The BBC brings more wigs and breeches to the Poldark slot; but hold fast, this is no high romantic drama, but the adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a weirdly pedestrian and parochial tale of bumbling apologetic sorcerors.
Imagine BBC’s Ghormenghast without the colour, or Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow without… pretty much everything; it’s the UKIP Magic Show; this is English magic. None of your foreign thaumaturgy here, thank you.
While Adult Fantasy is in vogue, semi-respectable and from a long tradition of folk tales, Strange & Norrell (“purveyors of fine cheeses to the gentry”) is struggling to make the crossover to the mainstream audience.
While Peter Jackson cranks out Rings and Hobbits, Hollywood does Hercules, Immortals, 300 and, ahem, Seventh Son, Sky has Dracula and Penny Dreadful, Netflix has Game of Thrones, and with the Potter franchise wound up, BBC TV’s answer is a dowdy, whimsical and irritatingly self-apologetic mish-mash of 70’s and 80’s Sunday tea-time serials.
Based on Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel, set in early 1800’s England with the Napoleonic Wars going badly, JS&MN leaps into an alternate history of magical intervention with the restoration of English magic after an emphatic absence of 300 years. I’m sorry I think I must have missed what happened in the 1500’s.
Chapter one: a promising lead character Mr Segundus introduces us to the Northern windbags of the non-practising York Magic Circle, finds the real deal Mr Norrell – the brilliantly non-plussed Eddie Marsan (World’s End, Warhorse) – gets a demonstration of talking statues, and promptly disappears.
Chapter two: at the behest of his darkly ambitious steward Childemass (Enzo Cilenti), Mr Norrell Goes to London, fails to fit into society, and summons the Fairy King – or ‘The Gentleman’ – to raise prospective prime minister Lord Pole’s (Samuel West) dead wife. It is of course, a dance with the devil, in dark territory with dark forces. Or at least it would be if The Gentleman, wasn’t played with full wig, eyebrows and false nails, by the empty raincoat that is Marc Warren (The Musketeers), whom we haven’t forgiven for the least scary Dracula for the BBC some years ago.
Chapter Three – forget all that, the pointless dilettante Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carval) pitches up out of nowhere, falls into magic by accident, turns out to be a genius sorcerer, is and isn’t Norrell’s apprentice for about ten minutes, raises sand horses, and is then shipped off to help Wellington win the Peninsula War.
The bridge between the two principles is another cringe-worthy performance by the embarrassing Paul Kaye as a ranting street magician Vinculus serving the Raven King; his manufactured acting actually gets worse each outing (and we haven’t forgotten those career-destroying ads for that on-line casino, Mr Kaye).
Not forgetting Lord Pole’s disaffected negro manservant Stephen Black – the ‘nameless slave’ from the prophecy of the Raven King – the sensible, sleuthing Mrs Strange, and the resurrected Lady Pole (the hard working Alice Englert, minus finger) who is going mad.
The magic is random, spectacular but barely remarked on. It doesn’t appear to demand much energy or carry consequences for the magician. No one runs away screaming or pulls out a crucifix. No fuss. It’s all very British.
Two episodes in, it’s a thoroughly disjointed, confusing mess. None of the talented cast seem at all sure quite how to play the material, which kludges some flavour of Gothic with a parallel universe. So what we mostly get is British actors hamming it up. It wants to be Gormenghast (a bold 90’s failure) with The Turn of the Screw but it lapses into Monty Python. It’s all terribly camp and terribly disappointing.
Five episodes to go. Let’s hope the magic threads all miraculously pull together. RC