Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell screened on the BBC in May and June 2012. ANDREW GARVEY reviewed the episodes each week as they were screened, in this TV Episode Guide.
Announced in 2012 and filmed in late 2013, it’s taken a while for this seven-part BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s monumentally-hyped 2004 novel to make it onto my television screen. In all that time I could easily have read Clark’s 780+ page, multi-award winning book.
But I didn’t.
So, untainted by any expectations, and unbothered by this minor character being left out or that bit of the narrative messed about with, every week I’ll be looking purely at the television series. There will inevitably be some spoilers but I’m not going to recap every single thing that happens. Instead, I’ll go over a little of the story and offer a few thoughts as the weeks progress.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Episode Guide
Episode 1: The Friends of English Magic
John Segundas, after failing to get anywhere with a spot of conjuring, rushes off to a meeting of the York Society of Magicians to ask them why magic no longer exists. Mocking and jeering him like they’re the backbenches of the House of Commons after a long liquid lunch they point out that the study of magic is one of history and theory, not practical, everyday deeds. Astronomers don’t create new stars and botanists don’t invent new plants, nor, in this recognisably early nineteenth century England, do magicians perform any actual magic.
Luckily for the crestfallen Segundas, one of the Society, Mr Honeyfoot (a nice Dickensian touch, giving nice characters pleasant sounding names – I fully expect the reverse to happen and look forward to seeing a villain named Edmund Evilgrunt at some point) takes pity on him and agrees to travel with him to see the man – Mr Norrell – who has been buying up all of the city’s books on magic.
Arriving at Norrell’s home, Segundas and Honeyfoot are both in awe of his vast library of books on magic, and start expositioning their little heads off, explaining TO SOMEONE WHO IS OBVIOUSLY AN EXPERT ON MAGIC that English magic died out 300 years ago and telling him “we wish to know my magic has fallen from its once great state. We wish to know why is there no more magic done in England”.
Norrell dismisses them and their question, off-handedly declaring that he’s a practical, practicing magician. Pressed (presumably by either Segundas or the doubting Society, but it’s hard to tell as we just jump from one thing to another) to prove his claim, Norrell has the Society meet him late on a cold and snowy night – of course – for a pretty convincing (and visually impressive) demonstration at York Minster.
After this, we meet Strange, who doesn’t seem to have a magical bone in his body and whose crusty old father dismisses him as “weak and skittish, destined to fulfil no more useful function than a clotheshorse.” Obviously, the old man, who isn’t long for this world, doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does.
Anyway, that’s enough of the storyline. For one thing, I said I wouldn’t bang on about it and for another, a straight recap of such a packed 60 minutes would go on for far too long. So, what’s good about it? Mostly everything, really.
The quiet and reclusive Mr Norrell is played by Eddie Marsan, who gets supporting/character roles in dozens of films and TV shows and may be most recognisable as Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, is quiet and understated as the reclusive magician while our other titular character, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is clearly more expressive but, aside from a few good lines and establishing himself as a fundamentally non-serious wastrel has little to do. Obviously he’ll take centre stage more and more as the episodes pass. Seeing the two of them together should be fun.
Thankfully Segundas seems to have disappeared already – a good thing too, given his irritating habit of over-enunciating his words in a sort of shrill, surprised yelp, like a perpetually frightened/surprised Jane Austen character. Much more of him and I’d have been throwing things (insults mostly, but possibly heavy objects) at the television.
Norrell’s overly-assertive manservant Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) who, it’s blaringly obvious, will play an important role throughout, might be the most thoroughly northern man I’ve seen since Sean Bean reacted to his own death in Lord of the Rings by flatly declaring ‘eeh, by gum, little Frodo, I’ve got an arrer in me’.
Two of the supporting characters are great fun and hopefully will stick around for a while. Norrell’s newfound fame and move to London bring him to the attention of the salon socialites and one of them, Christopher Drawlight, takes it upon himself to properly introduce Norrell to the party scene. A braying buffoon in a powdered wig, Vincent Franklin (so funny as preposterous PR guru Stewart Pearson in BBC political sitcom the Thick of It), plays Drawlight like Hyacinth Bucket. And he looks a lot like her too.
Paul Kaye, an actor/comedian with more than a touch of the unhinged about at the best of times, is great as rambling, prophesying madman and street magician Vinculus. A dirty-looking, mumbling, yelling, threatening mischief maker who likes to go on about someone called the Raven King, Kaye is perfectly cast and looks as if he’s having the time of his life.
There’s some great lines and some gently amusing humour and, that awful bit of exposition in Norrell’s library aside, the script is very polished. The special effects are sparingly used but effective and the costumes are up to the usual BBC period drama standards. Although there’s one character (some kind of magical elf or fairy by the looks of it) that seems to have been costume-designed by someone who’s watched far too many old David Bowie videos.
As a first episode, this was a hugely promising, imaginatively entertaining introduction to the slightly skewed world the story inhabits and, while not exactly counting the hours and minutes until episode two, I’m definitely interested to see what happens next week.
Episode 2: How is Lady Pole?
Lady Pole is unwell. Very unwell. Having been resurrected thanks to a magical pact between increasingly dour little magician Norrell and that David Bowie-looking fairy (Marc Warren stealing every one of his scenes with big eyebrows, a massive wall of hair and arch-menace) last week, poor Lady Pole is confused, tormented and rapidly descending into madness.
It’s taken a few months for her to get to that point and, in that time, Jonathan Strange, who comes across like a somewhat wild-eyed spiv at this point, has married his sweetheart Arabella and is now practicing his magic in the former home of Miss Absalom the Enchantress (whoever that is – it’s not explained). His soon-to-be mentor Norrell has been pressed into the service of his government, bamboozling the French with his magical manifestation of warships made of rain.
One of two major special effects set pieces this week, the epsiodes’s opening is a strong one. The rest of it is good too. But not without it’s problems.
There’s not as much humour as last week, although Norrell’s political paymasters demanding he turn the tide of war by resurrecting William Pitt and Admiral Nelson (he points out they might both be a little decayed) and his own Little Englander complaint that “it is so very dirty abroad” are great fun.
Sadly, the insufferable Mr Segundas and the buffoonish Mr Honeyfoot are back. True, they’re onscreen for about sixty seconds but that’s more than enough. And the next time I hear someone mention it’s been three hundred years since English magic disappeared, I’m going to start hitting innocent bystanders.
More importantly, the episode simply feels rushed. Strange goes from an amateur magician to a louche, over-confident display at his pivotal first meeting with Norrell, to his willing protégé, then questioning his wisdom and becoming his arch-rival – all within about thirty minutes.
A few glimpses of the dark, off-kilter fairy world, and the reasons behind Lady Pole’s condition are creepily fascinating. The relationship between Strange and Norrell may be rushed but it’s compulsively entertaining and at first, Norrell even seems delighted by the whole thing. Although seeing a smile on his sad little face seems downright odd.
Norrell’s cheerleader-in-chief Christopher Drawlight is staggeringly good fun again. I’d love to have someone like him ‘huzzah-ing’ my every movement. I’d even pay for his powdered wigs.
So, what can we expect next week?
Increasingly confident but still dangerously ignorant of what th true cost of magic may be, Strange is off to the continent, helping the military and ingratiating himself with the government. Norrell, suddenly out of favour and thoroughly miserable will probably be doing a lot of moaning and our malevolent fairy (apparently he’s called ‘the Gentleman’ – I looked it up) has his beady little eyes on Arabella Strange.
It should be another fine way to spend an hour. See you next week.
Episode 3: The Education of a Magician
Missing her absent husband, Arabella Strange spends her time visiting the still-unhinged Lady Pole (who is making a brilliantly creepy tapestry detailing her supernatural torments that should win some kind of ‘prop of the year’ award) and not quite realising that she’s the focus of so many attentions.
The menacingly fey Gentleman, looking snazzy as ever in green velvet and with that spectacular, improbable hair, materialises and warns her that her husband may find life at home impossibly dull after going off adventuring in Portugal.
He may be right, sinister, magical fairies often are, but things don’t go well for Jonathan on his arrival in Lisbon. Puffed up by his beach-based triumph in the previous episode, and by the lavish praise of politicians who think magic will swing the fight against the French in England’s favour, he’s eager to help. But sadly for the puppyishly eager Strange, he’s generally dismissed, ignored and sneered at by everyone he meets, including a brilliantly sarcastic Lord Wellington (played, hopefully in more upcoming episodes, by Ronan Vibert).
The Gentleman (who is also busy involving the Poles’ butler Stephen in his grimly enchanted plans) isn’t the only one stalking Arabella. Christopher Drawlight accosts her in the street and Norrell, who is somehow even more cheerless than he was before, has his man Childermass intercepting her letters.
Less interestingly, Segundas and Honeyfoot waste a minute or so of screen time trying to set up Hogwarts, sorry, Unseen University, no, wait, some other school for magicians. Quite what they expect to teach their students is unclear but they could do with being disappeared. Or being sawn in half.
Back in Portugal, Wellington and his officers quiz Strange about magic. “Could a magician kill a man by magic?” Wellington asks. Strange responds “I suppose a magician could, but a gentleman never would.”
Now, remember that I haven’t read the book and don’t know where the story is going from week to week but when he said that, there may as well have been someone in the background jumping up and down while holding a great big sign that reads ‘FORESHADOWING’.
Sent on an impossible mission by Wellington, things go badly for Strange and for the first time, after declaring “my magic is exhausted” faces a proper test of character that forces a little meddling with ancient magic he doesn’t truly understand.
That and events surrounding Lady Pole make this by far the darkest and best episode so far. It still has plenty of humorous touches and events move along at the show’s now customary rattling pace but this week it’s concerned far more with death, suffering and the consequences of magic.
Episode 4: All the Mirrors of the World
Mr Norrell, concerned only for his reputation, and that of his precious respectable English magic, even as his servant and protector Childermass fights for his life after shielding the ever-glum senior magician from Lady Pole’s bullet starts this week’s episode in fine, moaning form.
A master of understatement, Norrell admits when Childermass, fresh from two brushes with death (a gunshot wound and the terrifying attentions of early nineteenth century doctors), asks him to explain what’s happened to Lady Pole, “I confess there are some irregularities that have caused it to take an odd turn”.
You could say that.
Later, dressed up for an audience with Royalty, the eager Strange and the hangdog Norrell encounter mad, old, blind King George. Helplessly bound by the strictures of the senior practitioner’s modern magic (yes, Norrell is banging on about “the last 300 years” and magic’s inability to cure madness – yet again) they can do nothing for the King.
Returning alone, Strange messes about with a little of the Raven King’s ancient, discredited magic and is surprised to see the King in conversation with an unseen presence that is obviously the Gentleman. Almost getting the King killed with his meddling, the increasingly disillusioned Strange is moving further away from Norrell’s restrictive ideas about magic with every scene.
A comedic encounter with a pair of provincial brewers from ‘Nothinghamshire’ leads Strange into a little showing off that take takes him briefly into the unnatural world of the Fairies, from where he discovers just who has been peddling his name around town and conning the rich and gullible, pretending to be Strange and ‘teaching them magic’ by correspondence.
Uncovering an unsafe truth, the impatient Strange is convinced “there is more magic possible than I have ever dreamed.” Oh, there is.
After last week’s dose of zombified Neapolitan soldiers, stolen cannons, explosions, war with the French and an attempted assassination, this fourth instalment of the BBC’s smartly written, consistently entertaining fantasy/historical drama feels smaller and slower this week but does a great job of setting the stage for the next episode.
Again, the Gentleman steals the show, even in his brief scenes, his every carefully uttered word dripping calculated malevolence. Strange and Norrell’s relationship, shaky since the second episode, is hurtling towards complete and total breakdown. Heading into the last three episodes, a magical confrontation awaits.
Episode 5: Arabella
Having last week promised his wife they’d head back to Shropshire and live a distinctly un-magical life, this week’s episode opens with Jonathan right in the thick of it. The ‘it’ in question being at war with Napoleon’s army, exactly 200 years ago, in the mud, the chaos and the rain at Waterloo.
After graphically testing his claim the last time he served Wellington that a gentleman would never use magic to kill a man (does a marauding, axe-wielding French soldier count?), Strange helps swing the course of the war.
Finally fulfilling his promise to Arabella, he writes his own book ‘the History and Practice of English Magic’, having previously, and very publicly, savaged Norrell’s own ‘Friends of English Magic’, a volume that barely mentioned Strange at all and never even touched upon the kind of magic he knows to be extremely powerful.
That Norrell and Strange share a publisher adds a little extra fuel to their rivalry but feels very contrived. If the subject is so wildly popular, were there no other publishing houses interested in what he has to say?
The indignant Norrell complains and moans about Strange and in a neat background touch, his ‘servant’ (really, he’s far more of an advisor, sometime moral conscience and sometime amoral manipulator) Childermass looks bored out of his mind, as if he’s heard this aggrieved ranting a thousand times already.
Safely held as the only patient of Segundas and Honeyfoot’s new madhouse where she was deposited in last week’s episode, Lady Pole is still plagued by disturbing night terrors and odd visions but now they feature Arabella.
The following morning, Arabella’s mysterious disappearance (as foretold in Lady Pole’s ravings to Segundas) and a sighting of her wandering in the snowy Welsh hills, leads her husband to try using his magical powers, namely that bowl full of water trick he’s done several times before, to find her.
Arabella has been taken by Lady Pole’s former servant Stephen to see Lady Pole, walks into the coldly unforgiving embrace of the Gentleman and, as a result of a bargain unwittingly made by her husband to take a doppelgänger as his wife, is doomed to stay there forever.
Stricken by grief when, shortly after, his ‘wife’ dies, Strange refuses his clergyman brother-in-law’s offer to bury his ‘sister’ and instead turns to magic to resurrect her.
His only problems – that his former mentor Norrell seems unwilling to help and the only magic powerful and dark enough to bring ‘her’ back is the sort practiced by the Gentleman himself.
Picking up the pace from last week’s quieter episode, this is one of the series’ very best so far. The opening battle scene is great, aside from a little too much of the visual gimmickry with things slowing down and blurring. It works best when the action is fast and loud and, of course, when Strange is using his powers.
Darker and less light-heartedly amusing than any previous installment, the writing this week is excellent. Neatly tying the prophecy of the Raven King into the very real, historical events of laid-off workers rioting and destroying machinery as a response to technological change and the Industrial Revolution, it works equally well as historical costume drama and fantasy.
And some under-utilised characters shine this week. After being irritatingly lightweight, and essentially pointless, Segundas and Honeyfoot actually have a significant role to play. Lady Pole, amidst her misunderstood ravings, is determined to save her friend and Childermass seems about to fulfil his potential to be a major character, resolved to “put and end to this bloody stupid feud” between the two magicians.
But Strange is by some way the star of the show, whether in battle or domestic happiness or grief or bitter despair or flirting with madness, he’s a believable, sympathetic presence as he heads into the final two episodes and (I’m guessing) a final, climactic, long-awated showdown with Norrell.
Episode 6: The Black Tower
Having escaped from prison, where he was awaiting punishment for his fracas in the street and breaking into Norrell’s house and well aware of the widespread whispering that he killed his wife, our grief-stricken hero Jonathan Strange is a fugitive abroad.
Clearly not enjoying his stolen freedom, despite the Venetian sunshine, he’s starting to look like Edgar Allan Poe on a particularly destructive, unhinged bender and is actively trying to send himself bonkers.
Desperate to “secure myself a Fairy servant” and yelling in the street that he must have stronger henbane (a flower which at least one influential nineteenth century ‘mad doctor’ believed had the stench of madness) and that he’s magician to the British army is hardly the best way to remain hidden.
Back home, and saddened (does he have any other emotion?) by the publication of his former friend and pupil’s book, and what it might do to his precious English magic, Mr Norrell uses his powers to disappear each copy, even from the pockets of eager buyers like our two bumbling friends from ‘Nothinghamshire’.
In Venice, Strange (perhaps he thinks he’s hiding in plain sight) finds himself chatting about magic to a pair of English travellers, a father (British TV veteran Clive Mantle in towering, suspiciously beady-eyed form) and his disgraced daughter who fled to the continent with Lord Byron in one of those sub-plots it’d be nice to see a little of rather than just have it referenced in a throwaway line.
In the English countryside, aspiring ‘mad doctors’ Segundas and Honeyfoot have a new patient – raving magical tramp, Vinculus. He offers Stephen (seemingly resident there to keep an eye on the troublesome Lady Pole) a way to free himself from the increasingly tight clutches of the Gentleman.
Childermass, who seems to get more menacingly Northern by the week (in his best moment of the episode he growls “if you know summat, spit it out” at the imprisoned Christopher Drawlight, himself making a welcome return to the story) has a plan to find out what Strange is up to and brings his employer Norrell some valuable information about the prophecy of the Raven King.
Speaking of Childermass, he shows incredible weekly restraint in not grabbing Norrell’s sneering hanger-on / biographer Lascelles (the brilliantly sneering, snobbish John Heffernan) by the ears and headbutting him into the middle of next week. Their mutual sniping has provided some great exchanges in the last couple of weeks.
Finally succeeding in summoning a Fairy, Strange has his first real encounter with the Gentleman. Offering an alliance to the always dapper villain, the grottier-by-the-minute Strange would be an odd partner for him even if said Fairy wasn’t the one to blame for Strange’s torment.
By his second meeting with the Gentleman, Strange is starting to unravel some of the mystery surrounding the darker side of magic and once more steps into that other Kingdom where he finds more of the truth and faces the Gentleman on his own territory.
Almost from the beginning of their association, the series has surely been leading to a showdown between Strange and his former tutor but that issue is continually delayed and sidestepped. If the Gentleman weren’t such a brilliant antagonist, and the wider story so richly detailed and tightly plotted, that would be annoying. Thankfully, we’re clearly heading that way, we’re just taking the picturesque route.
With a surprising revealing of the true nature of the Book of the Raven King and Strange’s belated discovery of just how dangerous and vicious Fairy magic can be, Norrell prediction of impending catastrophe and some (mostly) top quality CGI, there’s barely a wasted moment in the darkest installment so far and a fantastic penultimate episode.
Waiting a whole week for the story’s conclusion and, of course, that final Strange-Norrell confrontation seems far, far too long.
Episode 7: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
After six weeks of lavishly produced magically-flavoured historical drama building to the final climactic, seventh episode, the BBC’s adaptation of Susannah Clarke’s hit 2004 novel is now over.
And the grand finale was… a little disappointing, really.
The last six weeks’ worth of my reviews have been deliberately vague about this hugely enjoyable series’ actual events, leaving plenty of scope for people to read the review and still be surprised by what’s on screen.
This one will be a little different. To more fully explain the key weaknesses of the final episode, and in all fairness, the many strengths – the spoiler gloves are off.
Let’s start with the strengths…
The greatest of them all is that everyone’s narrative journey is wrapped up, explained and resolved. True, Strange and Norrell’s dual disappearance into some distant, unreachable magical realm isn’t the most satisfying ending they could have but it definitely works.
And, even though trapped there, Strange does get one final, quite affecting scene with his wife Arabella. Norrell is simply gone, as if he’s something of an afterthought. Which, as the series progressed, he increasingly was. From powerful magician to a paranoid recluse hiding in his library, it’s hard not to feel the Norrell character should have bee much more, at least for longer.
Both Lady Pole – thanks to Segundas’ effective but somewhat ill-timed magical intervention – and Arabella (rescued by her husband) are back in the real world. Lady Pole, restored to sanity leaves her husband – whose political career lies in tatters – and head to Venice to be with her friend Arabella.
The Poles’ former butler Stephen fulfils the prophecy the Gentleman revealed to him – of becoming King. That he’s the King of Lost Hope (the Fairy realm) instead of England is a neat little narrative sidestep and one that makes sense, even though it means, sadly the end of the series’ best character – the Gentleman.
Norrell’s former hangers-on Drawlight and Lascelles are both dead and his former servant Childermass is now, along with Vinculus, that tramp-looking key to the secrets of the Raven King, a central figure in the revival of English magic. Childermass, wise to the end, releases the magical society (of which Segundas and Honeyfoot are back as members of) from episode one from their promise to no longer practice magic.
So, what is there to recommend this final episode? As usual, the effects are mostly good, even if there seems to have been a sale on CGI ravens during post-production. The pace is strong and the script is witty and everyone performs as if this magical-costume-drama hokum is absolutely authentic. It’s all very entertaining. It just falls a little short.
Funny as they are, and the Gentleman’s response to being shot with a walnut-filled blunderbuss is perfectly done, it just feels as if there are too many light-hearted moments for what should be an epic conclusion to the story. Even the dour Norrell gets a few good laughs.
The Gentleman gets some of the best lines, kills off Lascelles in an imaginatively nasty way and even inserts a saucy allusion to threesomes. As such an entertainingly villainous character, it’s sad to see him inevitably defeated but made even more disappointing that it wasn’t Norrell or Strange who finish him off.
Yes, Stephen pulling off a tree-based coup that gives him power over Lost Hope makes sense and pays off his story but given how much torment the Gentleman put Strange through, it’s a little unsatisfying to see him finished off by someone else. And while Strange and Norrell had a hand in Stephen’s victory, it was more by accident than design.
Speaking of Strange and Norrell, they finally have their long-teased magical showdown. The dying Strange, under the dark spell of the Gentleman and clearly hurtling towards total madness, suddenly turns up in Norrell’s library.
And what happens? There’s a bit of shouting. Then Norrell lobs an ornament at him and runs away. Like a naughty five year old. Strange responds with a few fiery party tricks and Norrell makes it rain. A bit.
Realising they need to work together to defeat the Gentleman, they call a truce. IS THAT IT? Really? In terms of magical fisticuffs it’s hardly Gandalf and Saruman is it?
Far more violent, but even more jarring is Lascelles’ sudden transformation from sneering snob to Dirty Harry. Murdering Drawlight by shooting him in the eye, slicing open Childermass’ cheek and ‘killing’ Stephen is quite a leap from making snide comments and sucking up to Norrell.
After all those teasing references to the Raven King, we finally see him. And he looks like a second-rate guitar player in a mid-1990s doom metal band. I’m not sure what I expected but more than that, definitely.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. After all, my high expectations only existed because the series has been of such high quality. Even here, narrative criticisms aside, the final episode was still great entertainment.
It may not have ended exactly as I wanted it to, but I’m sad to see it go.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.
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