Where do I begin?
That’s the first question anybody engaged in adapting a long and mysterious book into a visual form must ask themselves, and how they ask it and what is the selected answer goes a long way towards determining the success of the translation. The book of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, written by Susannah Clarke, is a lengthy volume, one that took me years to read, devoured in long chunks on train journeys where there was nothing easier to distract me.
The same thing goes for Peter Harness’s adaptation for the BBC, in seven hour-long episodes. Compression, visualisation and atmospherics. The first two of these belong to the tv series but the last is the key note of the novel, and it is the thing that musy be most carefully and accurately transferred, in order for things to work.
What we have here is a story about Magic, set during and influencing the Napoleonic Wars, most particularly that part of which was being conducted in Spain. The War is real, but this is not our England, as seen out of our (Nineteenth Century) windows, but another England, an England in which Magic exists, always has existed, was openly practiced and celebrated until about three hundred years ago, when it all seemed to vanish. Nevertheless, Magic remains a natural part of life, if not entirely Respectable. That is, Theoretical Magic, the study of the same, its History and its practitioners of old, is Respectable. A Practical Magician is beyond the pale, no better that a street conjurer, a charlatan and a vagabond.
Susannah Clarke can establish a world like this beautifully, by writing in an archaic, formal style that conjures up atmosphere by itself, but which is bonded to an absolute conviction about the fantastic world she is creating and makes it not just believable but completely natural. She’s got the infinite power of words and 800 plus pages of them. Unless he wants to regurgitate great chunks of the novel to spoonfeed the audience, Harness has to find a way to convey all that, literally in front of our very eyes.
So he sets about building this by some abslutely masterful set design, which flawlessly creates both look and feel of Georgian England, by intelligent use of the correct dialogue from the book, by a brilliant cast who are encouraged to centre their characters by means of their inherent energy of character and purpose, but most of all by trusting the audience to survive on Inference, not Implication, and working out what is going on for themselves without a Powerpoint presentation.
Like all first episodes, this is all about set-up. It has been long-prophecied, in one of the few Magic books not collected and hoarded by the reclusive Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) at his home near York, where he is directed by his servant Childermass (Emzo Cilenti), that two Magicians will arise in England, that they will be enemies, but that they shall both fail. Mr Norrell is one such. He is a small, withdrawn man, with a strong streak of stubborn arrogance, who is determined to make Magic respectable in England, through the person of himself, rather than by its actual performance. Norrell can perform Magic. He induces the Society of Friends of Magic in York to cease to profess or name themselves as Magicians by causing half a hundred statues in York Minster to come to life, move and talk, all save Mr John Segundus, who believes in Norrell and will not commit himself.
Yet this feat is misrepresented in London, made a foolish lie by the leech-like Drawlight, who seeks reflected glory by introducing Norrell to Society and the performaance of tricks. Norrell has come to London for one purpose only, to assist his Government at War, but he is turned away, unkindly, by Minister of Defence Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) and proposes to leave. He is accosted by the street-conjurer – and frequent drunk – Vinculus (Paul Kaye, splendidly OTT), who tells him there are two, not one Magicians.
And when Sir Walter’s fiancee, Charlotte (Alice Englert) dies of comsumption, Mr Morrell executes a dangerous bargain with The Gentleman with Thistledown Hair (Marc Warren) to restore her to life, although she loses a ginger in the process. It is a miracle, and we all know that miracles are not necessaril;y unalloyed blessings.
But this is only one of our two Magicians, even if he is the First, and has the lion’s share of screentime in this episode. Mr Norrell is an existing Magician, a man of middle years, a student of decades. Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is a younger man, heir-in-waiting to a stern, bleak father, a man in love with Vicar’s sister Arabella (Charlotte Riley), who loves him back but won’t even listen to a marriage proposal because Jonathan is a man without occupation, veering dangerously close to being a wastrel, even after his father dies of an apoplexy.
But Jonathan, bright, cheerful, entertaining and almost silly, is the Second Magician, identified as such by Vinculus, sold penny spells that come from Norrell, and performing the one that sows him what his enemy is doing. That enemy is Norrell.
So certain building blocks are put in place, time is spent carefully and a structure of conviction and atmosphere is created before our very eyes. We know it’s all trickery but do we Know it? The next six weeks will tell us how long the spell can be maintained. And the damage it may do.