sat 20/07/2024

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, BBC One

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, BBC One

An adaptation that feels like a children's drama dressed up in adult clothes

Master and apprentice: Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) right, and Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel)

If it’s about magic, and features sanitised cobbled streets and dark gothic interiors, then Harry Potter comparisons will no doubt be inevitable.

And so it has been with this seven-part adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s hefty 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, directed by Toby Haynes. The comparison seems fitting, for though this is a mini-series that has the sumptuous look and high production values of a typically lavish BBC costume drama, everything else about it says children’s drama. Surely the BBC schedulers are wrong to put it out after the watershed? 

Even more than Harry Potter, one thinks of the Narnia stories. The strange mirrors, the doors that open out into magical forests, the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair, who might even be camper than the Snow Queen. Marc Warren, who plays the evil fairy necromancer who goes by that title, is an actor who seems to have cornered the market in sinister baby-faced protagonists. But one is certain to find scarier villains in Doctor Who, and, indeed, in Harry Potter.

But then so much is played for whimsical laughs in this drama of the two eponymous, oddly matched magicians who seek to bring back the lost art of “practical magic” to England – not seen in these isles, we are told, for 300 years. To do so is a matter of national as well as professional pride, and so we also find the two casting spells to repel Napoleon’s fighting forces, with Norrell having dutifully offered his services for the war effort. 

It's impossible to tell where our sympathies as viewers will lie as the series proceeds and their rivalries play out

In an echo of the English class system, Norrell, a scholar of magic as well as a practitioner who has spent most of his life practising his supernatural craft in private, seeks above all to make his profession respectable – just as the rising professional middle classes at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution sought respectability and an entrée into society. In this fantasy of a changing England during its wars with France (a world in which men of a certain vintage still wear powdered wigs), getting one’s hands grubby in the practice rather than the theory of magic gleaned from dusty tomes and from ancient lore, is looked down upon.

Bertie Carvel, who was last seen playing a slightly goofish Nick Clegg in Channel 4’s Coalition, seems to have mined his former role to play Jonathan Strange, an idle young man in desperate need of a livelihood who stumbles upon his destiny when he encounters the vagabond street magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye) lying, as Strange likes to recall, “under a hedge”. He soon finds his undisciplined talents rival those of his new teacher, Mr Norrell, played by the effortlessly brilliant Eddie Marsan, in a wig even more frightful than that of Warren’s. Norrell, fastidious, uptight, and discomforted by social encounters, has little in common with his new apprentice. It's impossible to tell where our sympathies as viewers will lie as the series proceeds and their rivalries play out.

Clarke’s novel is nearly 800 pages long. Even if, like me, you haven’t read it, you can probably assume there’s a lot that's been condensed for a seven-part series. So you’d expect things to be ripping along. But even with York Minster’s talking effigies the first episode felt very slow. And although it does get a little pacier in the second episode, I’m wondering at what point you’ll feel invested in what essentially feels like a kid's drama in adult clothes.

Fisun Güner on Twitter

But even with York Minster’s talking effigies the first episode felt very slow


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters