Until Episode 1’s credits told me so, I hadn’t realised that BBC One’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was based on a book.
I can’t really comment, therefore, on whether the book is essential to a full understanding of the bewildering and beguiling events unfolding on screen. For the same reason, I’m not yet sure whether the title refers to two members of the same team, or two opposing forces… And the second episode suggests that either may yet be the case.
In a neat echo of last week’s opener, it is again the minor character of Mr Segundus (delightfully and innocently played by Edward Hogg) who introduces us to a practicing magician. Last week he tracked Mr Norrell to his library; this week he stumbles across Jonathan Strange exercising his new-found aptitude for magic in an old ruined house. Recognising a natural talent he and his fellow enthusiast Mr Honeyfoot urge Strange to seek an apprenticeship with Norrell.
Since last week, Mr Norrell has gone up in the world. His success in bringing Lady Pole back to life has in turn allowed him the opportunity to fulfil his lofty goal of using magic to help win the war. No longer considered as something between an eccentric and an embarrassment he now mixes with the most powerful of society, walking into the seat of government to applause and acclaim.
It’s a shame, then, that his resurrection of Lady Pole was not all his own work; he was aided by the charming and other-worldly figure of Marc Warren’s mysterious character. If it wasn’t already obvious from the fact that ‘the Gentleman’ has styled himself on David Bowie’s turn in Labyrinth, his mischief this week makes it clear that he belongs to the realm of the fairy folk – an area of magic of which Mr Norrell does not approve (“it’s usefulness is much exaggerated and the dangers are much underestimated”)…
…but one which Jonathan finds not just intriguing but fundamental (“it seems… the key to everything”). The acquaintance between the two men starts off very well indeed – there’s a lovely moment where Mr Norrell is tickled by Jonathan’s trick of bringing the reflection out of the mirror; and his enthusiasm is clear as he reveals his ten year study program to his new apprentice. But it soon falters and cools as Norrell sees somebody as good as himself (perhaps better).
Whereas Mr Norrell’s magic is book-learnt and self-taught, Jonathan’s is all instinct. He performs the trick with the mirror (although in a lovely touch he sheepishly admits that he doesn’t know how to undo it) but can offer no explanation other than “it’s like music playing at the back of one’s head… hearing it for the very first time and yet one somehow simply knows what the following note will be.”
Later in the episode, having been insulted and dismissed by the navy he unleashes his rage to create giant galloping horses from the Portsmouth sands in an extraordinary bit of effects work.
Ultimately, and tellingly, it is the possibility that Jonathan might beat him to some magical books at an upcoming auction that prompts Norrell to agree to the government’s request for one or other magician to be posted out on the army front line. Jonathan is despatched forthwith, and to his credit accepts the posting with considerable dignity and enthusiasm at the chance to help.
As for the auction… Mr Norrell finds himself bidding against Mrs Strange, her dislike of him fuelled by Lady Pole’s pleas that “I would be better dead than as I am”. In a chillingly underplayed moment, sniffing at having lost the auction, Mrs Strange is offered a handkerchief by the man sat next to her. It is the Gentleman himself, apparently no longer confined just to his fairy realm.
Poor Mr Norrell – his position and status based on the falsehood that he resurrected Lady Pole himself. As she is driven madder and madder it is clear that he has made a deal with the devil. He has compromised himself, indulging in the fairy magic of which he so firmly disapproves – and he has sold Lady Pole’s soul to seal the bargain. Both literally and figuratively, this is surely going to come back to haunt him.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 24 May 2015 on BBC One.
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