Monday 24 October 2016

Comment: Why Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell failed to cast a spell on viewers

Innovative drama usually adds up to a small audience

Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange and Charlotte Riley as wife Arabella in the BBC1 series
Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange and Charlotte Riley as wife Arabella in the BBC1 series

WHAT was so horribly wrong with BBC1’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which finishes this coming Sunday? Nothing, actually. As page-to-screen transfers go, this wasn’t a disaster of Bonfire of the Vanities levels of bad judgment.

It was quite the opposite, in fact. Fans of Susanna Clarke’s brick-sized bestseller hailed it as a faithful, if sometimes necessarily compressed, adaptation and praised the casting of Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsen as the rival magicians in Regency England.

The special effects were clever and imaginative, while the critics’ reviews were mostly glowing. Just one tiny glitch. Nobody is watching.

Well, not quite nobody; 1.6 million British viewers tuned in for last Sunday’s penultimate episode. But considering this was less than a third of the audience for the first episode six weeks ago, there might as well be nobody watching.

Even Wolf Hall, which can be considered a niche drama on a niche channel, BBC2, managed a million more earlier in the year.

The number of people watching on the night doesn’t tell the whole story, mind you. If you factor in viewers who either recorded Strange & Norrell or caught up with it on the BBC’s iPlayer at a time that suited them, the consolidated viewing figure is likely to be a lot higher (in Wolf Hall’s case, it ended up at 4.4 million).

But the fact that the BBC’s most ambitious drama series in years was successively trounced in the same Sunday night slot by two unremarkable ITV offerings – first the torpid Home Fires and then last Sunday’s middling thriller Black Work – will still be a terribly bitter pill for the broadcaster to swallow.


Maybe it’s the ambition that’s the problem. When viewers are offered a choice between something a bit different (and Strange & Norrell, which requires a considerable suspension of disbelief, is defiantly unlike anything else around at the moment) or something that adheres to a familiar formula, most of them will take familiar any night of the week – and especially Sunday night.

Strange & Norrell suffered another body blow by the success, again in the 9pm Sunday slot, of Channel 4’s Humans, which picked up an enormous (by the channel’s norm) audience of six million. We shouldn’t be surprised.

Despite its science fiction trappings, Humans, a disappointingly meek remake of a far better Swedish series, is more domestic drama than anything else: SF for people who don’t much care for SF.

We shouldn’t be surprised, either, by the news that NBC has just cancelled serial killer thriller Hannibal, which has been pushing up against US network TV boundaries like no other series before, due to a ratings slump. There’s a good chance, though, it could be revived by a streaming outfit like Amazon, which snapped up Ripper Street, or Netflix.

Frankly, the people behind these series should take heart from the fact that they’re in good company. Some of the most critically acclaimed dramas of recent years have had low viewing figures.

Up until its record-smashing final season finale on AMC, Breaking Bad averaged an audience of just 1.9 million. Another AMC show, Mad Men, rarely broke the two million barrier during its run.

The audience for HBO’s The Wire, one of the first of the New Wave of American television dramas, was also comparatively modest, peaking at around four million. Sometimes small really is beautiful.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell concludes BBC1, Sunday, 9pm

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