Looking Back At JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s feeling magical.
It’s fairly rare in cult TV to get a series with absolute limits, that never seems to be striving for a second series or a third, but determines to do what it does within an inch of perfection – or half and inch if possible. Just occasionally though, you get a one-shot that sparkles from start to inevitable finish.

Sometimes, you get a series like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

Based on author Susanna Clarke’s debut doorstop of a novel (released in 2004), it was the story of a different 18th and 19th century in English history. A time when magic was a fact, but a lost one, and two potential master mages fought to bring English magic back from a long and sullen sleep.

It’s a colossal undertaking, and it follows Jonathan Strange (a dashing, easy-mannered rake in search of a decent profession so he can marry his fiancée), played by Bertie Carvel and Mr Norrell, an awkward, clumsy, charmless semi-hermit of a man from the north, who nevertheless has consulted every book there is on magic, played by Eddie Marsan, as they independently – and occasionally together – try to bring English magic back to the everyday world.
It is Marsan’s Norrell who starts the quest with a seemingly magical miracle, making the stones of York Minster talk to an invited audience of ‘the friends of English magic.’

Shortly after such a high-profile public demonstration, leading politician Sir Walter Pole (given an intensity which rings true by Samuel West) seeks out Norrell and begs him to raise his wife, Lady Pole (Alice Englert), from the realms of the recently dead. Naming his own price – that he be England’s premier magician - Norrell sets to work, and succeeds.

But there’s a cost.

The kind of magic he has used to bring back Lady Pole is beyond even him. He has had to do a deal with The Gentleman With The Thistle-Down Hair, a fairy lord played with a terrifying, casual coldness by Marc Warren.

And fairy magic always comes with a price.
When the York Minster miracle is announced, Jonathan Strange, in search of a vocation, appeals to Norrell to become his apprentice, and is gladly taken on, Norrell feeling that Strange has the makings of a great practitioner.

But the story begins to sour when the differences in their personalities seep through and affect events. Norrell is a semi-hermit, uncomfortable with people, who nevertheless demands his place as England’s premier magician ne universally recognised. He is diffident and diligent, but also prone to spite and rage, the epitome of a man for whom nothing has ever come easy.

Strange on the other hand seems to find magic almost natural, and can live more of a social life, able to wing his career in magic – and his relationships with the great and the good - to enormous effect, soon becoming Norrell’s equal at least, and as everyone suspects, possibly even his superior in the craft.

Along the way, we’re introduced to prophecies about the two great magicians. The last supreme practitioner of English magic, known enigmatically as the Raven King, disappeared three hundred years ago, and took the power with him. His seeming servant, Vinculus, a scruffy street magician played with relish but never driven over the top by Paul Kaye, pops up here and there to drop hints that the power of the Raven King might well await one of the two – but only one of the two, framing the whole story as a battle of individual talents. And meanwhile, The Gentleman plays his own game with the lives of the two men and those around them, seemingly bent on their slow waltz into madness and hatred, to destroy the potential they have to bring back English magic.
As the two great magicians make their way through Napoleonic society, they clash more and more, while rarely seeming to do so directly. A naval commission to use magic against Napoleon’s fleet exposes the differences in their approach – Norrell’s is fussy and dependent on lots of elements, and he demands sole credit for the work.

When his stratagem is less successful than he claimed it would be, the Navy turns to the charismatic Strange, and in one of the biggest sequences in the show, he does in one night what Norrell’s diligent but impractical plan couldn’t do.

The two seemingly supernatural powers, the Raven King and The Gentleman, weave in and out of the dance of these egos, tempting here, threatening there. The deal Mr Norrell originally made with the Gentleman to bring Lady Pole back to life begins to turn dark, as like all fairy magic, there is an endless price to pay, leading ultimately to a far greater tragedy than a natural death.

Strange’s wife, Arabella, (Charlotte Riley), is tricked into visiting the realm of The Gentleman, and a whole sub-world of fairy magic is opened up behind the mirrors of Napoleonic England - the realm of Lost Hope, a kind of spiritual black hole from which no-one escapes without The Gentleman’s nod. There, he finds not only Arabella but also Lady Pole, trapped seemingly forever in the dance of The Gentleman – a literal ball, where the wits of a person are manifested and trapped and made to dance to The Gentleman’s tune.
In fact, by the time you reach Lost Hope, the whole show has begun to feel like a dance in its construction – Peter Harness cuts Clarke’s original novel down to a manageable size and then does better than that, focusing on the people at the heart of the story, the two men of vastly different characters and temperaments, and the people around them who become collateral damage in their quest for supremacy in English magic.

With a joyous period feel, and enough design and effect to render the realm of Lost Hope in an genuinely taunting, frightening way, the series buzzes with that potential for terror and tragedy, relying on the men themselves to decide whether to play the game of The Gentleman and destroy one another, or master their differences in the ultimate rescue attempt.

For Strange, his Arabella is the motivating factor in his life, but having been rebuffed by The Gentleman – not to mention cursed by him – he knows he needs Mr Norrell, the only other magician of anywhere near his power, to work alongside him to rescue her.

For Norrell, the quest cannot be for love, but could potentially be for honour – his magic, and the deal he struck with The Gentleman has led Lady Pole to lose her wits in the waking world, trapped as they are in Lost Hope. The chance to return her to the world of light and sanity, and so regain his own sense of honourable self, is before him – but can Gilbert Norrell get over his by-now obsidian spite towards the upstart Jonathan Strange, who he believes has perverted the course of English magic, turning it into something flashy (where Norrell cannot compete), rather than something diligent and serious, where he was its master.
We absolutely will not spoil the ending for you, but what we will say is that from start to finish, there is a sense of destiny about the two magicians’ lives. At the risk of citing a somewhat discredited author, it has a tinge of Jeffrey Archer’s Kane And Able at its core, two powerful, antithetical men, whose actions will change the world, but who will each reap a whirlwind of consequences for their ambition, their vanity, their power and their enmity.

With everything about them fundamentally different, from ease of manner to dedication of study, they weave their way through the magically-awakened Napoleonic England, and you almost dare not look away at any point.

While the first episode gives you a lot of background, once you’ve got it under your belt, you won’t be able to stop watching Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell until the final credits role on episode 7, and when they do, you’ll sit there stunned for at least a quarter of an hour, because it’s a series that drags you in, quickly establishes its alternative history, and bites you hard with fascination. And it never lets you go. On first release, in 2015 – a time before automatic release of all episodes to encourage bingeing – it was must-see TV, and you genuinely ached to watch the next episode.

The central performances from Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan are exquisite, taking every opportunity to show the difference between the men, and how everything they do feels right and rational to them when they do it. Marc Warren is a stunningly elegant supernatural villain, playing everything with the lightness of a David Niven, and a playful drop into malevolence that is all his own. There are prophecies which bind the two great magicians together in their rise and in their fall, and the whole piece achieves a character-driven grandness of impact that is more or less unique in its intensity.

If you’re going to read Susanna Clarke’s book – an extract of which, long before it was published, made Neil Gaiman say “It was terrifying from my point of view to read this, like watching somebody sit down at the piano for the first time and they play a sonata!” – you’re going to need to unplug your phone for a week and do nothing else. The frankly heroic work of Peter Harness in adapting the book means you can devour Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on Britbox in just seven hours and a handful of change.

If you’ve never seen it, dedicate a day to it. Grab as many snacks and as much popcorn as you can, because it’s one that will have you binge-munching as the story whirls its way into your brain like a magical dance of character intensity, and frankly, it’s better to binge on popcorn than it is to bite off your fingernails. You really won’t want to get up, leave the house, check your messages, or do anything else for those seven hours.

Leave all of the 21st century behind, and let Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell guide you into a Napoleonic England where the long-dormant magic of the realm is waking up – and nothing will ever be the same again.

Watch Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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