If you’re already under the spell of Sunday night’s resident magicians Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell then you need waste no more time reading this.
If, on the other hand, you’ve not yet tuned in then there’s still time (via the magic of BBC iPlayer) to catch up with one of the strangest – indeed one of the norrelliest – TV shows of the year.
Here are 5 reasons why you should be watching…
1. It’s the BBC doing what it does best – Period Drama
Strange and Norrell quite justifiably occupy the same timeslot which only a few weeks earlier was home to Ross Poldark’s mining shenanigans in 18th Century Cornwall.
Although Mr Norrell hasn’t yet taken to scything his crops in a gratuitously shirtless fashion (well, there’s still two episodes to go), the show is nonetheless just as sumptuous and convincing a period drama as Poldark before it.
With its talk of Napoleon, with its mad King George, with its formal society, with its wigs and carriages and breeches, it’s a gorgeous representation of 19th Century London. It looks, in short, fantastic.
2. Did I mention – there’s magic in the air?
So it’s a classy BBC period drama… but with a twist. This view of the early-1800s is set in a Britain with a fundamental difference to our own – magic is real.
It fell out of favour and into disuse 300 years before the story starts, but is accepted as being as much a fact of life as the war and the maidservants and the ball gowns. This isn’t a Harry Potter-style world where magic is a secret hidden away beneath the surface; here magic is out and proud.
It’s a world where the celebrity of the day is Mr Norrell and his modern magic. It’s a world where statues are brought to life, and where the sand is conjured into gigantic horses galloping across the tide. And to repeat myself, it looks fantastic.
3. But if you don’t like magic and all that Hocus Pocus, bear with it!
For all the magic, though, this is not some soulless effects-driven blockbuster. It’s actually about the people – primarily, and the clue is probably in the title, about Jonathan Strange and about Mr Norrell.
It’s about the former finally finding something in life he’s good at, even though he then risks losing his wife because of working too hard; it’s about the latter wanting to do good for the country, but also wanting things done his way.
It’s about poor Lady Pole, desperately trying to be believed that she’s not mad at all; it’s about Arabella Strange worrying for her husband; it’s about the vain ‘hangers-on’ around the star magicians; it’s about such universal themes as temptation, and power, and good and evil.
The magic is to the fore, but it’s by no means everything.
4. Strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage
And there’s no point having interesting characters without the actors to back them up. Thankfully we’re blessed here with an array of talent.
Edward Hogg as the innocent and honourable Mr Segundus. Cucumber’s Vincent Franklin, gloriously sycophantic as Drawlight, with his affected mispronunciation of Norrell’s name. Paul Kaye, who makes the mysterious tramp Vinculus sinister and captivating (not to mention that he must have a superb agent – his name appears in the opening titles each week, but we’ve not seen him since episode two).
Charlotte Riley makes Arabella Strange lively and genuine, modern enough for the period to take action without appearing unrealistic. And Marc Warren constantly keeps his performance brilliantly teetering this side of bonkers with his unsettling turn as ‘The Gentleman’, the evil fairy responsible for much of the ongoing chaos.
As for the title characters, we have two very different performances. Bertie Carvel as Strange has an affable likeability to him, a bit feckless perhaps but basically a good egg, which makes his occasional moments of steel or rage all the more powerful.
Meanwhile, Eddie Marsan as Mr Norrell gives a quiet and studied performance, showing us the conflicting mix of this retiring bookworm-cum-power hungry egotist… and yet when he all but begs Strange not to break up their partnership, he manages to move us simply by saying he will be lonely.
5. The longer you leave it, the longer it will take
We’re already five episodes in; that’s five hours to fit in before next week’s penultimate episode, so you’d best stop reading this and get to it!
As a great magician of our age once said: ‘Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy!’
Watch the trailer…
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is airing at 9pm on Sunday nights on BBC One.
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