What’s on Wayne: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell loses its magic

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, starring Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, starring Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan - Credit: BBC/JSMN Ltd/Matt Squire

One is never alone when one has a book says magician Gilbert Norrell in the BBC’s new period drama Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. That’s certainly true of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel; rich in characters, atmosphere and inventiveness. Sadly, I couldn’t conjure the interest to keep watching past episode three of this adaptation.

Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) faces death in the face, literally, on the battlefield

Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) faces death in the face, literally, on the battlefield - Credit: BBC/JSMN Ltd/Bertrand Calmeau

Her door-stopper sized debut is one of the few books I return to. It’s a wonderful tale of an alternate 19th Century England witnessing the rebirth of magic after 300 years. At its heart is the fractious relationship between two mismatched magicians, natural newcomer Strange (played by Bertie Carvel, also a fan of the book) and studious old-timer orrell (played by Eddie Marsan).

I was excited when I read the BBC was bringing it to the screen. Far more than I was by the prospect of New Line Pictures turning it into a film, having seen its treatment of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights; which got a reception at the box office that would make the toughest Svalbard panserbjørn shiver.

TV has changed remarkably in recent years, especially in its treatment of fantasy - take a well-deserved bow Game of Thrones.

Given a lot of the book’s dialogue made it to the screen and Clarke herself has reportedly been very supportive I was optimistic her vision would be preserved and we wouldn’t end up


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with the wishy washee, simpering Sunday night costume drama the Beeb bangs out.

Be honest Poldark fans; would you really care about Cornwell’s troubled mining industry if the hero was played by anybody else than shirt-aphobic Aidan Turner?

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There was a lot to like. The makers have spent the money they’ve been given - more than the usual I’d wager - wisely. Little comfort to Atlantis fans.

Unfairly dubbed Harry Potter for grown-ups, the “magic” is very understated and natural looking.

The whole show looks nice, perhaps a little too so. It has the stylised bonnet and breeches feel of an overly polished living history display rather than a real glimpse into the past. I’d like to have seen more Penny Dreadful style griminess, particularly during the sadly brief battlefield scenes. I’ve gotten dirtier taking the bins out than Wellington’s men got on the battlefields of Portugal.

Poor Lady Pole aside, I don’t care about these versions of the characters either; a sign of miscasting perhaps? doesn’t help that some of them are playing it straight while others seem to be getting footage for their panto showreel in the can early.

While Carvel seems to be slowly growing into his role, Marsan for some reason isn’t. For all the latter’s talk of Norrell being Salieri to Strange’s Mozart; it’s more a case

of Previn and Morecambe. All the right notes are there, they’re just not in the right order.

I get things need to be cut or changed to make the series work for TV. Some characters have, unnecessarily in my opinion, been fleshed out and given more to do which detracts from the main story. It was a shame they couldn’t find a way to include the book’s scholarly footnotes that imbued Clarke’s world with a deep sense of realism.

It sounds odd, given we’re talking about magicians and faeries, but that practical, gritty sense of authenticity the book has is what’s missing for me.

That’s down to director Toby Haynes and writer Peter Harness, both familiar to fans of the rebooted Doctor Who. Don’t get me started on the latter’s season eight episode Kill The Moon.

Strange and Norrell seems to have more fans than naysayers though and, really, what do I know - I said Mad Men would never catch on...

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