Series Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

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[The following contains spoilers.]

Tychy is staunchly pessimistic about BBC television drama and particularly its adaptations of literary classics. It seems that every Christmas I am grinding my teeth over the latest disappointing adaptation of one of MR James’ ghost stories or whatever it is that they have done to Dickens now. More broadly, the notion that the best television drama is automatically synonymous with public service broadcasting is today coming under an almost unbearable strain. The US television networks HBO (subscription) and AMC (ads) are producing TV dramas which are greatly more ambitious and experimental than the stodge which dear old Auntie is putting on the table. And this is not merely because American networks have more money to splash about in – it simply comes down to different ethics of broadcasting.

HBO, for example, assumes that when it can tear teenaged boys away from alternative sources of violence and pornography, they have the intelligence to follow a series as complicated as Game of Thrones. Meanwhile, those in control of BBC Three, whose target audience is 16s-34s, assume that their viewers are so stupid that news bulletins need to be compressed into no more than 60 seconds. Earlier in the year, when BBC Two had adapted Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf Hall, it was implicitly advertised as being meant only for a smug minority of intelligent viewers. Any hint of Game of Thrones’ nudity or CGI violence was scrupulously expunged from the show, as though to erect a sign ordering plebs off the premises.

So one should not be ungenerous when the BBC produces a literary adaptation which acquits itself very well. BBC One’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an adaptation of the 2004 historical fantasy novel by Susanna Clarke, could be frequently relied upon for grand and exhilarating television drama. The seven-part series finished last night.

The story is set in an alternative reality history and it looks a bit like steampunk except with magic instead of the steam. Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is a Yorkshire scholar and magician who is living in England during the Napoleonic Wars. He thinks that England is on the right side of the Enlightenment, however, and he aims to practice magic as a “modern,” reputable science. He offers his services to the British state, which naturally wants to invest all of his magical knowledge into military technology rather than eradicating poverty. When a story is spun in London about Norrell magically cleaning laundry, he is infuriated. He views this as being a silly, trivial use of his magic rather than as an urgent means of liberating millions of women from endless drudgery. For him, the “practical” magician should resemble an influential and securely unimaginative civil servant. Norrell is in fact an artificial hero, who rarely appears on screen for any time, and Marsan successfully freezes him in a stance of pompous irrelevance through his increasingly dark and oppressive story.

The casting is almost exquisitely perfect. Bertie Carvel gets a number of very subtle judgements right as Norrell’s renegade pupil Jonathan Strange, who often appears to have carefree aristocratic charm and blinking failure stamped across his face in equal measure. There are robust supporting performances from Charlotte Riley and Enzo Cilenti. During its middling episodes, the series deploys CGI as judiciously as it is used in Game of Thrones. The most striking example of this involved Strange dislodging a stranded ship after soliciting a cavalry rescue from out of the sand on the seashore. But yes, this is an inversion of the effect in the Guinness advert and yes, I did have the uneasy feeling that there was sand in my Guinness.

There are still instances of amateurishness, or of an effectiveness which does not seem quite American. During the meeting of the Learned Society of York Magicians, or in the scenes at the UK parliament, the extras have been evidently told to look like indignant people at a meeting or in a parliament. They shout and laugh into the air, not looking at anything or interacting with anybody around them. They thus appear completely robotic and inhuman. It is a small tic, but once you have noticed it, then you cannot stop noticing it.

You are required to have patience with the fairy (Marc Warren), but if you do then this character becomes steadily more uncanny. At first he looks histrionically camp, with his “thistledown” coiffure and arched wings for eyebrows, but the image malfunctions: there is nothing remotely humorous or ironic about him at all. It is the same horror that is generated, intentionally or unwittingly, by clowns.

I should point out that I have not read the original novel, though with part of its story being narrated in 185 footnotes, television might be the best medium through which to experience Strange & Norrell. But where readers of the book are obliged to linger over its ersatz Victoriana, the viewer can proceed straight to the fairies.

The idea that the fairies have left England, and the implication that they might one day return, features first, if I recall correctly, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. One who is dazzled by the modern shine of Strange & Norrell, its apparent affinity with the Harry Potter novels or steampunk’s alternative history artwork, may fail to register that a lot of this story is stoutly traditional. The fairy is exactly the same fairy that appears throughout Crofton Croker’s The Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825): capricious, vindictive, and prone to “stealing” unlucky humans. Arabella, who is substituted for a changeling in Strange & Norrell, is not a baby, but we witness the same anguish and powerlessness which characterises traditional stories about fairy imposters.

Unfortunately, fairy stories usually end happily. The changeling myth is ultimately a fantasy that the peasant woman’s baby is not permanently incapacitated or disfigured, but that it can be brought back from the darkness. It is not the victim of an incurable disease, but of a fairy which can change its mind or be defeated. And the problem with this TV series is that it also ends happily.

Perhaps it is unreasonable to demand realism from a fairy story, but much of the strength of Strange & Norrell is derived from the bitter realism of its intermediary episodes. The finale, by comparison, was sloppy and over-spirited. It was as if we had reached the last day of school and there was an atmosphere of high jinks. After years of rancorous professional rivalry, the two central magicians made it all up in the way that small children do after a morning’s quarrel. Even where there was no happy ending, it looked like a happy ending. I am not sure that the only black man in England should consent to be deported with quite so much triumphalism, but Stephen Black’s fate seemed empowering and redemptive.

Strange & Norrell draws you gradually into its mesmeric Lost Hope quadrille, since each episode is darker and more intense than the last one. The finale left me wondering whether I had only imagined how overwhelming this story had previously been. It should have ended on a massacre.

Other reviewers of the finale have grown solemn over the series’ declining ratings. The series had started out with 5.5 million viewers and by the penultimate episode it had frittered them down to 1.6 million (more people had voted for the Liberal Democrats during the last election). The Telegraph calls this a “ratings disaster” and “a near unimaginable low for a major BBC One drama.” Yet this paper also questions whether the series will win “further fans via the more cult-friendly media of boxed sets and online streaming,” and I think that such justice delayed is likely. Whenever you encounter people who have watched the series, they are noisy and enthusiastic ambassadors for it. Strange & Norrell may have not yet rocked the masses, but this is more than made up for by the benefits to the minority who had tuned in.

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