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Thursday 8 December 2016

TV Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell casts a magical spell

Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan)
Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan)

DAMN you, BBC! Why couldn’t you wait? I’ve been meaning for years to read Susanna Clarke’s mammoth bestseller Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but invariably walk out of the shop clutching one or two other books that caught my attention in the meantime.

I’m compelled to buy it now, if only to find out how this hotly anticipated seven-part adaptation stacks up against it. Taken on its own merits, the first episode had me hooked the moment practising (as opposed to theoretical) magician Gilbert Norrell (the marvellous Eddie Marsan) made the statues in York Cathedral move and speak. It’s a wonderfully spooky scene.

This is a tricky one to fit into a convenient genre box. It’s a period drama, set in England around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, but also a dark fantasy and an alternative history. There’s a touch of Jane Austen’s comedy of manners in there as well, along with colourfully bumptious Dickensian types and generous dollops of Gothic horror and romance.

In this alternative England, magic exists, although for some reason it’s not been practised for three centuries. When the usually hermit-like Norrell is prodded into performing the feat with the statues and becomes the talk of society circles, his servant John Childermess (Enzo Cilenti) persuades him to travel to London and offer his services to the government to aid the war effort.

He’s rebuffed, at least until he brings a cabinet minister’s just-deceased fiancée back to life. Unfortunately, he inadvertently summons up a sinister fairy known as The Gentleman (Marc Warren, wearing scary eyebrows seemingly borrowed from a demonic Denis Healey) who forces him to strike an unholy bargain: the resurrected woman will spend half her life with him.

 

Elsewhere, the skittish, boyishly enthusiastic Jonathan Strange (Bertie Cavel, last seen as Nick Clegg in Coalition) has just been freed by the death of his miserly, tyrannical father to do as wishes with his life.

A street illusionist called Vinculus (Paul Kaye), who appears to possess genuine powers of his own, separately informs Norrell and Strange – who buys a couple of tricks from him and immediately discovers he has a gift for magic – about a dark prophecy involving two magicians and an unnamed slave.

The BBC and its Canadian production partner have pumped a lot of money into Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and every penny of it is there to see in the fantastic special effects and glorious production design. It’s an enchanting and intoxicating yarn that deserves to put an audience under its spell.

Richard Pryor: Icon was a customarily polished documentary from PBS. Polished, if truth be told, to the point of blandness. It was a just about serviceable brief history of his life  – the childhood in a brothel; the radical change of direction from Bill Cosby wannabe to the most controversial comedian since Lenny Bruce; the drug-crazed attempt at self-immolation.

Comedians including Tracy Morgan, George Lopez, Louie Anderson and George Wallace reiterated Pryor’s brilliance and enduring influence. Largely missing from the picture, though, was the brilliance itself.

There were too many clips from the early 60s, when he was still doing safe routines aimed at white mainstream audiences, yet only snippets of what you might call the real Pryor in action.

The documentary is available on YouTube, but so are several of Pryor’s full concert performances. Watch those instead.

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