Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - S01 E01 - The Friends Of English Magic
Welcome to an alternative history.
It's 19th century England, but not the one we're familiar with.
There used to be magic, but it is now a non-existent curio, studied by theoretical magicians, not a single actual user has been found for 300 years. Claiming to be able to perform magic is strictly the province of charlatans.
Amateur magician John Segundus can't do magic either. His attempts fail, his peers at the local club deride his efforts. No gentleman would lower himself to even try.
Until Mr Norrell.
Norrell is a Yorkshire scholar of magic who has self-studied himself up to practitioner level, and he's on a mission to bring spell use back to England. He's also loyal to his realm and thinks that his talents can be of use countering the nefarious Napoleon Bonaparte and his armies.
After challenging his detractors from the local magic club, and scaring them into quitting forever, it's time to reveal this talent to the world.
Problem though, he's not going to get noticed up in Yorkshire.
With the encouragement of his rather intimidating aide Childermass, it's London bound to move in the gentrified circles, get connected, and climb the social ladder to government patronage and a chance to inflict sorcerous damage on those pesky Frenchies.
The capital is not to Norell's liking though, vapid partygoing hangers-on with absurd tales of Norell performing amazing feats of laundry appall him. And in turn his claims of being a true magician meet with ridicule from Sir Walter Pole, minister of the crown.
There is one however that believes his claims, Vinculus, an unsavoury street magician, who is clearly more than he seems and is clued up on a prophecy of not one, but two practitioners.
The second magician isn't even aware of his destiny. Jonathan Strange is the son of a stern country gentleman, who is flatly refusing to let his son do...well...anything. This is an incredibly frustrating existence for Jonathan, who is looking for something to fill his life with.
Fleeing from a party in his honour, Norrell runs straight into Vinculus. It is not a happy meeting, The street magician claims possession of a magic book that Norrell now wants. It's all too much. Norrell starts packing to go back home to York, whilst his self appointed publicists plead with him to stay. A chance comment gives Norrell an opportunity to take a risk to show his abilities...
Vinculus is pursued and finds his way to Strange and for a small fee provides a page of a spell.
This is a BBC production, meaning that the historical setting is superb. The BBC have a fantastic record in producing quality period drama, and this is no different. The costumes and sets are spot on meaning that the 1800's come alive.
Then we have the actors themselves, and once again we hit the target dead centre. Eddie Marsan is fabulous as the titular Norrell, insular, nervy and distrustful of these strange London inhabitants. Enzo Cilenti's Childermass is not someone you would want to meet in a dark alley, he's all scheming intelligence and suppressed rage. Paul Kaye does Vinculus as a ragged half crazed vagabond with hidden depths. We don't get much of Strange in this episode but Bertie Carvel is a great counterpoint to the difficult to like Norrell. The secondary players make their mark too, odious hangers on, bemused and terrified gentry. All good.
Mark Warren is a great actor, and he is menacing as the conjured spirit of "The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down hair" but the very hair in the description,and the eyebrows that accompany it are overdone to the point of absurdity and detract from one of the key characters from the book. It's a shame. I haven't read the book in a while so I don't know if it is accurate to the description on the page. Regardless, you can't help staring at the coiffure and brows.
Still, putting that aside, Norrell does a deal. He's surely going to regret it. And probably not just him either.
This is a good solid and engaging start to a book that I found initially very hard to get into. The pace is not too slow, and the magic use is portrayed as a double edged sword, you really don't want to be messing about with this stuff. It might well have been better if Norrell and Strange had left well alone and found other outlets.
It is worth watching to see something a little different, a bit more thoughtful, and eerily grown up without being crude or gory.
For all that, it has some menace about it, these faerie types are going to be trouble.............