Video: Spellbound by Yorkshire TV magic

Filming at York Minster. Picture: Matt Squire / BBC.
Filming at York Minster. Picture: Matt Squire / BBC.
  • The BBC has returned to epic fantasy television with its lavish new drama Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Film critic Tony Earnshaw visited one of the locations bringing the story to life.
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December, 2013. It is 10 days before Christmas and a low mist hangs over the labyrinthine splendour of Wentworth Woodhouse.

A gentle drizzle dampens skeletal, leafless trees. A lonely figure standing among banks of parked pantechnicons fights for warmth against a chill wind.

Inside the rambling mansion the temperature lifts, but only barely. From somewhere seemingly far away can be heard the muffled cacophony of many voices. This, then, is my introduction to the fantastical world of Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell, the rivals at the heart of Susanna Clarke’s epic tale of 18th century magic. And a significant amount of the story is located within Wentworth, which provides the backdrop for half a dozen key interiors. For all intents and purposes it is a studio complex, albeit one dating back 200 years.

A publishing phenomenon when it hit bookshelves in 2004, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was 12 years in the writing. Legend has it that publishers Bloomsbury were so entranced by Clarke’s concept – think olde worlde magick with a touch of Jane Austen – that they committed to printing a quarter of a million hardback copies. And they sold to a ravenous readership. Not bad for a debut novel running to nearly 1,000 pages.

As well as Austen, Clarke’s literary voice has invited comparisons with Charles Dickens and postmodernists such as Thomas Pynchon. Part fantasy, part historical fiction, part romance, part alternative history, it was snapped up by New Line Cinema, makers of The Lord of the Rings, for a movie version to be scripted by Christopher Hampton and, later, Julian Fellowes.

The film was never made. Instead the BBC backed a six-part television series. Hampton and Fellowes gave way to Yorkshire-born Peter Harness, a writer steeped in supernatural drama whose feature debut Is Anybody There? dealt with growing up amidst magic and death.

Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange and Eddie Marsan as Mr Norrell.

Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange and Eddie Marsan as Mr Norrell.

And it was 39-year-old Harness, a native of Hornsea, who had the task of informing his masters that a six-parter wouldn’t work, and that the series needed seven episodes. What’s more, he got his wish.

“Magic used to exist, once upon a time, hundreds of years ago. It died out slowly and painfully and nobody is quite sure why,” says Harness. “We pick it up round the time of the Napoleonic Wars when magic has become a disrespectful and dead art. It’s about how it comes back.”

It makes a return firstly via Gilbert Norrell, a bookish, reclusive gentleman who lives in a Yorkshire abbey and who has gathered around himself a huge library of magical books. Norrell believes that he is the man to bring back magic to England. And he succeeds. But another magician appears, the antithesis to Norrell. His name is Jonathan Strange.

Adds Harness: “Norrell is very methodical and concerned with respectability and making magic modern and respectable. Jonathan Strange is instinctive, interested in the magic of the past and interested in exploring all the worlds he can. They form a tutor/apprentice relationship that starts off well and quickly goes wrong.

Samuel West as Sir Walter Pole

Samuel West as Sir Walter Pole

“Strange goes off to fight Napoleon and win the war and things snowball from there. The way that Mr Norrell restored English magic was to bring a young lady – the wife of an MP – back to life.

“He did that by doing something very bad, which was by summoning a fairy from the other lands.

“It has terrible ramifications for Mr Norrell, for Jonathan Strange, for Strange’s wife, for England in general and for all of our main characters.”

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell marks a return to classic fantasy by the BBC. Back in the 1970s the Corporation was renowned for its tradition of fantasy, written by adults with adults in mind. The makers of this new drama hope to tempt back older viewers while simultaneously attracting a younger audience, too.

Marc Warren gets into character.

Marc Warren gets into character.

Part of the draw is the cast. Eddie Marsan, he of the rumpled features and impish smile, is Norrell. Rising star Bertie Carvel, recently seen as Nick Clegg in Coalition, is Strange. Marc Warren is the gentleman with the thistle-down hair from the fairyland realm and Charlotte Riley is Arabella, Strange’s wife.

“The story is basically about letting the genie out of the bottle, trying to get it back in and the ramifications of that,” observes Marsan during a break in shooting. “Susanna made a great thing: magic is that place of creativity where you have to go into the subconscious and not be aware of what you’re doing, and let go. That’s what I’ve been most fascinated with: what magic signifies. It’s a very frightening place to go to.”

Marsan compares Norrell and Strange to Salieri and Mozart. One is cerebral, the other visceral. “It’s about one man has to strain like crazy to find a drop of knowledge, and one man who can just do it.”

The production, part funded by Screen Yorkshire, filmed all across Yorkshire in locations that included Oakwell Hall, Kirkstall Abbey, Newburgh Priory, Temple Newsam, and York Minster. The sheer size of Wentworth Woodhouse meant it doubled for Norrell’s house in Hanover Square, MP Sir Walter Pole’s home in Harley Street, Strange’s house in Soho Square and a room occupied by the mad King George III. It also went to Montreal for spectacular scenes set around Wellington and the Peninsular Campaign and to Croatia, the latter doubling for a sequence in Venice.

The spread of locations hints at the scope of the piece. Moulding and adapting it fell to Harness, whose affinity with the subject matter can be traced back to a childhood built on Doctor Who and the BBC’s Christmas ghost stories of MR James. Condensing Clarke’s book took two years.

Huddled on a bus doubling as a restaurant Harness, whose CV includes writing Wallander and stories for Case Histories, featuring detective Jackson Brodie (created by another Yorkshire writer, novelist Kate Atkinson) recalls accepting the job.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

“When this came along I couldn’t not do it. It was everything I would like to use my imagination to do. If I could possibly have written that book, I would have done. Doing this has reminded me what I like to write. I didn’t for a moment think the BBC would give us another episode but it became clear that it wouldn’t fit in to six without chopping some big bits and nobody’s ever wanted to do that. I can’t think that we’ve made any compromises on anything.”

In a room dressed for a banquet featuring signs that blare the words “Please do not put cups or fluids onto furniture. This is a dressed set. Expensive props,” director Toby Haynes rehearses a scene involving Marsan, as Norrell, and Riley as Emma, Lady Pole.

They sit with an array of elderly extras around a long refectory table and discuss Norrell’s gift for magic. Standing silently at the edge of the scene is Marc Warren as the mysterious but ubiquitous otherworldly fairy, made up with thistle-down hair (in a hairnet) and fake eyebrows.

Warren says nothing to fellow cast members or visiting writers. He observes the action, taking in Haynes’ directions and remaining aloof to distractions. He occupies a space but appears to be somewhere else in mind and physicality. Around him the preparations continue. He’s the embodiment of the mood and atmosphere of this unique TV drama.

Says Bertie Carvel: “This is not a story that’s trying to convince you that magic exists. It’s a story that takes for granted that magic exists, and then focuses on the people who live in that world.

“That’s why it’s credible as a drama because you’re watching credible, complete, sharply-drawn, fully imagined characters who are recognisably people in the same world we inhabit; only we take it for granted that some of them have magic powers.

“Given the popularity of fantasy fiction about magic we can take it for granted that magic exists. It’s not stretching the imagination too far. We’ve all seen Harry Potter and The Lord Of The Rings. We’ve all seen Doctor Who. It’s not very extreme to believe those things could be real.”

• Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, BBC One, Sunday, 9pm.