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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  • Angharad Rees

    I am so excited about this – thank you for sharing the details without any spoilers! I can’t even come up with anything else to say with the excitement this post has caused! Do you know the actual date for airing on TV?

    • I did ask during the Q&A – but it seems a fixed air date has not been given out as yet (there is the feeling, however, it may be mid-May). I also asked if there was the chance of seeing an adaptation of Susanna’s short stories set in the same universe as JS&MN and was told that it probably wouldn’t work for TV (unless they thought I was referring to a single story), but they wouldn’t rule out going back to the world of JS&MN at some later date.

  • Jacques De Villiers

    I was also there last night, and I even though I loathe to EVER say these words, I am of the opinion that “the TV series is better than the book”. But I am mainly referring to the pace of the story line. I say this because it did take me a while to get into the book, it starts out very slow, but the pace in the series is just perfect, keeping the viewer entertained from they very first moment.

    I believe this is going to be a massive success, and as Martyn mentioned, every actor portrays their role perfectly. This is truly a “magical” performance from everyone involved. Can’t wait for the Blu-ray to adorn my shelf next to the book of course…

    • It’s inevitable that there will be substantial editing to fit a massive tome into 7 one-hour episodes, but I think Peter Harness has done a truly wonderful job at sorting out the pacing and rearranging things to get the story moving along nicely. A book is a book and you can have time to take the scenic route (so to speak). Books – not just JS&MN – can take a while to get into – but JS&MN read like butter. Susanna’s command of the written word is something everyone should experience (so if you’ve reading this and have not read the book, do). You just don’t have that luxury with a TV series (or film – especially film).

  • vickster51

    I was also there last night and loved it. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t yet read it, although I certainly plan to and do own it. It was the BBC doing what it does best for me, top quality drama, beautifully shot, scored and acted. I agree that Marc Warren stood out. He was absolutely superb and very very creepy indeed. Having him sitting opposite during the screening was rather distracting! I thought the pace of the opening episode was great, drawing you in quickly and introducing the world and key players. I’m annoyed to hear I missed out on a book though. I must have entered the BFI at the wrong doors as I never saw those. I’ve written my fuller thoughts and the detail of the Q&A on my blog for anyone interested: http://vickster51corner.wordpress.com/2015/04/14/television-preview-jonathan-strange-mr-norrell-bbc-qa-with-cast-and-crew/

    • When I worked on Sky’s Hogfather, which featured Marc in the role of the villainous Mr. Teatime (pronounced te-ah-tah-me), it hadn’t occurred to me then that he’d make a great Gentleman With The Thistledown Hair. But as soon as I saw the Empire magazine photo of him – it just clicked. That’s not to say that Marc Warren should be evil characters all the time, but bloody hell, he IS good at it! We can thank Richard & Judy (Finnegan, as in formally of ITV’s This Morning) for kickstarting Marc into getting the role. Having read your take on the show (an excellent post, BTW – and good job capturing the Q&A in it’s entirety) I also now wonder, if they ever rebooted or continued Jim Henson’s Labyrinth – would he consider the role of the Jared – the Goblin King?

      You must have also been sitting quite near Steven Moffat too – I think most of the cast/crew sat in that area as well as the dignitaries (Curtis Brown folk, etc. etc.)

  • Poli Mauro

    I really appreciate your work as a reporter, thank you! However, I would like to know more about the theme soundtrack, and also about the photography. what are your opinions about those?

    • From what I remember of the soundtrack (by Benioit Groulx and The Triplets of Belleville’s Benoit Charest), it’s hauntingly beautiful. Really comes into play during the sequence set in Lost Hope (when the Gentleman takes Stephen Black to the ball) – as an end titles theme, I really like it. I hope they do release a full soundtrack – I’d be more than happy to buy it. If I heard the soundtrack alone (which is – kind of – what I did with Stardust – I’d be intrigued enough to watch the show from it alone).

      As for the cinematography – it is stunning. Much must be said of Stephan Pehrsson’s photography. It’s *beautiful* – and aided and abetted by the colour grading (otherwise known as the colourist or colour timer). Unlike many period dramas where they seem to settle on grey – the colour timing here gets a proper workout. Absolutely gorgeous and vivid when it needs to be. The picture itself is sharp. The camerawork is fluid. The scene in which Norrell first meets Lascelles and Drawlight is one of my favourite scenes. The entire house is jampacked with guests, but we, as the audience, feel part of the proceedings. We’ll never get to see JS&MN in 4K or 8K, but at 2K – and projected on the big screen – this is simply beautiful work. Cannot praise the camera team (or for that matter, the post-production team for their polishing and editing skills).

  • Kokay Maramot

    I hope you don’t mind if I share your review to our JSMN page! So excited and your review just made the waiting so much more worthwhile! Ahhh! When are they going to release d exact date! 🙂

    • Don’t mind at all – the more the merrier. It’s funny – despite having the controller of BBC One in the same room, she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) comment on air dates. But as the trailers are going out now, I’d say we’re about three weeks away..

  • Emily

    Those of you who attended this screening are officially the Luckiest Ducks in the World. I thought this book would never make it to film and it is one of my all-time favorite novels. The casting looks so perfect. I CANNOT WAIT. And yet I must. I only hope the fact that BBC America is showing trailers means we on this side of the pond won’t have to wait until next year. Sigh.

    • I’ve made many queries with many people over the years (and – hilariously or embarrassingly, but perhaps a bit of both – even offered to write the screenplay myself out of sheer frustration) to find out what was happening. When rumours (from a reliable source) about a television adaptation came to light, I knew that this was going to be the best way of getting to see an adaptation come to fruition. From what I saw at the BFI absolutely convinced me the people involved – from Peter Harness on writing (and associate producing) duties through to the cast – you couldn’t have put this in better hands.

      And I must praise BBC America – and indeed everybody involved in the rather complex financing triangle – in getting this show out. I can’t see it being far behind in US and Canada when it comes to airing in the UK. Possibly even similar broadcasting dates abroad – depends on how well Endemol have done in selling to other territories.

      Proper full trailers usually means around a three week wait before it airs properly.