Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: can the BBC’s ambitious magician drama put a spell on audiences?
Ben Arnold, The Guardian
What if the battle of Waterloo had been fought using magic? This and other supernatural what-ifs are answered in this adaptation of the fantasy novel.
Magic has returned to England. Like all tales of the fantastic, it was a matter of stars aligning and heroes triumphing. But unlike most tales of the fantastic, it was also a case of budgets groaning and options expiring. It’s been a lengthy, arduous and – according to director Toby Haynes – “terrifying” process that has brought Susanna Clarke’s epic novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to the screen, but the transformation from 800-page tome to seven-part series for BBC1 is now complete. Has justice been done? And will a mainstream audience be persuaded to swallow a side order of faeries, spell-casting and ancient magical prophesies on top of their costume drama?
Set during the Napoleonic wars, in an alternate version of the 19th century, Clarke’s novel – written over a decade – presents a gothic vision of England where magic has re-emerged after centuries of dormancy. Two very different men are capable of practising it: Gilbert Norrell, a reclusive, humourless scholar in his late middle age, and Jonathan Strange, a charismatic young landed gent with a whiff of Withnail, seeking purpose in his wayward life.
Though the naturally gifted Strange becomes Norrell’s pupil, they are destined to clash. A moment of hubris (and a desire to have his skills recognised) leads Norrell into a murky deal with a powerful, chaotic spirit, known as the Gentleman With The Thistle-Down Hair. It sets off a perilous chain of events spanning war, love, despair, imprisonment, emancipation and even other worlds. It’s grand stuff: Tolkienian in scale, Dickensian in execution.
Neil Gaiman, an early adopter, called the book “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years”.
As with Game Of Thrones before it, there will be a question as to how many people for whom “fantasy is not usually my type of thing” will be willing to suspend their disbelief and jump into the drama. Eddie Marsan, who plays Norrell, is just one of those types. He admits he was not familiar with the novel before he took up the role of the cantankerous magician.
“It’s not the kind of book I would normally read,” he admits.
“Now I tell everybody to read it. Fantasy never came my way, I always found other books were more to my taste. What drew me to Mr Norrell was that he has all this information, all this power, yet he does everything from the perspective of fear. You see that with a lot of people who are very successful or very powerful: they’re still scared. Norrell wants to be loved and accepted, but thinks the only way he can be is by becoming this all-powerful tyrant who can control everything, so that no one can take anything away from him. I thought that was fascinating.”
In much the same way that Game Of Thrones isn’t really a show about dragon-rearing and the undead, so a sense of real, albeit embellished, history, politics and gender permeates Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The scenes with MPs squabbling about Wellington’s campaign on the Iberian peninsula could come from any period piece. At least up to the point where Norrell shows the cabinet precisely what Wellington is up to in the reflection from a metal bowl filled with water. Think live-streaming, only with supernatural crockery.
Often in this drama, it’s a sense of Englishness, not necessarily the magical, that endures. Scenes of high society, presided over by Vincent Franklin’s Drawlight – a toadying but wily social climber who plays PR to the gruff Norrell when he arrives in London – are well observed. “[Clarke] creates this credible world,” says Strange, AKA Bertie Carvel, (the indefatigable plotter Finn from police drama Babylon). Unlike Marsan, he is evangelistic about the book, having been given it 10 years ago. “It’s not a story about magic, though magic is a key character in the story,” he says. “It’s about recognisable people with human emotions. Nothing has more currency in drama than real people that we can relate to.” Carvel feels the pressure of living up to the book, though. “The only thing that makes it less frightening to be tasked with a role that you have so much fondness for is the idea you’re not letting some other arsehole fuck it up.”
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: Launch Trailer - BBC One
Director Haynes was also a fan before he managed to snag the daunting job of orchestrating set-pieces such as the battle of Waterloo – with added magic – and making them look impressive on a TV budget.
“I was supposed to be Christmas shopping, and I picked it up in Waterstones and got stuck reading it,” he says. “I rang up my agent immediately and said I wanted to make it. He stifled a laugh.”
The mirth was understandable. Haynes was a children’s TV director at the time and New Line, the studio behind Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings, had Strange & Norrell under a three-year option worth seven figures. Christopher Hampton, writer of Dangerous Liaisons, was to adapt it, then later Julian Fellowes, only for New Line to fall into financial difficulties.
When the option ran out, producers Nick Hirschkorn and Nick Marston took up the mantle, bringing in Haynes, who by that time had directed episodes of Wallander, Doctor Who and Sherlock, and writer Peter Harness to develop the project. The BBC’s outgoing head of drama Ben Stephenson then gave it the green light for BBC1.
“I pitched it in my first meeting as Amadeus meets Lord Of The Rings. They really responded to that,” says Haynes.
“But there was no way you could do justice to the story with a two-and-a-half hour movie. We tried to do it in six hours, and it became apparent that we weren’t even going to achieve that, so we made sure we got an extra hour. We didn’t get an extra episode’s budget, but we certainly went for it. The trick with any great literary piece when you’re adapting, is to make it accessible. You make the characters magnetic.”
Luckily, Clarke’s characters are already vividly drawn. But they’re matched here by a strong cast. Vinculus is a bedraggled but prophetic vagabond magician (played by Paul Kaye); Norrell’s loyal assistant Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) is brooding and enigmatic; and Strange’s wise and witty fiancee Arabella is played by Peaky Blinders star Charlotte Riley (pictured, inset).Just as pivotal are Marc Warren as the Gentleman With The Thistle-Down Hair, who strikes up a dark dangerous relationship with Lady Pole (Alice Englert), the wife of cabinet minister Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West); and Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), the minister’s noble servant.
On screen it looks as if no expense has been spared. A scene in episode two finds Carvel’s Strange summoning giant horses from the sand, and it’s as impressive as any Hollywood blockbuster. Haynes assures that the scale of the job was “utterly terrifying, a masochistic thing to do to myself”, not least because he insisted on directing all seven episodes. So understanding was the BBC of the scale of the job that it imposed no strict deadline, accepting that the series would be ready when it was ready.
As for converting those for whom fantasy drama might not sit right, Haynes is confident his Strange & Norrell will convince. “It’s not just about special effects, it really is about friendship and emancipation and very human themes that are relatable,” he says.
“I like to think people who may not watch fantasy drama, or even period drama, might start watching it, and not be able to stop. That was my experience reading the book. I stood in the bookshop meaning to read the first page, and read the first chapter. All I was trying to do was avoid doing Christmas shopping.”