My First Look at the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

(5th June, 2021)

The road to a TV or film book adaptation is rarely a smooth one and Jonathan Strange. & Mr. Norrell is no exception. Ever since I first read the book in 2005, it’s taken nearly 10 years to reach the (small) screen, initially bringing on the multi-award winning Christopher Hampton to take scriptwriting duties for New Line Cinema. But alas, it was not to be. Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes had a crack at a movie screenplay too, but ultimately that too ended in failure.

New Line’s rights to the property eventually expired and a consortium of companies ended up producing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for the BBC. Written by Peter Harness and directed by Toby Haynes, two veterans of Doctor Who, it became a seven-part television series.

On the 13th April, 2015 I joined a group of eager JS&MN fans at the BFI National Film Theatre in London to watch the first two episodes of this long-awaited series on the big screen.

The atmosphere was a good and positive one, with everyone eager to see what the BBC had done with our beloved story. Plus there was the added bonus of Bloomsbury Publishing giving out free copies of the novel with the TV tie-in cover. I obviously had to pick one up for myself!

Having arrived early so I could choose a seat in the auditorium near the front, I was rather shocked and surprised when the screenwriter himself, Peter Harness (to whom I had been having several email conversations previously), managed to recognise me and introduce himself. After a very brief chat, the show began.

Once the episodes had finished playing, there was a very good Q&A session with Marc Warren, Bertie Carvel, Peter Harness, producer Nick Hirschkorn and Toby Haynes. I highly recommend visiting Vickster51Corner for more information about the Q&A as well as an in-depth review of the first two episodes. I think the question about adapting the Ladies of Grace Adieu for episodic television might have been my question to the panel.

Magic Finally Returns to England!

Originally published 13th April 2015

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.

During the time JS&MN was briefly a film (at least in principle), 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”.

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 push a book through a television shaped hole and expect it to remain exactly the same.

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 such an order to get the story pootling along with a fair old pace.

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 about 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..