Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Episode 1: The Friends of English Magic


Right, so, here we are; a seven week run of reviews of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that you didn’t even have to pay for on Patreon. That said, the Patreon has taken a couple hits lately  (some very generous backers have had to, for entirely understandable reasons, edit back to merely being… still very generous, actually), and I’m not going to lie, the last month or two has already been a bit tight finances-wise, so I could really use to see the number go in the other direction a bit. So if you can spare a bit, please consider backing. Really, even a little bit helps; you can set a monthly cap so that you’re only tossing in $1 or $2 a month, and it’ll still count towards all the goal totals, and it would be greatly appreciated. 

In any case, thanks very much to the kind folks at BBC America, who have provided me with screeners (I’ve seen the first three episodes at present), thus enabling these reviews to go up as soon as the episodes air. Or, in this case, early, since this episode got released on YouTube a few days ago, so there's no embargo on reviews. Or, if you prefer to watch it on television, it's on BBC America at 10:00 Eastern tonight.

So, for those unaware, this is the BBC-produced adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel of the same name, in seven episodes, all written by Peter Harness (of Kill the Moon fame) and directed by Toby Haynes (of The Pandorica Opens through The Day of the Moon fame). The tl;dr is “this is really quite good and worth following,” which isn’t really a surprise given the pedigree of everyone involved. As for this specific episode…

It is possibly just my own perception, but it feels as though the first episode, as a televisual institution, is an increasingly leisurely affair. This is slightly odd. Ratings-wise, first episodes are still the boffo high points of series. But of course, it is finales where the actual dramatic fireworks go, and the default style of television, especially arc-based prestige television, has become a slow burn towards a fiery and grandiose conclusion.

One can only imagine how much this frustrates the people responsible for publicity on television shows these days. I mean, it’s certainly not that “The Friends of English Magic” is a bad episode of television. It’s quite good and moves at a nice speed through what is, let’s be honest, a tremendous amount of exposition. But it lacks any moment that seals the deal, emphatically communicating what the pleasures of this show are going to be. Instead we have something more like a prologue to a show that seems likely to be interesting at some future point.

Much of this, it must be said, is inherited from Susanna Clarke’s book, which I’ve only read part of, but which is, especially in the opening sections, which take great care to establish the sense of a larger world, digressing regularly into expository footnotes about the history of English magic. This explains why the initial viewpoint character is John Secundus, who, while certainly not a minor character, is pointedly neither Jonathan Strange nor Mr. Norrell. Indeed, Jonathan Strange is barely in the early portions of the book.

Harness speeds things up considerably, making sure that Strange actually has stuff to do in the first episode, but there’s not really anything that he can do to change the fact that the book is a very, very slow burn. The episode builds inexorably to the moment where Mr. Norrell makes an ill-advised Faustian bargain, the consequences of which are clearly going to be driving the plot from here on out. 

So with the plot and writing essentially taking an earned and understandable backseat for the first week the show is left to stand on its other virtues. Thankfully these are considerable. Reviews from the UK have been consistently raving about Eddie Marsan’s Mr. Norrell, and it is indeed a triumphant performance. Norrell crackles both with his own genuine greatness and his crippling inadequacies. Marsan nails the classically Aristotlean character - a great man whose greatness is ill-suited for the circumstances in which he finds himself. Bertie Carvel’s Jonathan Strange has, at this point, not had quite as much opportunity to shine, but plays the charismatic fop that Strange begins as well. 

But it’s the supporting crowd that really crackles, particularly, in the opening episode, Paul Kaye’s Vinculus and Enzo Cilenti’s Childermas. Both are secondary characters, but they electrify the screen when they’re on it, Vinculus in his wheeling yet methodical madness, Childermas in his icy confidence. And, though only in a brief appearance this week, you’ve got Marc Warren doing an absolutely stunning early Malcolm McDowell imitation. 

And, of course, it goes without saying that it is a very pretty show. Toby Haynes’s Doctor Who work showed that he had a knack for blending objective and subjective views of the action. This is, to say the least, a useful skill when directing a show about magic; the sequence in which Childermas and Vinculus face off is particularly satisfying in this regard, with the camera flitting between simply showing events and showing Childermas’s perspective as events suddenly and disturbingly plow out of his control, as is Vinculus accosting Norrell with his prophecy.

And, of course, there’s the basic fact that this is all very, very pretty. I mean, of course it is. Costume drama is second nature to the BBC, and they’re as good as anyone at delivering a special effects set piece when events require one. The big moment of magic in this episode, the cathedral statues coming to life, is a gleeful moment of bedlam in which the world tangibly goes mad. 

So what we have, at least strictly in terms of the first week, is the compelling opening to something that has the genuine potential to turn out to be a classic BBC serial. And if I can’t honestly say that “The Friends of English Magic” is an absolute must-watch piece of television in and of itself, I will say that I suspect that, in four or five weeks’ time, you’ll be very disappointed if you’ve missed it. Definitely one to check out.


Anton B 4 years, 10 months ago

I got about as far into the book as this opening episode gets and my reaction to both was the same. Despite it ticking any number of boxes for me (English Gothic fantasy / Slightly alternate history / experimental writing style / etc. ) I found its charms easily resistable. It's 'slow burn' wick actually fizzled and died for me. Am I wrong? Is it worth pursuing? Is there reward for renewed perseverance?

As to the BBC TV adaptation. I'm filing it next to Gormenghast and Neverwhere as a well meaning failure. I suspect somewhere in the production is someone who, perhaps like me, doesn't 'get' the book, resulting in pantomime performances from some of the cast and a lot of over egged set pieces. I disagree about the statues for instance. This scene in the novel is very affecting; in the TV version it wasn't half as magical, reminding me more of those irritating 'statue' mime artists, covered in grey paint you get in all public tourist spaces these days.

Phil, what am I missing? Why should I give both book and series another chance? I'd really like to.

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xec tilus 4 years, 10 months ago

Eager to see your writeup for episode 3, as that's where I feel it really took off.

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duckbunny 4 years, 10 months ago

The statue scene particularly struck me, because that is the real York Minster they are filming in. I lived in York for a while and was a regular visitor to the Minster for church services. I know that building. The combination of the familiar real, and the magic overlaid on it, did a beautiful job of establishing the setting of Dark Fae England.
And that's where we are, in Strange and Norrell. We are in an alternate universe, technically, but one that hews so closely to the real that it doesn't feel like a different place. We are still in the England we know, and the history we know, but this time all the myths are true. There are portals to Faerie through which you might never return, and they hide down the sunken country lanes you've always known might swallow you whole. A gentleman's word really is his bond. Mirrors are not safe, and neither are books.

I think some of the pacing, of the book as well as the adaptation, is because this is a costume drama. This is a period piece, a comedy of manners, as much as a supernatural adventure. The contrast is part of the delight: here is a Cabinet minister and a gentleman newly come to London, taking tea and discussing a delicate matter of business, while the minister's fiance is dying of consumption and no-one will acknowledge it. Also, the business they are discussing is the reintroduction of magic to warfare. Much of the pleasure is in the combination.

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Mitch Postich 4 years, 10 months ago

Through some combination of a confusing cut and my own face-blindness, I spent the first episode under the impression than Jonathan Segundus was Jonathan Strange. Odd bit of naming, there.

I've been following the show's British transmissions - so, up to episode four right now - and it's picked up considerably and looks to do so even more for the last three episodes.

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Doctor Memory 4 years, 10 months ago

You should really really really REALLY finish the book. "Slow burn" doesn't even begin to actually describe what's going on with its structure: the first quarter of the book is actually the setup for one of the most elaborate and gleeful bait-and-switches that I can think of in all of literary history. This is important and relevant to your review because, well:

But it’s the supporting crowd that really crackles, particularly...

You have, so far, only met the supporting crowd. In fact your review of this episode has not even mentioned the name of the book's actual protagonists. In fact based on your review I'm not even sure they're present in this episode, although more likely they're there in the background and didn't seem worth mentioning by name which is very much the point.

Seriously, finish the book. You will not regret it.

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Doctor Memory 4 years, 10 months ago

See my longish rant below. I don't blame anyone for giving up on the book pretty quickly: the opening quarter of it is almost deliberately off-putting and boring. But it is (IMO of course) completely, totally worth slogging through it: when the actual story begins, it's like a bolt from the blue.

JS&MN is the most elaborate con job I have ever read, in the best possible sense. Even the damn title is part of the joke.

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Prandeamus 4 years, 10 months ago

It's well over a year since I read the book and can't recall what you mean precisely by the "bait and switch". But yes, episode one is a big setup to get most of the protagonists onto the stage. Episode two [MILD SPOILER] did bring home the horror faced by Lady Pole, and I thought that was particularly well done. There's some material on my PVR waiting to be watched and I am certainly looking forward to it.

Is it me, or my TV, or is the visual palette very dark? I'm finding the night scenes hard to watch.

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duckbunny 4 years, 10 months ago

I think I disagree with you entirely on the matter of who and what the story is about; this will be interesting.

I do think it's unfair to demand that people read books they have tried and not enjoyed. I loved it from page one. Enjoyment of the book is not dependent on seeing the structure as a bait-and-switch or a con, and seeing it that way will not necessarily produce enjoyment. And it's a very long book to slog through in the hopes that it starts meeting your taste.

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Daru 4 years, 10 months ago

I found this from the first episode an exquisite show to watch. The immersing of us in an alternate world where magic is not hidden in some Harry Potter secret school, but is in the fabric of the culture, creating as duckbunny says above, a "Dark Fae England" - was so much fun and pleasure for me.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 4 years, 10 months ago

Zero chance of that happening before the end of the TV adaptation, but I may well do that.

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Scurra 4 years, 10 months ago

This adaptation (four episodes in, here in the UK) has been (for me) pretty close to being a masterpiece because Peter Harness has figured out what escapes most people who try adaptations of intricate and complex works, which is that they must be entirely redrawn for the medium in which they are being presented.
And that requires the adapter to actually understand the work, rather than simply present it visually instead of in words. Thus the elements of the original novel that make it particularly literary are ruthlessly ejected and instead are replaced with a twisted pastiche of BBC Costume Drama as epitomised by Andrew Davies. (Now if only Zak Snyder had understood this when he attempted Watchmen. But that's a different argument...)
It is, of course, also worth noting that the BBC then decided to slide this out in June rather than in, say, October when it would, perhaps, have felt even more sinister. Which is, of course, the sign of a show that they have absolutely no idea about - it's clearly good because otherwise it would have been put out late night midweek, and it might even clean up in awards season if they are lucky. But the audience? They clearly have no idea if the audience will "buy" it. [Perhaps the most significant recent example of this was the first season of Sherlock.]

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Ben 4 years, 10 months ago

I wasn't sure I was going to like the book. Steampunk fantasia is a great sounding idea that's proven highly susceptible to Sturgeon's law. As it happened Clarke's vision and humor totally sucked me in. It's an unpredictable thing, though. There's no reason theoretically I shouldn't be a fan of Neal Stephenson, but I've never been able to get through his books.

I haven't seen the TV series yet. The stills certainly have me eager.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years, 10 months ago

If it helps at all, I read it about ten years ago, after seeing Neil Gaiman at a talk where he called it the best fantasy novel since Lud-In-The-Mist. After reading it, I'm not at all sure he's wrong, although it's a *big* book, and slow going at first.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years, 10 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Jesse 4 years, 10 months ago

I read the book this very year and liked it very much, opening sections included. The beginning may not be action-packed, but it has an arch humor that drew me in immediately.

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Doctor Memory 4 years, 10 months ago

Duckbunny: well, if Phil had said he'd hated it I might have soft-pedeled my enthusiasm a bit, but it sounded more like he'd simply not made it very far in, which is... honestly pretty understandable. It's a totally valid objection that the book opens drearily slow, and if I'd been Clarke's editor (and if I had a pony) I'd've strongly recommended tightening it up a bit. Even if you disagree with my take on the book, I think there's not much debating that the pace of it picks up very quickly somewhere around the one-third mark.

I'm also pretty confident that Phil will either see the book the same way I do or have a fascinating reason for not doing so, so either way I'd love to see him finish it just to see his reaction :)

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elvwood 4 years, 10 months ago

"Peter Harness has figured out what escapes most people who try adaptations of intricate and complex works, which is that they must be entirely redrawn for the medium in which they are being presented. "

Exactly. Even though four episodes into the series (here in the UK) we are a little concerned about how much of the story remains to be told, the adaptation so far gives me confidence that it will be satisfying.

Regarding the slowness at the start (of the show), I didn't notice. TV in general goes too fast for me these days, so my brain just accepted it as a sign of quality storytelling (really, it's just storytelling that matches my preferences).

So far, a great adaptation of a good book, IMO.

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David Anderson 4 years, 10 months ago

The chief pleasure of the opening pages of the book is the skilful pastiche of early nineteenth century prose being applied to an early twenty-first century subject matter and sensibility.
The television adaptation has to go with BBC costume drama applied to twenty-first century subject matter, which is less of a stretch.

The cast is good. I'm finding even Mark Warren tolerable, although my imagining of the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair smiles more often.

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David Anderson 4 years, 10 months ago

If you're talking about the character I think you're talking about, they do appear in the first episode briefly. Though I'm quite certain we don't hear their name.

I think Strange is the chief protagonist (not the only protagonist) of the book; though in something of the way that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the chief protagonists of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

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John 4 years, 9 months ago

I like that point about genre, although it's worth noting that it's an easy move for Harness to make because the template is already there. Long nineteenth century novels with talky omniscient narrators get turned into Andrew Davies style BBC Costume Dramas, so of course that's what you'd do to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

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Scurra 4 years, 9 months ago

Posting this here after the last episode has just finished airing in the UK - and it was magnificent. One of the best book-to-screen adaptations I have ever seen; Harness kept a clear throughline all the way and yet managed to include enough stuff for the attentive viewer to realise that there were levels to the story that weren't being explicitly over-explained. And even his changes felt intelligent and appropriate (especially the fate of one character in particular...) Mind you, of course, if the cast hadn't been top-notch it would have failed completely.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the reason I loved it so much was that it was like a Moffat/Smith season of Who: it all just "works" but it works so much better when you are prepared to invest the time and effort to see beyond the surface. Sadly, it appears that not enough of the audience were willing to take that effort - but who cares about ratings really? This is what the BBC should be doing, and it does it better than almost anyone else.

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