Magic returns to York with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Magic hasn’t been performed in England for over 300 years, but two magicians are about to change all that. BBC’s adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell places the return of magic against the backdrop of the Napoleonic War and Regency society, with BBC’s trademark use of period dress, and an amazing cast to boot.

The York Society of Magicians is a bunch of pompous bourgeoisie, stuffing their faces and revelling in bygone days of magic, but never even entertaining the possibility of the return of practical magic. Mr Segundus however, on a prophetic mission, tracks down Mr Norrell, the self-proclaimed only practical magician in England, and thus changes the face of British society and politics.

You’d think making all the statues of York Minster move and speak was enough to get you noticed as a great magician, but no. Awkward, bumbling Norrell is forced to not only overcome his reclusive and arrogant ways to become a socialite, but to engage with all the social politics that come with the territory, in order to restore honour to the practice of magic. Like any Yorkshire-man, Norrell is baffled by the rumour mill which reduces his great feats to simple household tricks, and horrified by the cutthroat ways of London society. Oh, it’s good to see that the North-South divide is ripe and well.

As the title suggests, there is more than one magician afoot in England. Episode two begins to explore the complicated relationship between Mr Norrell and the rather more cheerful and curious Jonathan Strange, who becomes his apprentice after discovering his own natural knack for magic.

The period drama context is familiar, and will appeal even to those least likely to associate themselves with fantasy and magic. Eddie Marsan is utterly fantastic as the ill at ease Mr Norrell, giving him both an air of humanity, and of obstinate pride. Enzo Cilenti’s portrayal of Norrell’s supportive servant, Childermass, is so Yorkshire it hurts; surly, wry, weirdly alluring, and utterly enchanting (forgive the pun). Alongside them, is Vincent Franklin, whose aristocratic Drawlight is brilliantly exaggerated and pantomime-esque. Perhaps most unexpected, is the appearance of Marc Warren, as the sinister spirit with a Ziggy Stardust quality about him.

This is fantasy for adults, and it’s not cheesy – if you didn’t believe, then this alone should be enough to convince you!

Anastasia Kennedy

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