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Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was published in 2004 and will finally make it to TV screens next month.
The rights to the novel, which has often been called a Harry Potter for adults set during the Napoleonic Wars in an England where magic once existed and is about to return, originally went to New Line Cinema, whose plans to make a film version never materialized. The BBC in late 2012 announced that it would air a TV version as an event miniseries.
It is expected to start airing in May, with BBC America set to show the series in the U.S. At London’s BFI Southbank, actors and members of the creative team behind the show this week discussed how the project ended up being made for TV and shared some behind-the-scenes insight.
“We had to wait,” said producer Nick Hirschkorn. “New Line Cinema had the rights originally and [was] going to make it, I think, with Peter Jackson directing it.” He added: “Fortuitously that never happened.”
He said he felt a six-hour miniseries felt right for the novel, adding that in the end the team decided on seven hourlong episodes when writer Peter Harness (Wallander) asked for an additional hour.
Asked how outgoing BBC drama head Ben Stephenson reacted to the show pitch, Hirschkorn said: “He immediately got it.” He called the castings of Bertie Carvel (Broadway’s Matilda) and Eddie Marsan (Ray Donovan, The World’s End) as the two titular magicians big gets.
Harness said given the book’s nearly 800 pages, the adaptation was “a daunting task.” How did he approach his work? “I think I just divided the book into chunks,” he said. The first two episodes cover around 400 pages, while the final one only covers around 50, he said.
Marc Warren (The Musketeers, The Good Wife), who plays the Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair, said that someone had told him years ago that he would be a great fit for the role when he didn’t know the book yet. “I said, ‘Oh, what’s that?’” he recalled.
When he heard about the show, he said he was up for an audition. “They weren’t actually advertising for the Gentleman, so I think they were going to give it to some big, hot-shot American star,” he quipped.
How did he get the role after all? “I just really prepared,” he said. He came in with “an actual spell that I learned how to do,” Warren added. “I presented to [director] Toby [Haynes] and I said I am the Gentleman … I kind of went in with that kind of flavor and I got the gig.”
Carvel (Jonathan Strange) said he was given the book by a friend, but had it sitting on a shelf for a couple of years. When he finally read it, “I absolutely ate it up and used to cast myself in the film, thinking I’d never have a chance at the role because [of] some hotshot American [actor],” he said.
What intrigued him about his character? “You feel some kinship with a protagonist,” he explained, adding Strange comes of age, “but he does so many times.”
Haynes (Sherlock, Doctor Who) was asked about special effects in the show. “We did have a CGI budget … but what we tried to do was use it as little as possible, so that when we did do it that the effects were a different quality than we are used to seeing on TV,” he said. “It needed to come from nature. What I didn’t want it to be was sort of … Harry Potter magic.”
Harness said the creative team’s take on the magic in the novel was different from magic in other books, films or series. “We felt like magic was a little like the creation of the atom bomb,” something of “an invisible power,” he explained.
Asked how closely Clarke was involved, he said she wasn’t originally, but then ended up being a regular presence. “She has been a very happy and kind of proud and supportive presence on the set,” Harness said. Echoed Hirschkorn: “She visited the set and absolutely loved it and came back more often.” He added: “She is lovely and we are very, very grateful to her.”
BBC One controller Charlotte Moore opened the event by lauding the show, which shot in England, Canada and Croatia. “I’m delighted to present what I think is one of the most ambitious BBC One dramas ever,” she said.
Moore also lauded the outgoing Stephenson, who will start working for J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot and oversee its TV arm. “Clearly, drama in this country is enjoying a golden era,” she said. “The range, the breadth, the ambition of the output currently hitting our screens is extraordinary.” Stephenson’s work “has led to genre-busting drama, like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, coming to BBC One,” she added. “For that, I think, we have a lot to thank Ben for … He has inspired us all.”
Touting the flagship BBC network’s strong ratings early this year, Moore also said: “We just had the best start to the year for the channel in a decade.”
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