jonathan strange & mr norrell
“ ne is never alone
On set for the BBC’s adaptation of the hit book.
when one has a book,” actor Eddie Marsan declares. It’s a sentiment which anyone who’s read Susanna Clarke’s engrossing 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – now coming to BBC One as a seven- part serial – might very well agree with. Indeed, if a book can adequately stand in for human company, then Clarke’s brick- thick fantasy – set in an alternate 19th century Britain where, after falling out of use for centuries, magic is making a return – can substitute for an entire social circle.
On this chilly December day in South Yorkshire, it’s a statement the bewigged Marsan is expressing in character as the titular Mr Norrell, one of the mismatched magicians whose difficult relationship is at the heart of the story. In the scene being filmed today, the fussy, methodical Norrell – who has yet to meet his future apprentice, the more instinctive, romantic Jonathan Strange ( Bertie Carvel) – has been embraced by London high society, invited to dine at the home of cabinet minister Sir Walter Pole. Footmen are lined up behind the dozen dinner guests, gathered round a table laden with bowls of nuts and – the luxury! – pineapples. Paintings of naval vessels hanging on the walls serve as a reminder that, hundreds of miles away, war with Napoleon is raging.
Seated at the end of the table, Alice Englert’s Lady Pole is, slightly surreally, in casual 21st century clobber, presumably not required to actually appear in shot. Blocking the scene with the actors, director Toby Haynes – the man who locked the Eleventh Doctor in the Pandorica – ponders how best to convey a servant’s sudden panic at glimpsing something unnerving reflected in a shiny silver serving dish ( Marc Warren’s sinister “gentleman with thistle- down hair”, the king of faerie land, is not present today…) Perhaps he should drop the soup slap- bang in Norrell’s lap? Eddie Marsan doesn’t flinch…
The shooting schedule matches the scale of Clarke’s thousand- page novel, with its dense barnacle- growths of scholarly footnotes. Filming will later move on to Montreal ( standing in for the Iberian Peninsula, front line in the war with France) and Trogir in Croatia ( doubling for Venice, as it did in Doctor Who’s “The Vampires Of Venice”), but today we’re at Wentworth House, near Rotherham, an 18th century country house of titanic proportions: over 300 rooms; 250,000 square feet of floorspace; three times the size of Buckingham Palace. Some of the existing rooms are being modified and dressed, with, for example, the wood- panelled chapel serving as the original debating chamber of the House of Commons, and the ballroom transformed