Star Wars: The Force Awakens .. and how!

Note: Some potential spoilers within, so avoid/skip this post if need be.

I took myself off to London yesterday to watch the brand new installment in the Star Wars saga.  I decided that such an occasion required watching this film on the biggest cinema screen available.  So it was at the Empire Leicester Square that I spent a small fortune (20 quid) on watching the exploits of the new rebel alliance.

image

I won’t give much of the plot away other than to say that this is Star Wars, not Star Peace.  The film borrows/recycles quite a few elements from the original 1976 Star Wars: A New Hope.  That in itself isn’t a bad thing, but what I will say is that you’d think the bad guys would have learnt their lessons by now.  Clearly the Dark side of the force makes people incredibly stupid.  Also I’m not sure why a certain character goes around wearing a mask for the majority of the time when he doesn’t actually need to.  It’s a bit like superheroes demanding they have to go around wearing capes and lycra.  That doesn’t make you a superhero, merely a costume fetishist.

Many familiar faces are brought back, and we’re introduced to quite a few new ones – who, hopefully, will be joining us throughout episodes VIII and IX.  BB-8 has featured significantly in the media and is every bit as good as you think he is.  He gets all the best lines too.

Overall, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a wonderful new addition to the saga and long may Disney/Lucasfilm continue producing them IF this standard is kept up.

Super quick review of the iPad Pro

Update: A few notes after using the device daily for a couple of weeks can be found here.

A much more in-depth review will be posted later, but..

Ruddy hell, it’s HUGE.

It’s the broadsheet of tablets.  And because of that, you need to use two hands to be able to hold this thing comfortably while reading anything.  I do not recommend reading books on this device because you’ll have arms like Popeye by the time you’ve finished reading a reasonably sized novel (and if you’re reading War & Peace, you’ll be able to lift a tank by the time you’ve finished reading it on an iPad Pro).

Reading comics from ComiXology, on the other hand, is a pure delight. There is no need for Guided View(TM) – the whole page can be viewed without the need for pinch/zooming – all artwork and text intact as you would find a normal comic book.  Services like Zinio or iOS magazines that don’t both bother to optimise their publications for reading on a tablet device also come out outstanding.  But it’s the broadsheet experience of reading these comics or magazines, so there will be achy arms at some point if you’re holding the device for any length of time.  So investing in a cover that can act as a stand or just a plain old stand is something I would highly recommend for potential new iPad Pro users.

It’s not because the device is particularly heavy.  Without any cases, it’s quite light and that its internal arrangement allows for a balanced weighting.  But when you add a back cover, things start to get a bit weighty.  Add the Smart Keyboard cover and you’re coming close – if not exceeding – the weight of Apple’s lighter MacBook and MacBook Air laptops.

As the iPad Pro’s resolution is the highest of any iOS device to date, you’ll get the desktop version of any website visited with Safari or Chrome.  With the iPad Air 2 or iPad Mini 4, you’ll just get the mobile version (if they exist), so that extra resolution and screen estate pays off for those that work with web design or publishing.  For bloggers such as myself, it works very well indeed.

When using Microsoft Word on the iPad Pro, Word has the tendency to zoom text to the point where I feel like I’m going blind.  The default landscape viewing mode of Word for iOS is HUGE.  I do hope Microsoft allows us to save pinch-zoom in/out views as default, or allow us to specify a percentage like you can with the desktop version of Word.

Which takes me to the Apple Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro.  It does add a bit of bulk, but as a cover, it works as well as any other Apple Smart Cover.  The keyboard itself feels a bit like typing on cardboard.  It feels quite weird at first, but once you get past the limited keypress travel (which I understand is a similar experience with the new Apple Macbooks), I found that I was soon bashing out words as well as I can on any other keyboard.  While there is only one position for the screen when using the keyboard, it’s perfectly good and comfortable for my purposes. I wouldn’t want to use this set-up on my lap, but it’s certainly possible.

The biggest problem with the iPad Pro, and for that matter the iPhone 6 (S) Plus devices, is that there are still many, many, MANY developers that have yet to release apps that fully support the higher resolutions (and thus bigger screens) of these devices.  Viewing some apps on the iPad Pro brings back a certain nostalgia to when we all used to run Windows at 800 x 600 resolution when everybody was running at 1024×768, and everything looked HUGE in comparison.  Much more work has to be made to get these devices to the point that the extra money people will spend on them is worthwhile.   When you do come across an app that supports the iPad Pro, it’s utterly gorgeous.  4K it may not be, but the PPI makes things look super sharp.

Finally, the Apple Pencil.  I’m not an artist.8A2DD93C-97C3-4E23-A6EB-9C9166890246-1-2048x1536-oriented

My principal use is for text editing and photo editing.  Drawing is not going to be a productive use of my time (see above).  Text editing isn’t bad – one can double tap with the Pencil and then select/drag the text that needs altering.  It’s faster than using the keyboard cursor keys and does allow for slightly more accurate selection than just using one’s fingers.

Haven’t tried any photo editing yet, so look out for a review sometime in the near future.  If I remember.  Similarly, I’ll be testing 4K video editing using iMovie and the Apple Pencil together to see how they both work together.  Hopefully very well.

My concern is where to put the Apple Pencil when not in use, or if I’m carrying the Pro about.  There isn’t anywhere that it can stick to.  So for now, I’m just keeping it in the original packaging until I can find a nice sturdy pencil case, so I don’t accidently destroy/snap it, or lose the darn thing.  Apple is currently heavily into their accessories at the moment, so overlooking this is going to cost them money.

Overall I think the iPad Pro is a great device.  Definitely a potential as a laptop replacement, but more work needs to be done – both by Apple and iOS developers.  Let’s sort out the screen resolution issue.  Let’s get more Pro apps out there.  While the Pro is unlikely to be used for any heavy video editing, the impression I get is that the screen and Apple Pencil could easily lend themselves to more professional use alongside a laptop/desktop editing system.

As a writing device, the iPad Pro works very well.  But let’s get zoom/default zoom modes and controls fixed in Microsoft Word for iOS.  I’d like to be able to use the Apple Pencil to quickly and easily highlight or  select text when proofreading documents (unlike this blog, I do try with proper Word docs).  Would be cool to see such things if Word for iOS becomes collaborative.  Another excellent potential application would be the use of filling in forms (PDFs, perhaps) with handwriting recognition.  Or collect signatures.  Huge potential for enterprise use there, I reckon.

Video from the major streaming services or iTunes is excellent, as one would expect from a screen and resolution this size.  Photos (using the iCloud Photo Library) also look superb, and this makes for a great show and tell device.  The iPad Pro is an all round good presentation device.

With a bit more work under the hood (and much can be made just by tweaking iOS a bit), the iPad Pro is a good all round workhorse.  But if you’re also consuming books and newspapers, you may want to consider either the iPad Air 2 or iPad Mini 4.  It’ll save achy wrists (and arms).

Cradle to Grave: Brilliant TV series, but no Blu-Ray version?

Update: Still no Blu-Ray, but here are a few other options..

I’m not sure whether you’ve all watched the brilliant BBC (ironically produced by ITV Studios) comedy, Cradle to Grave, based on Danny Baker’s autobiography “Going to Sea in a Sieve“.  It’s brilliant and one of the best comedies I’ve recently watched (along with Emma Kennedy’s The Kennedys).

But I’m somewhat taken aback that despite the show being shot in HD, there’s no Blu-Ray!  Just a bog standard definition DVD.

In this day of HD and Ultra HD formats, it’s almost unforgivable that a popular TV show is given a DVD only treatment.  Usually when a TV show or film is release for the home video market, both formats are released simultaneously.  Perhaps the BBC/ITV Studios are planning a later Blu-Ray release, but split distribution dates for different formats is very rare.  It’s an all or nothing approach.

As a sidenote: I still don’t understand Sky’s Buy It and Keep service.  You buy the film in HD, and it’s downloaded to your Sky+ box in HD “forever” (or until you leave Sky, after which you’re snookered), and you get a copy of the DVD through the post.  You’ve bought the HD digital Sky DRMed-to-the-hilt copy, but you get a standard definition DVD?  No thanks.  Never going to use such a service until HD on the Sky box, HD in physical format.

Incidently, I was tickled when searching for the Blu-Ray version of Cradle to Grave to discover that the BBFC still refers to the VHS format for home video content.

I won’t be buying the DVD despite thoroughly enjoying the series.  I’ll wait until I know something about the Blu-Ray release, or I’ll just have to buy the series on some non-physical format.  It’s available via iTunes for £11.99 in HD, for example.  I would, still nevertheless, prefer a physical copy.

But I do recommend to those people that enjoyed the TV series to buy the book (available in all good physical and digital formats).  You will be laughing like a loon.  I certainly am (and as such have already bought the follow-up book).

Apple Music: Buggier than a buggy thing in the land of insects

Updates (15th September 2016)

  • I’ve gone back to Apple Music.  Apple appears to have done quite a decent job of fixing everything that was plaguing this service.  With the recent release of iTunes 12.5.1.21, everything works beautifully.  More info here.

Updates (3rd May 2016)

  • With more and more albums missing tracks (last straw was a soundtrack album with ONE available track out of 14 unavailable), more server errors, and general PITA bugs, Apple Music is dead to me.  I’ve gone back to Spotify and am using STAMP Premium to convert playlists.

Updates (8th March 2016)

  • Apple Music/iTunes Match continues to bugger about with metadata.  I have half-complete albums from Apple Music with different artwork and tracks that are no longer available.  Manually uploaded/ripped albums have had their cover art changed DESPITE me manually setting it.
  • Considering moving back to Spotify.

Updates (16th December)

  • Or if you have one track – let’s say the Mad Men soundtrack in which the show’s title track, R2J2’s A Beautiful Mine – isn’t available for whatever reason, but you  if search, you can obtain the official album from which it comes from along with the missing track (in this case, Magnificent City Instrumentals).  With Spotify, if the track isn’t licensed for that album, it’ll make it available from an album that is available – thus you have the full album.  A kind of deduplication, as it were.

Updates (latest 9th December)

  • iOS 9.2 released.  UI is certainly an improvement, but Apple Music still suffers from “split album” syndrome in which for some inexplicable reason, tracks shared across multiple albums (regardless of whether you own/rent them or not) are split into their own separate albums. This is a Apple Music backend issue which has been persistent since launch (and a bloody annoying one).

Updates (latest 6th December)

Updates (latest 15th November)

  • Search is broken with iTunes (but fine with iOS).  Just the spinning wheel of doom if you try to drill down songs or albums.  Apparently this has been acknowledged by Apple according to this forum post. (UPDATE: Fixed, at least for me, since the 18th)

Updates (latest 22nd October)

  • The most annoying thing right now is if you’re in album mode (iTunes 12.3.1), have recent albums shown, and play more than one track within an album – the focus brings you right back to the top of the albums list – taking you completely out of the album you were listening to.

Updates (latest 18th September)

  • iOS 9 update appears to kick streaming music into gear – feels a little faster between selecting a track and hearing it.
  • iTunes 12.3 seems to bring a bit more stability.  One improvement I’ve noticed is that I’ve been able to download previously hidden purchases.   It was, until recently, as stubborn as a mule.

Updates (latest 1st September)

  • Tim Burton’s Batman Original Motion Picture Score has changed to 75th Years of Marvel and soundtrack order has been re-arranged.  Batman Returns score remains untouched.  Under iOS, a TV theme album was suddenly split into lots and lots of separate titles.
  • Apple Music under iOS 8.4.1 has started playing silly buggers.  Try to stream non-offline content and you’ll be asked to join Apple Music.  But I’ve already subscribed!  Rebooting the device seems to fix this for a while.  Apparently this is a “known issue”. Offline content seems to be unaffected.

Updates (latest 26th August)

  • Apple Music is, more or less, playing much more nicely now.  I have found that there are some problems with using other devices (namely my work Mac and my iPhone) syncing properly.  To resolve this involves either rebooting the iPhone or turning off iCloud Music Library (on the iPhone this is bad – you’ll lose offline music) and turning it back on again.
  • I now have over 75Gb of Apple Music content stored offline on my home Mac, around 20Gb on my iPhone 6, and about 10Gb on my work Mac.

Updates (latest 19th August)

  • The iCloud Music Library unavailable status is becoming more regular now, preventing me from downloading purchased music (which is the biggest frustration of all – if I buy from an iOS device, I have to wait until the status clears before I can download to my Macs)
  • Despite my overall disappointment in Apple Music, when it works – it works extremely well.  Therefore, I’m going to subscribe despite all these problems.

Updates (latest 16th August)

  • Unfortunately, we’ve gone back to being able to use Apple Music for about 5-10 minutes before getting the “iCloud Music Library is unavailable message” and not being able to do anything for up to three hours.
  • Have found that when using iOS version of Apple Music during the “iCloud Music Library is unavailable” error in iTunes can cause sync problems when iTunes does reconnect to the iCloud Music Library.  You then have to add albums/tracks manually in iTunes.
  • And there’s this:
An error, you say?
An error, you say?
  • The artwork on iTunes is now screwing up quite regularly.  The following is from the Minions Original Soundtrack (yeah, don’t ask):
Funny looking Minions!
Funny looking Minions!

Updates (latest 15th August)

  • I’ve been using Apple Music with iTunes and iOS today for 4 hours straight without any “iCloud Music Library is unavailable” error messages.  I’ve been able to download a fair number of albums for offline use with just a few download errors – and even then, the tracks that failed to download the first time were subsequently downloaded by clicking the refresh button.  Let’s hope this is a sign that things are improving!
  • There is, however, still a problem with hidden music.   I’m struggling to download music that was hidden (which I think happened at one point whereby I nuked my iTunes library in the process to trying to get Apple Music working).  Clicking either “Unhide All” or individual albums or songs only seems to release some music (which you can download through the iTunes Store -> Purchased link).  Some tracks I’ve been trying to unhide for a couple of weeks to no avail.

Updates (latest 13th August)

  • Apple has just released OS X 10.10.5, iTunes 12.2.2.25 and iOS 8.4.1 which fixes a few Apple Music related bugs.  It still isn’t good enough, however.
  • The good news: the complete album problem looks to be fixed.  If you have a few tracks from an album (whether purchased from iTunes or uploaded via iTunes Match/Apple Music from other sources), you can now add all the tracks from the album from Apple Music without having to delete your original purchased/uploaded music.  It bloody works!  Hoorah!
  • More good news: Apple looks to have fixed the issue where it was splitting albums into sub-albums.  It appears to have happened whenever a track in a compilation album appears elsewhere.
  • The bad news: Some artwork has been mixed up.  iTunes 12.2.2.25 is still laggy (even on a 2014 MacBook Pro Retina) – laggy enough that if you’re downloading tracks and are attempting to add tracks from Apple Music to an existing album, you end up adding the same tracks over and over again – creating duplicates.
A laggy/busy iTunes can cause many duplicates to appear if you keep hitting the
A laggy/busy iTunes can cause many duplicates to appear if you keep hitting the “Add” button.
  • Even worse news: Apple still has not fixed the bloody “iCloud Music is unavailable” problem whereby iCloud Music Library goes away for a few hours.  During this time, you can’t add or download music from Apple Music or the iTunes store (including already purchased tracks).  It appears to be a server-side issue.
Nope - you can't play with Apple Music because iCloud Music Library has buggered off somewhere.
Nope – you can’t play with Apple Music because iCloud Music Library has buggered off somewhere.
  • Despite resetting my iCloud Music Library completely (since I’m a former – and present – iTunes Match subscriber), the bloody thing STILL misidentifies tracks in the iCloud Music Library.  iTunes remains convinced that a Gilbert & Sullivan collection I added in Apple Music is “matched” rather than belonging to Apple Music.
  • Can I only reset the iCloud Music Library once?  The option to try and reset my iCloud Music Library has vanished from my iTunes

Updates (latest 23rd July): 

  • Good (well, it’s not good, but you know what I mean)  to see somebody else experience the pain in the AaaS (Apple As A Service – pronounced “ass” or “arse”) that is Apple Music.  Apple Music is a nightmare (Jim Dalrymple).
  • An IP belonging to Apple has visited this blog post over the past few days.  I hope they’re paying attention.  If it turns out that it’s somebody browsing in an Apple Store, I’ll be quite disappointed.
  • After iTunes 12.2.1.16’s release, I tried removing all content from all iOS devices and trashed my iTunes folder on my Mac, deleting everything in my Music directory on my Mac.
  • After nuking iTunes, I downloaded all previous iTunes purchases and imported everything else I had purchased from outside of iTunes.  I then reset my iCloud Music Library through iTunes -> Account -> View Account menu to ensure that any content is flagged up correctly by iCloud.
  • But it’s all still very, very buggy.  Even doing everything above, downloading any reasonable number of songs or albums will lead to the dreaded Unavailable iCloud Music Library error, and you can’t do anything for several hours.  It’s had the additional effect of not being unable to download anything on iOS which, when iCloud Music Library comes back, requires me to reboot my iPhone to get the downloads to work – it’ll be stuck indefinitely otherwise.
  • There are still issues where iTunes or the iOS music player wants to split “albums” into separate sub-albums.  Plus there is another bug that, to see a complete Apple Music album where you have one or more tracks you’ve purchased individually, you have to delete the purchased tracks to make way for the Apple Music ones.  It also means having to remove the album too and re-add it.
  • In short: Apple Music is a poorly designed, bug-ridden pile of crap that should never have been released this early.  It feels like a rush job.

Previous Updates

  • If iTunes 12.2 is not in focus, and you’re using a web browser (any will do) while music is playing, you’ll experience substantial stuttering during music playback until iTunes is back in focus.
  • Things seem to be settling down iCloud Music Library connection wise in iTunes, but there are still many “Waiting” iCloud Library statuses and tracks cannot be played.  To further confuse matters, some tracks ARE playable but still have the “Waiting” status.
The much publicised Taylor Swift album is there, but why are three tracks unavailable (to stream or otherwise)?
The much publicised Taylor Swift album is there, but why are three tracks unavailable (to stream or otherwise)?
  • Licensing of tracks is horribly inconsistent and poorly implemented.  Take the Vikings TV series original soundtrack (series 1).  The title track by Fever Ray (“If I Had a Heart”) is not available on the soundtrack, but it exists within Fever Ray’s album and as a single on Apple Music.  But you can’t access it within the Apple Music’s Vikings track listing at all EVEN if you’d added Fever Ray’s album to your Apple Music collection (offline or not).  It’ll show as being greyed out and unplayable.  So Apple Music can’t scan its entire catalogue to make tracks available to an existing album if the whole album isn’t licensed.

I have stated on many occasions that I have concerns over the QA of new Apple products and services (case in point, a brand new MacBook Pro and FileVault problems straight out the box).  Apple Music is no exception.

It’s brave that a company the size of Apple, with the resources it has available to it, that it can release a fresh new music streaming service to over 100 countries simultaneously.  That, in addition to releasing new updates to two operating systems and various other product updates.

For me, updating to iOS 8.4 went remarkably smoothly.  Signing up to Apple Music likewise.  But in practice, the service cannot match that of existing services such as Spotify or Deezer, who have had time to refine their catalogue and applications.  To say the iOS version of Apple Music is hideous is an understatement.   The screens are cluttered, and the submenu that allows to you to do various bits and bobs is far too unwieldy to be practical.

As for Apple Music’s catalogue – so much is missing from my Spotify playlists I’m wondering what the hell happened with those high-level discussions Apple had with the various record companies.  On the other hand, there is stuff in the Apple Music catalogue that’s not available on Spotify.  To compare, Apple Music has a much better contemporary selection, but its back catalogue is far too spotty in comparison with more established services.  It may change, of course, but for the time being if you’re hoping to match like-for-like with your Spotify playlists, you’re going to be disappointed.

Searching for content on Apple Music is straight forward enough, but suffers from the iTunes Store search problem I keep experiencing in that you have to be very specific otherwise you’ll end up with weird results.  Usually, the first couple of words followed by the artist should match pretty well.

A big frustration with Apple Music is that you can’t create playlists on the fly.  You have to create them beforehand prior to adding tracks to them.  It is an issue that’s replicated within iTunes 12.2 as well (but more on that later).  You can seemingly nest playlists, but there’s a whole bunch of fiddling to do first.  It’s an enormous PITA.

Downloading Apple Music offline in iOS is relatively straightforward – but you must remember to do this after adding the tracks (or go straight to “Download for offline use”).  Adding the album or tracks and not doing this later will result in a frustrating experience thanks to the clunky interface.

Apple released iTunes 12.2 much later than planned, and while it’s an improvement on 12.1.2, using Apple Music with it is one of the most frustrating experiences imaginable and does not come close to that of Spotify’s app.  Whether it’s iTunes Match interfering with Apple Music or not, or whether it’s Apple’s servers going doolally, or some other issue I’m not aware of, accessing the iCloud Music Library consistently fails.

cloud_fail

The cloud symbol that indicates iTunes is “unable to connect to your iCloud Music Library”.  It does this frequently.  You can be adding albums or tracks and then suddenly the cloud symbol above pops up.  It often fails to vanish for many hours.  Some say it has something to do with an existing iTunes Match subscription, but who the hell knows.  All I know is that Apple clearly haven’t done enough Q&A on this service to have it fixed in time for launch.   I’ve submitted a ticket to Apple Support about this because there’s bugger all information on the Apple service status page about any issues with iCloud Music.


Note: This connection bug only seems to affect iTunes 12.2 on the desktop – the iOS client appears to be largely unaffected by it, but it’s difficult to tell due for sure to lack of decent UI feedback under iOS.


Errors galore!
Errors galore!
You log in, log out, deauthorise, reauthorise, and this still bloody happens. #iClownMusicLibrary
You log in, log out, deauthorise, reauthorise, and this still bloody happens. #iClownMusicLibrary

The following demonstrates the many statuses of iCloud files in your new, improved (read: bloody mangled) iTunes library (read: cesspit).  Click each image to expand.

Managing tracks, when Apple Music/iCloud Music Library is rarely working, is a much nicer experience than the iOS client, but there are many times in which iTunes feels very sluggish and unresponsive – even streaming directly from Apple’s servers.

Apple Music has potential, but it’s technical shortcomings are highly apparent and feels like the service is an afterthought rather than a carefully crafted service with a decent user experience in mind.  It comes nowhere the quality or capability of Spotify, Deezer et al. other than the Beats 1 radio show that is rather nifty.  That’s where Apple Music shines – but for everything else, it’s bloody awful. It feels as if Apple doesn’t care at all for the user experience.  You and I know that’s not true, of course, but you’d be hard pushed to see that when using Apple Music across iOS and Mac devices.

Thank goodness Apple gives everybody three month’s free trial.  But is it a trial or unpaid beta testing?  I’m edging towards the latter.

I strongly urge those considering moving from other services to stick with what you have for the time being – you’ll get a far better experience both technically and in back catalogue titles.  Apple will, hopefully, fix the technical gremlins that currently plague the service – but I dread to think how long this will take and how many different software iterations we’ll have to go through to get there. Hopefully, it’ll be less than three months.

I’m going to try and persevere with it, because with a bit of love and polish, Apple Music COULD be a worthy competitor.  But at the moment, it’s like watching a bunch of clowns honking their way through the “cloud” (weather warning: adverse weather conditions for the next few weeks) in their clown cars scrambling to fix stuff that should have been fixed way before the public launch.

AaaS (pronounced “ass” or “arse”) – Apple As A Service needs some serious work if it’s to be taken seriously by the public.

*Honk* *Honk*

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”.

2015-04-13 17.01.54

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).

2015-04-13 20.11.47

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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