British fantasy, Doctor Who aside, doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. Poke around online geek circles and you’ll see a lot of chatter about swanky American productions like Game of Thrones, but not so many of us seem to have been watching Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a seven-part miniseries from our very own BBC. Which is a shame, as it’s really rather good, and hardly lacking in ambition…
Based on Susanna Clarke’s novel, Strange and Norrell begins in England, 1806 – as the Napoleonic wars rage on, magic, which was widely practiced three hundred years ago, has fallen into disuse. Enter our title characters, the two magicians who will bring magic back to England. The thing is, they can’t always get on. Norrell (Marsan) is a scholar, believing no spell should be performed until dozens of related books have been thoroughly studied, while his pupil Strange (Carvel) just wants to skip straight to the cool stuff. It’s high school chemistry all over again.
Thanks to top performances from the dashing Carvel and the more restrained Marsan, plus a great script from Peter Harness (Doctor Who, Wallander), the shifting power dynamic between the two leads is the heart of the series; it’s a friendship torn apart by Norrell’s conservatism and Strange’s daring, as his willingness to really dabble in the risky stuff allows Strange to rise through the ranks and soon become the Duke of Wellington’s favoured magician.
A wide range of fascinating characters surround these two; there’s the street magician with his odd prophecies, the politician’s wife who goes insane after returning from the dead, the enslaved butler told he’s destined for greatness, and to really muck things up, there’s a fairy on the loose, with a ludicrously large quiff that makes it clear his intentions can’t be good.
It’s an expansive tale, taking place over many years and in many countries, and it’s clearly had good money thrown at it, looking very nice for a BBC production (better even than some of the more ambitious Doctor Who episodes). The first episode’s set piece in the beautiful York Minster sets the tone, but it’s the later Battle of Waterloo sequence that really sticks in the mind; kudos here goes to the very impressive VFX work and to director Toby Haynes (another Who alum).
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a great achievement for the BBC – a gripping, stylish miniseries, full of weird and wonderful characters, that’s worthy of being ranked alongside Game of Thrones as the best genre television of the year. Now it’s out on DVD and Blu-ray, shut down Netflix for a few hours and give British fantasy the love it deserves.
Extras: BTS Feature / Deleted Scenes / Bloopers
JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: TOBY HAYNES / SCREENPLAY: PETER HARNESS / STARRING: EDDIE MARSAN, BERTIE CARVEL, CHARLOTTE RILEY, MARC WARREN / RELEASE DATE: JUNE 29TH