24th May 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, BBC1

Benji Wilson, Broadcast

BBC1’s adaption of Susanna Clarke’s novel takes the viewer on a journey into a fantastical world – but always remains grounded in reality.

Something strange is afoot inside Wentworth Woodhouse, a vast stately home near Rotherham.

With its 600ft eastern façade, Wentworth is Britain’s largest private house, but the grand frontage gives no clue to what’s taking place inside. In a double-height upstairs ballroom, around 40 people in smeared makeup and decrepit ballgowns are pirouetting in silence. It is a danse macabre, like some bizarre ritual. Tree branches are snaking from the fireplaces and groping across the floor, the house being reclaimed by nature. Marc Warren, playing the spectral ‘Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair’, stands at the side of the room in breeches and buckled shoes, his hair like Liberace. The dancers hurl Charlotte Riley, enchanted by the Gentleman, from side to side, as an equally lostlooking Alice Englert watches on.

This is the Ballroom of Lost Hope, the centrepiece of the netherworld in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It is a magical, mystical, phantasmagorical place, and it makes a useful emblem for the series’ attempt to reclaim the magic and fantasy of Harry Potter and Doctor Who for grownups. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a novel that imagines an entire alternate history of practical magic and melds it with real events and people from 19th century England. Bringing it to the screen is a hugely ambitious undertaking.

“We first developed it for cinema for two or three years with [Warner Bros’] New Line,” says Cuba Pictures chief executive Nick Marston. “Christopher Hampton and Julian Fellowes were both on it and did good drafts, but for whatever reason, New Line couldn’t commit to it. Looking back, I think it was an enormous challenge to try to turn this book in to a single feature.”

That was soon after the book’s publication in 2004. Several years later, Cuba brought it back to the UK and pitched it as a television series. “In the meantime, television had progressed in a really fascinating way and is now able to tell big stories that don’t obviously fit into a three-act structure,” says Marston. “The tax break has helped us enormously to do it in the UK – it was very important to Susanna that it was filmed in the north of England, which is key to the book.” BBC commissioners Ben Stephenson and Matthew Read had “an ambition to do a grownup fantasy story,” says Marston. In conjunction with director Toby Haynes (Doctor Who, Being Human) and writer Peter Harness (Wallander, Doctor Who), they set about turning the novel into a six-part series. Later, when Harness said he couldn’t cram it all into six hours, the BBC granted him a seventh.

“It blends magic and fantasy with history in the most believable way, with a Jane Austen depth of character throughout,” says Marston. “But the most important thing about it is it’s an utterly extraordinary, enclosed world.”

The man charged with how that world should look was production designer David Roger, a period expert who won an Emmy for his work on BBC1’s 2011 Great Expectations. “What attracted me is there’s no magic wand anywhere,” he says. “There’s no pixie dust or hocus pocus. This is absolutely not Harry Potter.”

Awright Guv’nah

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