Exclusive interview: ‘Doctor Who’ writer Peter Harness on adapting ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’

Posted Filed under

BBC One’s adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell concluded on BBC One last night.

Set at the beginning of the 19th century, England no longer believes in practical magic, until the reclusive Mr Norrell vows to prove himself England’s greatest magician.

> Order the DVD on Amazon.

> Order the Blu-ray on Amazon.

With the epic seven-part series out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, CultBox caught up with writer Peter Harness (Doctor Who, Wallander) to look back on the experience of bringing the bestselling novel to our screens…


You did a fantastic job of translating a complex book to the screen, what was the biggest challenge when you came to adapt it?

“I suppose to condense that huge, leisurely, funny, creepy, moving, authentic-seeming book of 1,000 pages into a seven-part series that felt dramatic, full of consequences, emotional and exciting.

“As well as staying true to the spirit of the book, and feeling like a faithful adaptation when perhaps it wasn’t one. In Chapters Three, Five and Seven we stray quite a long way from the events of the book, but it was important to make it feel as though these things were in the book somewhere. It was hard to make it feel as though the new stuff was part of the original story, but I think we pulled it off eventually.”


How much input did Susanna Clarke have in the process?

“Well, she provided us with a whole world to realise, and a huge, detailed mythology, and a bunch of funny, endearing, real characters. So I think she probably felt she’d done enough, and she let us get on with the series on our own.

“She did send us a couple of very encouraging and generous letters during the development process. And when we were shooting, she came to set reasonably often and was a greatly appreciated presence. We’ve become good friends, I think, and that’s been one of the unexpected joys of doing the series.”


Where did your sympathies lie between Strange and Norrell as you wrote them? Were you more of a Strangeist or a Norrellite? 

“No, I love both of them. And it felt important that the viewer should emerge from watching the series, and be in love with both Strange and Norrell too.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

“And trust me, after the final episode, you will love and understand Gilbert Norrell in a way that you didn’t think possible.”


Was there anything in particular from the book you were particularly excited about bringing to the screen?

“All of it, really. Although I do remember looking forward to the resurrection of the dead Neapolitan soldiers in Chapter Three. I love them, especially the guy with the maggots eating his forehead, who looks so upset when Mr Strange shoots him.”


The cast is fantastic; did you have anyone in mind for parts as you were writing them? A sort of ‘I’d love it if so and so was saying this’?

“No. Often I do have a particular actor in mind, but not on this. The characters seemed to play themselves, really. And when the actors started coming in to read and audition, there was always one obvious candidate for each part, one person who inhabited the role perfectly. And that’s who ended up playing those parts.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 2 The Gentleman (MARC WARREN)

“A lot of the credit for this has to go to Kate Rhodes James, our casting director, who has an incredible talent for matching actors to roles, and for intuiting what any individual performer can bring.”


If there was one character who you could pick to write a spin-off for, who would you choose? (Surely there’s room for more of Mr Gatcombe and Mr Tantony on TV!)

“Yes, I’d love to write more for Mr Gatcombe and Mr Tantony. I love them. They were only supposed to be in one episode, but I kept finding ways to bring them back.

“Beyond them: Wellington, who is destined to become Prime-Minister, would be very interesting in a magical context. Major Grant has got plenty more mileage in him. As have Childermass, Vinculus, Arabella and Lady Pole. Stephen Black too, probably.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 1 Vinculus (PAUL KAYE)

“In fact, I can see how you could get all of those characters together in an interesting constellation. We end the series in a world where magic seems to have come back (although we’re not explicit), so seeing how that goes, and seeing how the various characters react to being left where and how we left them, would be interesting. It’d also be interesting to see more of Faerie, and the Other Lands (plural, of course).”


Looking back on the series, what are your favourite moments?

“I find it very hard to pick favourite moments. In fact, it might be impossible. I can’t narrow it down to five. That’s like picking your five favourite films or your five favourite Beatles songs.

“The one moment which kept on nearly getting lost for budgetary/schedule reasons, the one which kept on nearly falling off the end of the conveyor belt, was the scene in Chapter Three where The Gentleman shows Stephen the slave-ship, where Stephen’s mother gave birth to him, where Stephen “was born a slave, and (his) mother died, a slave.”

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 1 Stephen Black (ARIYON BAKARE)

“It’s such a gut-wrenching, unexpected scene. It’s haunting and deeply disturbing, and it kind of makes a statement about where the series is prepared to go. I’m so glad we fought to keep it in there, because the whole thing would be much poorer without it. So it’s one of my favourite scenes for all sorts of reasons.

“Beyond that, I literally can’t choose. As soon as I start thinking of a list, then I realise I basically have to include everything. I have a top 7 favourite moments, essentially, and they’re all an hour long.”


Jonathan Strange DVD

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 29 June 2015 from RLJ Entertainment’s Acorn Label.

> Order the DVD on Amazon.

> Order the Blu-ray on Amazon.

What was your favourite moment in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell? Let us know below…

> Follow Rob Smedley on Twitter.