Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, episode 4, review: Eddie Marsan captures Norrell's self-loathing brilliantly

Flashes of silly British humour bring Terry Pratchett's Discworld to mind

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‘There can only be one magician in England. We must now consider him our enemy.’ Poor Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan), a few months ago he was contentedly padding about his library, hoarding every magic book in England, relaxed about his status as the country’s only true practical magician.

Now, thanks to some nifty talking statues in York Minster and a protégé who is rapidly outstripping him, Norrell finds himself drawing the battle lines for the biggest magical ruck since Paul Daniels threw a spoon at Uri Geller (might have happened, you never know).

Relationship between master and pupil has now been damaged irreparably as Strange (Bertie Carvel) has continued to dabble in ‘old magic’ and explore the realms of the Raven King. 'It is the magic of madness. Cruel, medieval magic’ complained Norrell. ‘Such magic belongs to an England that is dead.’ However, now that Strange has – quite literally – gone through the looking glass, there will be no turning back. The old magic has returned to England.

One of the show’s most compelling aspects is Norrell’s self-loathing, captured brilliantly by the never-less-than-excellent Eddie Marsan. The man who prides himself on restoring ‘respectable’ magic to England (and now has the book to prove it) is the very one dabbling in the magic of madness. There’s something of Measure For Measure’s Angelo in Norrell, the zealot who can’t help but be the biggest sinner of all (please don’t contact Pseud’s Corner).

However, it’s not just Norrell who’s keen to topple Strange, as Marc Warren’s mad-haired fairy has taken rather a shine to Mrs Strange (Charlotte Riley) and is just as intent as Norrell in having him destroyed.

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Charlotte Riley as Jonathan Strange's wife Arabella

I’m not exactly sure how he’s going to do this but it has something to do with a woman inside a log, who Stephen Black dragged out of a swamp. No? Me neither. Though I am really enjoying watching Stephen’s journey from servile footman to would-be king, Ariyon Bakare doing an excellent job of portraying a man torn between glory and duty.

There’s so much to enjoy in this adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel, not least the streak of light-heartedness that runs right through it. From Mr Honeyfoot brandishing a blunderbuss filled with walnuts to Vincent Franklin’s simpering fop Mr Drawlight, via the lady asking for her mother-in-law to magically die by choking on her own apricot preserve, the show manages to balance its straight-faced discussions of ‘old magic vs modern magic’ with flashes of slightly silly British humour, bringing to mind the best of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

My hope is that, as the two magicians go head to head, the show never stops putting walnuts in its blunderbuss.

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