In an alternative 19th century history tale where the existence of magic is widely acknowledged throughout England but rarely practised, two magicians – Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) and Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) – attempt to become the next big things.
Susanna Clarke’s novel on which the series is based is a beast of a book. At over 1,000 pages long, it probably wasn’t suited to a film adaptation, as had been New Line Cinema’s plan since it was first published in 2004. Eventually, the studio let up to make way for this seven-part miniseries, adapted by Peter Harness and directed by Toby Haynes. And thank God it did. Seven hours turns out to be exactly the amount of time it takes to tell Clarke’s brilliant tale in detail.
Like the book, the series constantly and beautifully mixes the magical with the mundane. Old English sensibilities and noble folk are combined with spells and fairies to create a bizarre concoction that effectively keeps the pace of both a serious period piece and an elaborate fantasy saga.
The results are often hilarious. For example, when Strange casts a spell on a troop of dead soldiers on a battlefield during the Napoleonic wars, causing the corpses to come back to life as zombies, Strange’s colleagues are confused by their groaning. “What language is that?” asks one. “I believe it may be one of the dialects of hell,” replies Strange, as if answering a query about the weather.
The series’ success rests heavily on the characters, and the two leads both give marvellous performances. Marsan is reserved, peculiar and superior as Gilbert Norrell, the first practical magician of the Revival of English Magic, but he is often overshadowed by Carvel, who absolutely embodies everything that Jonathan Strange is.
Often hilarious and always ridiculous, he is the best thing about the series. Whether he’s channelling inten se creativity into casting new spells or simply whispering off-hand comments to his wife, he’s a scene-stealer.
Strange and Norrell are surrounded by a brilliant cast of lively characters throughout the series. Lady Pole (Alice Englert) is easily one of the most interesting characters, suffocated under a tide of bad luck and abuse; Mr Norrell’s right-hand man Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) is a rough and wily Yorkshireman involved in all kinds of shady business; Strange’s wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley) is witty and charming, and unintentionally gets caught up in her husband’s dealings with magic; Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), Pole’s butler, gets caught up in magic much darker and more mysterious; and Marc Warren is simultaneously hilarious and sinister as the fairy known only as The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair.
The whole thing is wonderfully put together. The amount of detail that has gone into everything – the costumes, the Victorian sets, the ridiculous hair and make-up – adds a delightful amount of exquisite campness and sets the standard for future BBC miniseries. Regular trips to The Gentleman’s fairy realm, a kingdom called Lost Hope, are especially special.
The Gentleman’s love for beautiful companions leads to couples in gowns and tailcoats waltzing around a thistledown ballroom and places it somewhere between a dream sequence and a nightmare.
The series has been loved by viewers since the very first episode, and it’s easily to see why – that love for the story and characters is shared by the people who made it.