Given that Chapter 4 of BBC One’s fantasy period drama is titled ‘All the Mirrors of the World’, let’s take a moment to reflect on mirrors.
That shiny plate on your bathroom wall has always been viewed as magical, either practically – it was mirrors that brought to life the famous 1862 illusion ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ – or spiritually: with reflective surfaces linked to mythologies of Medusa and Narcissus, fairy-tales, superstitions and curses that range from 7 years bad luck to the Candyman, horror (sorry, I just watched Oculus), and even Doctor Who. All that’s faded now that we just use the front camera on our iPhone to check our hair.
No one’s scared of mirrors anymore. We’re too busy admiring ourselves in them. Although – fact incoming – if you stare into a mirror for long enough you’ll start to experience something scary called ‘The Troxler Effect’, as your brain detaches focus from your peripheral vision and everything begins to distort right before your eyes, often in grotesque and terrifying ways (seriously, don’t try it).
That’s how it feels watching Strange and Norrell this week. Troxler telly. Stare at it for too long without your eyes being distracted by some impressive illusions and you start to notice all the distortions and flaws in the show, and just how bushy Marc Warren’s eyebrows are and how many times the phrase ‘English magic’ gusts out of mouths.
It’s a terrific-looking show, and its actors are people you’d all pay good money to see, but the script moves at such a slow pace that you feel you’ve spent twice as much time looking at a scene as you actually have.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a 7-hour series. The paperback novel is 1006 pages. We’re watching 2.39 pages per minute and this week it comes across as slow, slower, as that sounds. Episode 4 feels leadenly slavish in its translation from page to screen.
Now back from last week’s far more exciting episode, Jonathan Strange attempts to cure the madness of King George III, but only succeeds in nearly getting him killed by The Gentleman and his puppet Stephen.
Magic cannot cure madness. In fact there’s very little it can do except look amazing and cause women to suffer indirectly from it. Lady Pole is carted off to the mad house like an unwanted chair. Arabella Strange finds her relationship with Jonathan increasingly strained. Women in Strange and Norrell are collateral damage. Debbie McGee never had to put up with this sort of thing.
It’s a cock-up that leads to his discovery of the world behind every mirror, The Raven King’s Roads, another example of how visually striking the show can be. He’s spurred on to revive the ways of Old English magic but Norrell isn’t keen.
It’s in the enmity between the two, and the marvellous way Carvel and Marsan play it, where Peter Harness’ script moves out of the shadow of the source material. The only two magicians in England dissolve their partnership, and with poison poured into his ear by the Lascelles (an oily cove you’d like to reach into the telly and slap), Norrell declares he must destroy his ex-student.
He’s not the only one out to wreck Strange’s life. Marc Warren’s theatrical Q-Tip, The Gentleman, has plans too, using Moss Oak, a magical log that births a mirror-image wood clone of Strange’s wife Arabella (start thinking up your own tree puns for next week). But for what dastardly purpose?
I was unapologetically fulsome with praise for Episode 1, and still am, because it started with all the right bits, all the right pace, promise and patter of a great illusion. Now it’s still talking more about magic than doing it, and this week it feels like the fizz has fizzled out.
Hopefully this is just a one-Sunday stumble. Jonathan’s off to war again next week, so it’s likely we’ll get something that mirrors the expectations created when the show started.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 7 June 2015 on BBC One.
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let us know below…