‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’: The Friends of English Magic

@ BBC America

I was first introduced to the world of English Magic, as it pertains to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, back in 2007.

The book, penned in 2004 by Susanna Clarke, sat on my shelf for three years, and when I finally opened its pages, I couldn’t put it down. A few years later, my husband took to the audio book with equal attention. Ever since then, we have both waited patiently for someone, the right someone, to convert it to the big or little screen. Finally, this weekend was the debut of the miniseries in the UK, to be followed shortly on BBC America.

I can only say, it was worth the wait.

The first episode, “The Friends of English Magic,” sets the scene in location, history, and character for the series that is to follow. If you have not read the books before, there is only really one thing I would have you know before diving into the series: the story is set in an alternative reality, with an alternative history.

Much of the history is parallel with reality, but a great deal is not. There is just enough reality to make you feel as though this could have really happened, not so much as to feel like fantasy proper. As such, Magic is a real part of English history, though it has long ceased to be of a practical variety. The premise of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell rests on the re-appearance of magic in polite society, and what happens when you start to meddle in things not entirely understood.

I don’t wish to give spoilers of any magnitude. Suffice it to say that the two titular characters are like night and day. One a magician whose practical application comes through years of study, perseverance, and a great presence of mind; the other a magician whose magic simply drips off his fingertips, a natural affinity with no previous understanding.

Photograph: Matt Squire/BBC/JSMN Ltd/Matt Squire

The series begins remarkably well, though a tad confusing to begin with if you have not read the book. Just bear in mind the alternate reality and you should be fine. The actors portraying Strange and Norrell are perfectly suited, but the scene-stealer of the episode, and one has to presume the series, is “The Gentleman.”

Look closely, you may recognize the face of the man with the Thistle Down Hair, as he is referred to in the book. Showing the high caliber of his craft, Marc Warren gives a stunning performance as our first introduction to an alternate reality within this alternate reality.

You may be forgiven for not connecting him to his role as Albert Blithe in Band of Brothers or as Elton Pope in Doctor Who. Indeed his features are barely recognizable as the character actor I have come to know. But his performance as The Gentleman—oh this performance. I would wager that the series will be worth it for this character alone, and given the showing of the first episode, he will not be standing alone.

The scene is set perfectly, the cinematography exemplary, the casting to a tee.

After the first 60 minutes, I am exceedingly grateful that they decided to pursue a miniseries and not a stand-alone. Even more so, knowing that they extended a six-episode run to seven, so as not to compromise the integrity of the script. The only thing missing is that you can’t really include all the historical footnotes, which were employed in the book for depth, in a television show.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will be on BBC America at 10:00 p.m. on June 13.

You can catch the trailer here, but I do not believe the trailer does the show justice. The first episode far exceeded my expectations. In the words of Vinculus, ‘Two magicians shall appear in England; the name of one shall be fearfulness, the name of the other, arrogance…”

Make sure they appear on your television screen on June 13.