Strange Goes From Strength To Strength

The Arts


We are now four episodes into the lavish BBC version of Susanna Clarke’s award-winning ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’.

It continues to get to the meat of this huge trilogy, drawing out the core of the story in a way that’s far more successful than the BBC’s adaptation of ‘Gormenghast’, with its soap-star casting. Here, Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel are deepening and enriching their characters as we get further in and the Raven King approaches. With its stunning Georgian settings and painterly production design it’s certainly not ‘Penny Dreadful’.

But that’s the general complaint. The seven hour adaptation is too conceptual for ‘Game of Thrones’ fans. No-one is raping dragons or fisting dwarves. Instead, witty dialogue and intelligent ideas abound, and the show continues to shed viewers. But I don’t care; it was made without compromise, and time will prove its endurance. So to recap;

Set in the era of the Napoleonic wars, 300 years after ‘magick’ has been taken off the menu of British pursuits, the coffee house intellectuals of London are reduced to discussions of its art rather than its practice. Disturbing the theoretical chatter, two magicians appear with very different perspectives on the problem. Mr Norrell (Marsan) is a meticulous, misanthropic beetle of a man, possessed by his dusty library of ‘proper’ magic, eschewing fame yet wholly protective of his image, while Strange (Carvel) is a natural, a naif who works wonders without spells and is amazed when anything goes right.

Their relationship begins on a footing of mutual respect but quickly develops fault lines, not least because Norrell is persuaded to revive Lady Pole from the dead, failing to comprehend the terrible bargain he has struck. Strange, on the other hand, soon helps the war effort, producing a fleet of horses from sand to free a beached galleon and making roads across Portugal. In the wings waits the terrible prophecy of the Raven King, the reason why magick was banished in the first place…but are the old ways wrong, as Norrell insists, or do they lead to enlightenment?

This is dazzling stuff, actorly rather than starry, from its drily smart dialogue to the elegant FX that creates a world behind the nation’s mirrors and returns dead soldiers to life.

At over a thousand pages, Clarke’s trilogy proved a rewarding if demanding read, densely annotated, complexly plotted, nothing less than an alternative political history of England, and this adaptation has now got to the heart of it, revealing a wonderfully constructed story that’s more moving on the screen than it was on the page.

If only Phillip Pullman’s trilogy had been made by the BBC instead of being ruined in Hollywood it would have stood beside this and ‘Wolf Hall’ as another example of great British drama. Does anyone care if the ‘Game of Thrones’ crowd don’t get it?

With three more hours to go we’ve reached the alternative version of the Peninsular Campaign, with Wellington downing rifles; ‘I don’t want to disturb the French. It’ll be lunchtime and they won’t be happy.’ It keeps getting better. I for one can’t wait for the conclusion.

9 comments on “Strange Goes From Strength To Strength”

  1. Wayne says:

    Total agreement from me. I think its great to see something different for a change.

  2. chris hughes says:

    And total from me too. I loved the book and wondered how it would adapt for tv and haven’t been disappointed – it’s even managed to grab my husband too although he looked very sceptical at the beginning. The casting is exceptionally good and Marc Warren sends shivers down my spine – for all the wrong reasons! AA Gill hated it and said it was an example of the way the BBC does terrible drama – you have to wonder what the poor man is watching sometimes. But then he went, as he so often does, into a diatribe against the Beeb which is partly political and partly based on their treatment of his ‘good friend’, Jeremy Clarkson. So if both he and the Daily Mail hate it, it must be good.

  3. Mike Cane says:

    I’m glad to see you like it. I stumbled across it on the Net (BBC-America airs it soon) and decided to have a peek. I liked the first episode immediately (second, ermmm; but the third awaits watching). I was puzzled by all the bad reviews in UK papers. Now I can see it was the reviewers, not the series.

  4. admin says:

    My rule of thumb is that if talent-vacuum AA Gil hates something it’s probably good.l

  5. Alan Morgan says:

    Never got to the book oddly, will before I watch and probably when I can see many episodes in one long go. Bertie is good in anything too.

  6. Adam says:

    Bit harsh on Game of Thrones! Have you read the books? The level of detail, plot twists, shifting allegiances and backstory are beyond anything I’ve read before (possibly with the exception of Tolkien, but he took a more scholarly turn and seemed to pretend women didn’t exist). It is probably a cliche now, but the killing off of major characters really shocked me when reading the books. By necessity the TV show has vastly streamlined the story, and does seem to include an obligatory boob shot in each episode. Back to Jonathan Strange. I gave up on the book when it came out, but tried again earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved the footnotes and the subtle humour. It will be interesting to see what the sequel is like…

  7. admin says:

    I’m a big fan of George RR Martin, I just didn’t get on with the show.

  8. keith page says:

    I love this series.Didn’t like the original novel, though

  9. DebbyS says:

    I do agree. The programme has me entranced, the best TV drama in a while – better, in my book, than Wolf Hall or even Parade’s End. The sad thing is that the critics’ panning may discourage the BBC from similar productions in future, and we’ll be left with the likes of Game of Thrones or Downton bloody Abbey.

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