Published on May 19th, 2015 | by Michael0
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Episode One – ‘ The Friends of English Magic’
When Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was announced, it made me good and check out the book. I since read Susanna Clarke’s on the hurry-up, so I could watch the TV series from the point of view of a book-reader. This served me well when Game of Thrones first crashed into the public consciousness, or at least it did until I got fed up with the series and jacked it in after two seasons.
Still at a mere seven episodes, the same is unlikely to happen here. While it may lack the scale and longevity of its American cousin, Jonathan Strange does not lack for ambition. Directed by Dr Who & Sherlock alumnus Toby Haynes, it is rich in period detail and packed full of flavour. The first episode, ‘Friends of English Magic’ opens with a meeting of the Learned Society of York Magicians, a group of pompous gentlemen whom the narration assures us ‘never caused anyone harm with their magic, nor did anybody the slightest bit of good’. Indeed when one young man, John Segundus (Edward Hogg), asks why nobody does magic in England any more, he is roundly mocked. Gentleman magicians do not practise magic, he is told, they mere study it. ‘Do astronomers create new stars?’ roars Dr Foxcastle (Martyn Ellis) to general merriment. Undeterred, Segundus and kindly Mr Honeyfoot track down the one man who may be able to help answer this query, Mr. Norrell.
As I said, I read the book only after learning of the TV series so I knew the casting of the leads. Nevertheless it is impossible for me to think of an actor more suited to playing Mr. Norrell than the wonderful Eddie Marsan. Marsan has said of himself in the past that he often gets cast as psychopaths and inadequates and while Mr. Norrell is neither he has traits of both. He’s thin-skinned, petty, peevish and utterly lacking in humour, something Marsan can carry off to a tee. He’s also giving a Yorkshire accent out for a spin, as are much of the cast in the first part of this episode, leading to some viewers to complain that, like the Beeb’s Jamaica Inn, the dialogue was incomprehensible. For a proud Yorkshireman like myself though it was very gratifying to hear to ironing-board flat vowels of Enzo Cilenti as Childermass, Mr. Norrell’s servant.
When Mr Norrell puts the Society of Learned Magicians in their place, by encouraging the statues of York minster to move from theirs, he must leave the comfort of the library in his Yorkshire home and make his way in London. Mr Norrell is keen to restore English magic and sees it as his sacred duty to do so. However, his first attempts at courting political favour end in failure. Encouraged by Childermass to attend soirees, he bumps in two gentlemen who claim they can help him achieve his aims, the obsequious blowhard Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) and the reserved but shifty Lascelles (John Heffernan). Drawlight, who affects a trill when enunciating the name ‘Norr-elle’, claims to be Norrell’s ‘John the Baptist’ praising his name to the heavens. Franklin, of The Thick of It and Banana fame is of course a genuine Yorkshireman, though he’s not allowed his native accent here. Heffernan, meanwhile, appears to have stepped off the set of Ripper Street both in costume and in character, as Lascelles is very similar to the shady lawyer he played in the Amazon Prime exclusive season three.
Speaking of which, outside the party Mr Norrell is accosted by street magician Vinculus, played by Paul Kaye who these days specialises in playing hairy religious (having done so recently in both Ripper Street and Wolf Hall). Here, he tells Mr. Norrell of a prophesy regarding two English magicians. ‘One is named fearfulness. The other, arrogance […]. Both shall fail.’
Mr Norrell doesn’t know of any other magicians but then the other magician, Jonathan Strange (in case you didn’t guess) doesn’t know he is yet, either. Strange, played by Bertie Carvel (last seen as Finn in the brilliant Babylon) is an idle toff, struggling to find direction in life. He is at the mercy of his monstrous father and his demanding paramour Arabella (Charlotte Riley), a Reverend’s sister who is keen that Strange cut down on his vices and find a purpose. What she doesn’t expect is that he’ll decide to become a magician because a man under a hedge told him to (the man is Vinculus, banished from London by Mr Norrel’s magic). Due to the structure of the novel, this first episode is bit light on Strange and heavy on Norrell, but Carvel makes every scene count. Strange is the antithesis of Mr Norrell – he’s charming, empathetic and (currently) completely lacking in drive. What larks we shall have when these two men are inevitably thrown together.
Over than the marvellous scene at York Minster and some prophecies courtesy of Vinculus, this first episode is a bit light on the magic, at least until the final scene. When Drawlight and Lascelles inform Mr Norrell that a young lady of means has died, Norrell sense an opportunity. The young lady was betrothed to Sir Walter Pole, the politician whose favour Mr Norrell failed to court on his arrival in London. By raising the recently deceased young lady from the dead, Mr Norrell reckons he can get an in with the government. Unfortunately, the magic needed to bring the dead back to life is beyond even he – he will need to enlist the help of a fairy, a race he distrusts and despises. The aid him, he recruits The Gentleman with thistledown hair (Marc Warren), a creepy, silvery gent who looks like Brad Dourif in Dune crossed with Ziggy Stardust. While Warren has the look of the Gentleman, I think this is where the series makes a slight misstep. There is an echo effect when the Gentleman speaks and while this is certainly sinister, it gives Warren’s performance a leaden air. When I read the novel, I envisioned the Gentleman as a lively character full of malicious laughter, like Cesare Romero’s Joker if he had the power to imprison people in a carpet for a thousand years. The Gentleman is happy to bring the soon to be Lady Pole back from the dead for a price – half of her life. Mr Norrell readily accepts. This can’t end badly, can it?
‘The Friends of Magic’ is a very promising first episode, anchored by strong performances and a superb aesthetic. I wonder though whether there was enough to grip newcomers, the plot doesn’t exactly move apace and while certain characters are shady to say the least, the narrative lacks an proper villain until those final moments. Meanwhile, the two title characters have yet to meet and their motives are unclear – Mr Norrell wants to restore English magic without actually talking to anyone, and Jonathan Strange decides to become a magician on a whim. I hope everyone decides to stick with it because the series is showing all the signs of doing the book justice.