ONE of the strangest and most original series you’ll watch this year is the BBC’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
There’s nothing like it.
This seven-part series is part history, part fantasy, part drama. It is, indeed, something new and something wonderful.
It’s also lavish, beautifully executed and well acted.
The story has the power to totally engage you, to drag you into a strange world and make you care deeply about what happens.
This is simply quality.
Adapted from the book by Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are two magicians in Regency England. Or, at least, an alternative Regency England where magic, we learn, has been dormant for 300 years since the mysterious Raven King disappeared.
According to prophecy two magicians will restore magic to the land and the mysterious Raven King will return.
But for now, magic is studied but not practised – until a gentleman called Mr Segundus discovers the wealthy and reclusive Mr Norrell, the self-professed “greatest magician of the age”, hiding away in his library.
Mr Norrell is a bookish, introverted sort of man with a streak of vanity and wants only to restore “respectable magic”.
Mr Norrell (Eddy Marsan) is persuaded to perform an act of magic for the disbelieving members of a magical society. When he brings stone statues eerily to life he becomes a sensation.
Silly rumours even circulate in London that he washed all the housewives of York’s linen with one spell.
Encouraged by his manservant Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) and convinced of his own impor tance, he offers to help England defeat Napoleon.
The Minister of Defence is not interested. Then destiny presents Mr Norrell with a chance to impress by bringing the minister’s fiancée back to life. And here’s where the nasty mischief starts.
His magic summons a sly, faerie prince who demands a high price for his help – half the young girl’s life.
Mr Norrell foolishly thinks the girl will live happily until she is 40 or so before our Faerie whisks her away. But no.
Every night as Lady Pole (Alice Englert) sleeps, she is taken into the Faerie realm of “Lost World” to an endless ball where she is forced to dance and dance.
Half her life.
Lady Pole is tormented by what befalls her, but thanks to a “rose at her mouth” only nonsense comes out when she tries to speak of it.
Very soon she is condemned as mad. Norrell refuses to accept any responsibility.
He takes steps to make certain she cannot speak against him, caring only about his mission to restore respectable magic.
Mr Norrell’s selfishness and her pitiful situation rile us up. We want the magician punished, condemned, sent packing.
We want Lady Pole out of the Faerie’s clutches.
Our second magician, Jonathan Strange, is a wealthy, young and good-looking landowner who desires to marry a lovely girl called Arabella (Charlotte Riley).
She insists he must first find a profession.
He declares he will become a magician. It turns out he is surprisingly good at it.
Unlike Mr Norrell, Strange is not book taught but has an instinctive understanding of magic.
It is he who summons a “sand horse” to right a ship wrecked on a sand bar.
And it is he, summoned into the service of the British Army, who unwillingly brings the dead to life to discover the whereabouts of the Duke of Wellington’s lost cannon and help defeat Napoleon.
He and his now wife Arabella move to London so Strange can become Nr Norrell’s apprentice.
Very soon it’s obvious the men are too different and bound to clash.
The scholarly Mr Norrell is serious and unsmiling and selfish.
Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is a more dashing sort, kind and sympathetic, who refuses to believe something can’t be done.
How powerful could he be? In one scene he overhears the invisible faerie talking – words he should not be able to hear. In another, he steps through a mirror into the Faerie world.
The trouble is, our two magicians have unleashed something they don’t understand, something dangerous that has slumbered for 300 years.
The path to the Faerie world is open and the Faerie who helped Mr Norrell now has his gaze on Mr Strange’s lovely wife Arabella.
Arabella is too clever to fall for his “bargains” but he comes up with a diabolical plot to deceive her husband and take her to the Faerie world.
Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange is a deliciously rich series.
The characters are deep and compelling, from the vain Norrell to the sly and manipulative fairy king (Marc Warren).
It is rich on detail and draws us completely into this world.
The first episode, though a little slower, builds the foundations and then like a wonderful burning wick, it leads us deeper and deeper until we find we are angry on the part of characters, want revenge on others and must see others triumph.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will completely transport you into a fantasy world that is unlike any other.
But don’t let that word “fantasy” throw you. There is nothing childish about his. It is far from Harry Potter for adults. It is a complex and wonderful story set in a believable world packed with danger and mystery.
A joy to watch, a story unlike any other.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in on DVD.