When it comes to occupying our various entertainment rectangles, the BBC is practiced to the point of ease at two things: period dramas and adaptations of novels.
Often both at once, as we’ve seen most recently with Wolf Hall and Poldark. But there’s being very good at something, and then there’s just showing off, because the opening visual chapter to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is outstanding.
Perhaps you’ve read the book, perhaps you’ve pretended you’ve read the book, perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. Writer Peter Harness (writer for Doctor Who‘s ‘Kill the Moon’) has conjured an accomplished adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s international bestseller; director Toby Haynes makes it look like it fell off the big screen and into your living room; and, most importantly, the entire cast is faultless (much kudos to casting director Kate Rhodes James). In one big ‘Abra-ka-drama’, ink and paper has been transmogrified into an engrossing world of candle-wax, feathers, and shadow.
England, 1806. Magic – proper magic, none of that ‘pick a card, oh look here’s the five of clubs in your shoe’ nonsense – is about to make a comeback after 300 years of dormancy. It’s prompted by the cartoonish nosiness of Mr. Segundus (Edward Hogg), a jittery wand of a chap who tracks down the reclusive Mr Gilbert Norrell.
Norrell is played by Eddie Marsan, an actor excellent in everything but never in enough of anything. So thank goodness he’s centre-stage here. Not that Norrell is a magician who wants to be in the spotlight. Marsan pitches him perfectly as a turtle of a man, self-contained and solitary. He’s an untypical Yorkshireman; one reluctant to poke his head out into a world which ‘dun’t quaart’ understand him.
We demand his attention but Norrell is not a magician in want of an audience. Even when he brings the statues of York Minster to life in front of the amazed Learned Society of York Magicians, and a probably mildly-impressed TV audience (for the scene is fantastically atmospheric) he is hidden away in his chambers, miles from applause.
But news of Norrell’s exploits draws him to London, where a terrific Paul Kaye skitters through the ordered filth like a puppet at a madman’s whim, spouting the kind of prophecy and mystery designed to keep us tuning in. Closeted from the dark streets and gaudy praises, Norrell resurrects the dead Lady Pole (please, no sniggering). But he’s not alone.
As Faustus had Mephistophilis, so Norrel has the partnership of the otherworldly Gentleman; a sinister coif of the supernatural, an enchanted concoction of Bowie and Beau Brummel. True to the part, Marc Warren makes him as mysterious as he is menacing, which is no feat considering the wig he’s under.
Meanwhile, in another part of this telegenic alternate Gothic Albion, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel, recently seen being Nick Clegg in Coalition, but far more likeable here) is quixotically dicking about in the countryside.
Strange is the opposite end of the stage to Norrell: a gadabout show-off who has nothing to show for himself but a faint whiff of Hugh Grant on a good day. That is until he’s handed several spells by Paul Kaye’s Vinculus and is set on a course that will lead him into a dangerous battle with Norrell. So sayeth the prophecy of the Raven King. So sayeth the dust jacket of the book.
It’s all so well-put together that it’s easy to forget that this is all set-up and introduction: the Pledge before the Turn and the Prestige (to use the parlance). The curtain has barely opened on this seven-part drama, but already it feels like we’re at the beginning of a very special magic act indeed.
In the first 4 months of 2015 alone, Auntie Beeb has already spoiled us with some top quality period drama and adaptations, but if ‘The Friends of English Magic’ is any indication, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell may be the channel’s most magical piece of 2015.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 17 May 2015 on BBC One.
What did you think of the first episode? Let us know below…