there's a lot here to admire. The cast, including the ever-reliable Vincent Franklin as a camp, solicitous Norrell groupie, are superb, Harness' dialogue is droll, and Norrell's occasional displays of magic – e.g. the striking scene in which he brought York Minster's statues to life – are achieved using an eerily effective combination of CG and stop-motion animation.

So far it casts an uneven spell, but the potential is there.

Meanwhile, over in 19th century Denmark, magic is thin on the ground in 1864.

A self-consciously epic saga about the Danish/Prussian war, it's well-acted, beautifully shot, and full of noble intentions. But the central storyline involving two war-bound brothers in love with the same woman is familiar to the point of self-parody, and the device of using scenes set in the present day – in which a troubled teenage girl learns about the war from an elderly, faded aristocrat – is clumsy and patronising.

And how's this for a piece of awkward, laughable exposition?

MAN #1: “I forget your name, remind me.”

MAN #2: “Bismarck. Otto von Bismarck.”

Ouch. I swear I'm still deaf from my internal Q.I. buzzer.

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