A bit silly: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell reviewed

Though it is to be congratulated on its bold rejection of Sunday-night convention, there’s still way too much hamming up in BBC One’s eccentric new drama series

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

BBC One’s 2015 choice of Sunday-night drama series is beginning to resemble the career of the kind of Hollywood actor who alternates between reliable crowd-pleasers and more eccentric personal projects. The year started with the return of the much-loved Last Tango in Halifax, followed by the distinctly peculiar A Casual Vacancy. Now, after the mainstream triumph of Poldark, we get Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — which, whatever else you might think about it, definitely can’t be accused of feeling like drama by committee.

Based on Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel, the programme opened in the early 19th century, with the Peninsular War going badly and, worse still, magic — once ‘as much a part of this country as rain’ — having apparently died out 300 years before. The early scenes were mildly, and as it turned out misleadingly, satirical. A voiceover introduced us to the self-important Society of Magicians which met in York on the third Wednesday of every month, when they ‘read each other dull papers on the history of magic’ rather than actually doing any of the stuff themselves.

Their complacency first came under attack from a keen new member, Mr Segundus, who asked why magic should be found only in books — of which the society’s library had a total of five. His question was chortlingly dismissed with the explanation that expecting magicians to do magic was like expecting astronomers to create stars. But then Segundus heard about Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan), a local man rumoured to be the real deal, and went to visit him.

The initial signs were certainly promising: the door to Norrell’s stately pile was answered by a sinister assistant called Childermass; the meeting with Norrell himself took place in his huge library by Wolf Hall-style candlelight. Even so, convincing the society would clearly take more than that — which is why its members were summoned to York Minister where Norrell made the statues come alive in a way that might have reminded more modern magicians of the special effects in Doctor Who.

As news of his feat spread, Norrell mysteriously abandoned his former reclusiveness in favour of seeking to become the saviour of the country. He headed to London where he met Sir Walter Pole, the man running the war, and offered to help him defeat Napoleon. Unfortunately, Sir Walter turned him down with a brusque, ‘Magic is not respectable, sir.’

At this stage, mind you, the programme was barely clearing its throat. Before long, Norrell had been accosted by the street magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye) who declaimed a prophecy from The Raven King about how two magicians would appear in England, one named Fearfulness, and the other, Arrogance. Moreover, ‘the first shall bury his heart in the dark wood beneath the snow’, while ‘the second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand’. Yet even this was the sternest of realism compared with the final scene where Norrell brought Sir Walter’s dead fiancée back to life with the aid of a spirit that took the surprising form of a glowering middle-aged bloke with an extravagantly bouffant hairdo and Bernard-Ingham eyebrows.

But what, you may be wondering, about Jonathan Strange? Well, for most of the time, he was restricted to a subplot that seemed to be offering rather more familiar Sunday-night fare — not least because he was first sighted on horseback galloping hunkily across the moors. He was also equipped with a particularly forbidding patriarch, whose idea of fatherly advice was to suggest, ‘You’ve proved a failure in everything you’ve ever done’ — and with a sweet love-object who wasn’t as impressed as Jonathan hoped when he assured her that, ‘I [now] drink very little, scarcely a bottle a day.’

Such familiarity, however, didn’t last. Out riding on the moors again, Jonathan (Bertie Carvel) came across Vinculus. One enigmatic prophecy later, and Jonathan became a magician too, whose best trick at the moment is to look into a mirror and see Mr Norrell…

Faced with this curious material, the cast seem understandably unsure quite how to deal with it. Happily, it’s the two leads who make the wisest choice: to play it straight. All around them, though, is the unmistakable sight of British actors hamming it up — especially Paul Kaye, with his battery of hisses, snarls, shouts, whispers and, when the worst comes to the worst, pratfalls. The same uncertainty also infects the direction, which, so far at least, doesn’t appear to have decided how gothic it wants to be — and whether we’re dealing with the eruption of magic into our own world, or with some sort of parallel universe.

In theory, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is to be congratulated on its bold rejection of Sunday-night convention. In practice, it hasn’t yet banished the feeling that it might end up seeming a bit silly.

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  • Dorothy Langman

    Not sure I agree….Oh My~ what a visual treat I witnessed with the first episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
    The lavish locations of York & Regency London with its cobbled streets and old curiosity shoppe buildings contrasted with a grand swathe of London society in all its’melting pots. The panoramic sweep up to York Minster like a beckoning light draws the viewer into this world of Magic.
    Eddie Marsan playing Mr Norrell is just an exquisite actor~ the understated word, hesitant and learned, quiet and introvert, pensive and socially awkward, he utterly conveys the composite make up of a character. Marsan’s Library is awe inspiring, on an epic scale to accommodate all of the tomes that he has been buying up in his thirst for knowledge.
    Childermass, ( Enzo Cilenti) his ‘advisor/manservant displays a mysterious air,~ Is he all he seems? A forerunner of the theatrical ‘Agent’~ Does he see riches for himself in advancing the cause?
    Vinculus (Paul Kaye) putting his heart and soul into a televisual display of magicry is a man on a mission with his eccentric quirky idiosyncrasies and knowingly makes the link with Cavel
    Drawlight (Peter Franklin) is the worse sort of publicist~ emphasing the ‘ELL in Norrell, just as much as Mr Collins uttered the name Lady Catherine Debugh
    JS ( Bertie Cavel ) bumbles in his quest for magic and dutifully attends the York Magicians Meetings and poses the right question as to why there is no magic in England? He buys spells with little knowledge of what he’s about other than he seems able to do magic. Notable too, that it is he who is the only one who refuses to sign over magicians rights at the Minster.
    The snow lit grounds of York Minster beckoning in the fusty magicians guild to witness a real act of magic was expedient in its execution. The contrast of black on white, darkness and light with the darkened robes and flickering lights of the candles evoked an eerie atmosphere , setting the scene for what was an astonishing feat of magic, putting movement into the stone statues lining the walls and arches of the Cathedral. A brilliant evocation of the Archbishop/Cardinal speaking in a foreign tongue to the witless magician, manhandling him at the same time served as a kind of lesson to this non-believer and opinionated head of table.
    Moving to London, Marsan is drawn into trying to perform a ‘miracle’ in bringing back Lady Pole from the ‘Dead. Behind locked doors he performs a spell and summons up The Gentleman (Marc Warren), whom I have to confess had a kind of #Adam Ant look about his person! with chilling edge. Coiffurred & preened to the height of Bram Stoker villain, he proceeds to make a deal with the hapless Marsan and saves the girl but only after extricating a piece of her finger.
    The special effects are just lavish and the set designs are dripping with atmosphere. The costume department has excelled itself. This is the kind of drama the BBC does so well and this is no exception. I’ve had Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on my bookshelves for ages and have n’t read it….What a jewel I have missed…
    Utterly superb~ I can’t wait for Episode 2. Kudos to the BBC.

    • Andrew Hoffman

      I agree with your sentiments! However, you’ve confused the characters of Jonathan Strange (Bertie Cavel) and Segundus (Edward Hogg).

      I’ve no doubt you’ll enjoy the book even more than the show; it really is superb.

      • Dorothy Langman

        Yes, thanks ~ I rather suspected I had after I’d written it!… I appreciate the correction.

  • AndyB

    Possibly the worst review of anything, ever. How old are you? Twelve? The plot is no more convoluted or preposterous than GoT, and having read both and watched both have some basis for my criticism of your alleged review. I would agree it is up to the BBC’s usual low standards of production, but it is a delight to see an attempt at least to enervate the words from the page. Your words on the other hand are not worthy of wrapping tomorrow’s fish and chip supper.

    • Sandy Robertson

      Agreed! But I’m fairly sure “enervate” isn’t the word you meant to use?

  • Sandy Robertson

    Dreadful review. This is an adaptation of a wonderfully successful, award winning book of huge size that nevertheless has become a cult. Adapting it has defeated some top talents for years, but those who’ve seen previews of the first two parts think this team have done it proud, yet after one scene-setting opener you are prepared to dismiss it as likely to be a “bit silly”. Maybe you should remain a spectator rather than a commentator. I wonder if you read the book prior to discussing the quality of the adaptation.

  • Jay
  • Aisotrcbifst

    Shouldn’t it be York Minster and not York Minister?
    Just saying.
    Also, this is not what should be called a review: it a summary of the episode, mostly.
    and followed by the pretty vapid opinion of the writer
    I was expecting better than that from this newspaper.
    I mean I was expecting meat and bones, not just fluff.

  • Frazer Payne

    You compliment the programmers for presenting a programme that differs from the usual Sunday night blandness, but don’t really know what you want instead. It seems like most professionally employed reviewers are of a type, that which did not join a large group of people who read and enjoyed the book. This not being your kind of thing, you slate it, damning British viewers to more Sunday blandness in the future. What you see as a ‘hammy’ tone is in fact a very good effort to describe the tone which made the book so unusual, enjoyable and well-loved by its readers. You#d know that if you’d read it.

  • Frenchguy

    I am very disappointed, not in the actors or the set but in the abysmal arrangement of the scenes and camera shots.
    lot of the takes are from very far of and they do not do a closeup when
    someone speaks, so you have to look real hard to see who is actually
    When they do close ups, they kind of miss the right moment
    and also simply (in several cases) cut of the head of any other person
    in the picture.
    I am shocked that they managed to ruin the work of
    the great actors, set designers and screenwriters, simply by badly
    planned scenes and shots.

  • Rallan

    Terrbile reviewer, useless review.