My verdict on the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

15th July: Now that the series has finished in the UK, I’ll be providing a comprehensive review that incorporates a look at the iTunes/Google Play and Blu-Ray releases.  Stay tuned for more information (or look at my JS&MN or Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell categories).


1st episode begins on Sunday 17th May, 9pm – BBC One
American viewers can watch from June 13th via BBC America

BFI Q&A video

BFI has finally re-instated their video featuring the April 13th Q&A session with Marc Warren, Bertie Carvel, Peter Harness, Nick Hirschkorn and Toby Haynes.

Exclusive YouTube clip from episode 1

Launch trailer

24th Aprilin lieu of BFI’s decision to make the Q&A video private, I strongly recommend people head over to this article by vickster51 who sums on the Q&A session beautifully (including audience questions) as well as their own view on the preview.  (UPDATE: the video’s back – see above)


I’ve been waiting ten years to see this happen, following the adaptation from its origins at New Line (optioned twice), then at Amber Entertainment (formed by former New Line execs that originally optioned JS&MN), then back to Cuba Pictures – the film/TV division of Curtis Brown, Susanna’s literary agents.

The business cards for the site I used to run: FoEM - the Friends of English Magic.
The business cards for the site I used to run: FoEM – the Friends of English Magic.

During the time JS&MN was briefly a film (at least in principal), it  went through two Oscar winning screenwriters (and countless many drafts) before Peter Harness finally came on board and cracked the code that had defeated everyone else.

So now I’ve seen the first two episodes at the recent BFI screening, well, I can honestly say – hand on heart – that this is one of the finest television dramas I’ve ever had the privilege of watching.  It sits right up there amongst Breaking Bad and Fargo – two of the very best television series I’ve clapped my peepers on (I’m excluding Game of Thrones because, quite frankly, it’s getting far too complacent and far too effects heavy – I absolutely see it heading towards virtual sets & general silliness which, as an ex-VFX person, drives me nuts – a story can be visual and gorgeous, yes, but is nothing without substance – whereas something like JS&MN strikes exactly the right balance, and the folks behind it know this).

So Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, to me at least, is significantly more than just “good”.

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While we only got to see the first two episodes of the forthcoming BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, it was enough to tell me that what I saw is a faithful adaptation of the book.   But one must always remember with these things is that this isn’t the book.  You can’t put a book through a television shaped hole.

This is a television series based on the book.  So bits do get left out (footnotes mainly), turned around, new bits added and so on.

For people that claim the book is slow, you’re going to find this adaptation kicks things into gear.  Trust me, Peter has managed to put things in order to get the story pootling along a fair old pace.

You’ll still need 7 episodes to get everything (that’s important) across, but even so, better 7 episodes than 32 (which is how long Simon Prebble takes, in hours, to read the novel).

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Multi-episodic television was always going to be the best medium to present this epic 800 page turner of a book visually.  Peter Harness has achieved the impossible – a magical transformation in itself – in conveying everything that we (should) love about the story into seven one-hour long episodes.

I won’t go into any detail of the episodes themselves.  I’ll just say that the performances are some of the best I’ve ever seen.  Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel, in the leads, work wonderfully well.   Special mention goes to Charlotte Riley as Arabella Strange – she and Bertie work so well together.  It’s so natural and fantastic.  Paul Kaye as Vinculus is a stand out performance – manic, frightening, menacing.  Enzo Cilenti as Childermass is commanding.   Ariyon Bakare’s Stephen Black is enchanting.  Samuel West as Sir Walter Pole is cast perfectly, as is Alice Englert, Pole’s poorly wife who is brought back from the brink of death by a malingering faerie.

The said malingerer, Marc Warren as The Gentleman With The Thistledown Hair, is absolutely spot on in my eyes. He brings a considerable amount of menace (bloody hell – that STARE), plotting and mischievous to the character that few else could do.  I’m sure it was just the cinema’s air conditioning, but felt blasts of cold air whenever The Gentleman was on screen.

There are so many other supporting characters and actors I could mention, but I end up waffling.   Just know that everyone that appears in this TV series is nothing short of fantastic and it is a credit to them and the rest of the crew (including Toby Haynes the director, and Nick Hirschkorn the producer), that their love and care of the story has come through in the finalised episodes.

Peter (Harness) tells me that there is something that I’ll appreciate in episode seven.  He won’t tell me what, so I’ll just have to wait and see.  As for when the episodes will air – that’s still unconfirmed other than it’ll be May.

In summary: it is as close to perfect as you’re going to get.

BTW, I’m not sure whether this was deliberate or not – but my mind started racing when Honeyfoot & Segundus’ coach went through the hole in the wall surrounding Norrell’s Hurtfew Abbey.  In Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, there is a wall in which, once crossed, leads to a magical realm full of magic and mysterious creatures.  And Susanna Clarke DID write a story set in Wall that featured the Duke of Wellington..

BONUS FEATURES!

Bloomsbury Publishing was very kindly giving away free copies of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell at the screening.  This special TV tie-in features a new preface by Susanna Clarke, written late last year which details some of her experiences of watching characters she created come to get life in front of her eyes.

Thanks Bloomsbury!

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