Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell preview: “could be something truly magical”

Huw Fullerton casts an eye over the magical world of the new BBC Sunday-night drama

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Magic is returning to England – but not as you’ve seen it before.

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In fact, I suspect Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell may divide viewers in its approach to the world of the fantastic. Some will doubtless be entranced by the magical Georgian world brilliantly adapted from Susanna Clarke’s bestselling novel of the same name, as well as the fine central performances from Eddie Marsan and flavour-of-the-month Bertie Carvel (whose star has risen considerably recently after roles in Babylon and Coalition) as the titular rival magicians trying to bring their craft back to the world.

However, anyone tuning in for traditional Sunday-night entertainment may be slightly disappointed; while this has the period trappings of series like Poldark and Downton Abbey and the magic of series like Harry Potter it’s a lot creepier than any of them, and with generally unsympathetic characters (who barely take their shirts off at all, actually).

Assuming the series continues to follow the events of the source novel closely, it could also alienate viewers with the sheer weirdness of what later happens to the characters (including a character forced to dance at night for a malevolent spirit, a man purposefully eating a dead rat to drive himself mad and an endless tower of night that follows one person around Venice).

Still, if they do stick with the story it’s hugely rewarding – a rich, imaginative world of gentleman magicians that veers into truly original territory, with genuinely impressive effects considering its TV budget and a fun line in alternate history (Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington and other historical figures pop up occasionally).

Still, those iconic figures are a little way off yet – the action begins in tonight’s first episode as a society of “theoretical magicians” (i.e. they don’t do magic, which disappeared 300 years before – they just study it) are confronted with the prospect of a real-life ‘practical magician’ in Marsan’s Mr Norrell, a bookish and self-absorbed man who quickly proves his credentials to the doubters by bringing to life the statues of Yorkminster cathedral in an impressive display of visual effects.

Soon, Norrell moves to London to advance the cause of magic and becomes the toast of the town, especially after he raises the wife of a prominent government minister from the dead – but there’s trouble on the horizon from the spirit he summons to assist him (Marc Warren, looking a bit glam rock) and a young landowner called Jonathan Strange (Carvel), who may have some magical talent himself…

Considering so much of this episode is taken up with setting the scene for the political, military and magical adventures to come it all works well, with the instances of magic sparing but imaginatively staged and the characters instantly drawn (Paul Kaye’s charlatan magician Vinculus and Vincent Franklin’s wastrel Drawlight are particular highlights).

Occasionally it can rush through information a little too quickly, however – references to the history of magic in this alternate version of England are rather skimmed over and unexplained, and there’s a running joke about Norrell’s reputation for using magic to wash linen that isn’t really set up properly for it to land.

Still, overall it’s an impressive debut to the series – and if it keeps up the quality for the more challenging episodes to come (including Strange fighting the Napoleonic wars on the front line with magic in a personal highlight from the source novel) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell could be something truly magical.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is on BBC1 on Sunday nights at 9:00pm

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