Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – DVD Review

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
The Series
Sitting on my bookshelf is a book I bought for my mum, borrowed from her, started and never finished. That book is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; the adaptation of which just finished a seven week run on the BBC. Having enjoyed what little I managed to read all those years ago I decided to give the TV series a try. I loved it from the start.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is set in an alternative version of 19th-century England in which magic is real but has not been practiced for hundreds of years. Instead magical societies are made up of theoretical magicians who are no more likely to produce a spell than an astronomer is to produce a star. Enter Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) a quiet and studious man who has slowly amassed a great library of books on magic. Norrell wagers with his local magical society that if he can perform a feat of magic they must disband and never be allowed to call themselves magicians again. Sure enough magic is restored to England with Norrell the sole practitioner.

Meanwhile Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a wealthy man with no vocation, is approached by a mad man and told that he is a magician. Strange takes his cue and pursues magic and before too long the two magicians are in London trying to work together. Norrell favours a modern scholarly approach to magic whilst Strange possesses a more natural talent and seeks to access the older magic of the Raven King; a mythical figure who seemingly brought magic to the country before turning against it. Throw in the Napoleonic war, making deals with mystical creatures to raise people from the dead, and the polite sparring of two English gentleman and you have yourself a series.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is great. Need I say more? The series is funny, dark, and fantastical. Considering it has to combine both period elements and supernatural special effects the show does a wonderful job of realising both. With BBC productions I come to expect a certain level of ropiness when it comes to special effects but Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell somehow executes everything flawlessly. There is a real cinematic quality to the visuals that takes the show above and beyond expectations. It is all the easier to succumb to a show when you aren’t constantly pointing out where the green screen was used.

Great visuals are all well and good but without a strong cast they are worthless. Luckily the acting is just as good. Carvel gives a wonderful performance as he takes Strange from a layabout to a passionate magician and finally presents him as a man possessed. Marsan as Norrell gives a subtle and relatable performance as a man slowly corrupted by his desire to do good. I want to single out other members of the cast but once I started it got a bit out of control. Suffice it to say that there is no weak link amongst them.

In adapting Susanna Clarke’s original novel Peter Harness has successfully wrangled a hefty book into a stripped down narrative. The resulting series is both terrifying and funny, moving and fantastical. I wish the BBC made more of this quality, and less like The Casual Vacancy. I also wish that more people had seen Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell when it aired as it is a real treat.

If only they could get it on DVD instead…

I think I might finish that book now.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 2
The Extras
The series is accompanied by a decent set of extras. There is sadly no nerdily in-depth behind the scenes documentary but there is a good package of mostly talking heads from the cast and crew. Surprisingly enough there is a bloopers reel which was OK and a few deleted scenes which were much more interesting. For anyone marvelling at the visuals like me the most intriguing extra will be the breakdowns of special effects from the first two episodes. The extras might not be worth investing in the DVD for but the quality and entertainment value of the series more than makes up for it.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is out now on DVD, Blu-ray, and… book. It is well worth your time and money.

Outlander – TV Review

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I give in! After much nudging from Amazon I have given in and given Outlander a try on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

Adapted from a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon Outlander is a series with an odd premise. The year is 1945 and WWII is over. To try to rekindle their marriage after years of enforced separation combat nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Frank (the always great Tobias Menzies) travel to Scotland for a second honeymoon. Before too long the couple are filled with highland air and the highland air is filled with love. What can possibly go wrong? After a healthy dose of marital holiday bliss Claire travels alone to visit some standing stones and after placing her hands upon the rock she blacks out. When she comes to her car is missing and British red coats are fighting Highlander rebels all around. Oh, and Claire has travels back 202 years to 1743. After almost being raped by one of Frank’s English ancestors Claire finds herself being taken in by a Scottish clan where she finds the dashing Jamie (Sam Heughan) and uses her nursing skills to gain their trust. Can Claire find her way back to the stones and back to 1945!?

There’s the concept. When I first read it I rolled my eyes too. A period drama with a time travel plot taking it to a whole other period, how could I possibly enjoy something like that? I was going to need some convincing and with subtlety, style, and a slow pace Outlander was up to the challenge. My token effort at watching the first episode snowballed into my watching the first three back to back.

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What won me over initially was the show’s confidence in taking its time. Rather than rush to get the time travel underway Outlander instead allows us plenty of time in the first episode to spend with the happy couple. Claire and Frank’s post-war vacation feels idyllic, very sweet, and a little sexy as they reconnect after half a decade kept apart by war. With time spent in the life she is to leave behind I actually cared when she was exiled once more, this time with years rather than miles keeping her husband from her. When the time travel does come around we are spared cheesy special effects in favour of a simple fade to black. Even with the obligatory violence and nudity accounted for Outlander is a master of understatement and restraint.

And doesn’t it look gorgeous! Despite the setting there is nothing artificial looking about Outlander; no polystyrene and plywood castle walls to be found. Every actor appears to have dirt under their fingernails and scars beneath their clothes and the cinematography is flawlessly cinematic and distinct. We are a million miles away from Saturday or Sunday night on the BBC here. Visual aesthetic aside where Outlander really excels is in putting characters above plot. The basic storyline is high concept but the show isn’t burning through plot in trying to get Claire home or explain how she managed to travel two centuries into the past. Instead the approach is to take a slower pace and let the characters take priority. It is their interactions, and the performances that serve them so well, that make the show worth coming back to. For all the praise a show like Poldark might garner its characters never feel truly real whereas in Outlander every person is an authentic human in a fantastical situation.

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It wasn’t until the first episode had finished and I hadn’t stopped the second from starting automatically that I noticed a familiar name in the opening credits; Ronald D Moore. Moore is best known for reinventing Battlestar Galactica as a piece of modern TV history and has worked his magic again here. Using fine British talent he has created a show of real quality that is almost too easy to dismiss because of its unusual synopsis.

What other show can use bagpipes to score an action scene?

Finally we should focus on the fact that Outlander is a show with a strong female character at its core ably played by Caitriona Balfe. What is particularly satisfying about Claire is that despite a lot of obstacles standing in her way she is a character with agency and a desire to save herself. Lost in a strange land and time she is not waiting for a knight to come and save her but it trying to get back home on her own terms. The series is set in times when women were not afforded equal status with men but with a female lead we can see this imbalance played out and not have all female characters reduced to background decoration as maids and whores.

After scoffing initially I now find myself six episodes in after just four days. Outlander‘s charm has won me over completely and a particularly powerful speech from Tobias Menzies in my latest episode has me hooked.

For those I have convinced the first eight episode of Outlander are available on Amazon Instant Video right now with the rest of this first season arriving weekly from 5th April.

University Challenge Class of 2014

University Challenge Class of 2014

For the past two evenings on BBC Two a charming documentary has been airing about the selection process for University Challenge. Class of 2014 is a warm knitted jumper of a show offering nothing but love and respect for both the long running quiz and the encyclopedic students who fight to take part in it. While The Voice may be a friendlier version of X Factor it still glorifies the ability to sing far too much in my view whereas here the focus is on the perhaps equally arbitrary skill of knowing a whole lot of facts.

I’ll confess to you now that I don’t actually watch University Challenge; the questions are way too hard for me and the contestants seem a little alien. While elsewhere on TV competitors are a glamorous and coordinated bunch here we are dealing with academics more likely to be seen sporting an unconvincing beard and functional glasses than skinny jeans and Ray-Bans. A huge portion of culture is teaching us to fit in and avoid the nerds but with Class of 2014 those very nerds are shown as human beings with hopes, dreams, and fears; all of which feature Jeremy Paxman. These are my people after all.

Across the two-part documentary we see the various selection processes each university uses to pick their five team members and follow each team as they are tested and interviewed by BBC researchers until the final 28 teams are chosen. Former competitors pop up in interviews commenting on the whole process like war veterans telling tall tales from the battlefields and are shown helping to train the new recruits to fight their rival teams and Paxman himself.

Stephen Pearson

One particular highlight is seeing the intense training regime organised by University of Manchester librarian Stephen Pearson who has been described as the “Alex Ferguson of University Challenge. With an iPad full of questions and a homemade buzzer system by his side there is no greater asset than Pearson for a budding University Challenge team. His generous spirit and dedication to the show is what makes this film special; everyone is just plain nice with no backstabbing or double-crossing.

Class of 2014 is a very simple documentary but one that I found strangely enjoyable. It was a window into a unique subculture that exists around a quiz show that I had never bothered to give the time of day before. A subculture in which Paxman is God and an encyclopedia forms the holy text.

I’ve no doubt fallen for a not-too-subtle marketing ploy by the BBC but who am I to complain? As the episode came to a close the filming of the quiz itself began and credits rolled. We now knew the contestants well, had grown to like their little ticks and personality quirks, and wanted to know how they got on. When the BBC announcer informed us that the new series of University Challenge would be starting on Monday night at 8pm my flatmate turned to me and suggested, “series record?”. Series record indeed.

You can watch the two episodes of Class of 2014 on BBC iPlayer now, I only hope it gives you half the pleasure it gave me.

Why I am, to my surprise, enjoying The Voice

The Voice series 3

‘Nice’ is an underrated quality in a TV talent show but it might be a good reason to watch The Voice.

I’m not much of a fan of reality television. I have dabbled in Britain’s Got Talent, because you sometimes see something genuinely original, and have consistently kept up with Strictly Come Dancing, because it’s pretty dancing, glamourous outfits and fundamentally meaningless fluff. But I don’t touch anything in the Big Brother / I’m a Celebrity vein and hate, hate, hate The X Factor. So it’s caught me by surprise to discover that I’m enjoying series 3 of The Voice.

When it first came to our shores, my reaction was total indifference. Another singing talent show? Yawn. Having the judges pick their teams based only on what the contestants’ voices sound like, without being influenced by appearance put a slightly interesting twist on the format, but that point of difference disappears after the blind auditions. I had no idea who one of the judges, Danny O’Donoghue, was (nor heard of his band, The Script), and didn’t really see what level of expertise he and Jessie J, who had released one album by this point, could bring to the show. So, the entire of series 1 passed me by.

I caught a very tiny bit of series 2 because of a minor personal connection to Leah McFall, the eventual runner-up, but I saw none of the early audition rounds. However, a few weeks ago, while waiting for dinner to cook, I got sucked into an episode of the current series, and have been watching it since. This is why:

You do not have to witness anyone be humiliated.
I know that some people watch reality TV auditions purely for the people whose self-belief does not match their talent. I am not one of those watchers. I desperately will everyone to be good, to perform well and when it turns out they really can’t sing/dance/make people laugh, I cringe as I share their embarrassment and disappointment. Everyone who makes it to the television stage on The Voice has already auditioned in front of the producers and so you are guaranteed that they meet a decent standard of vocal ability. This takes a lot of nervous tension out of my evening.

Jamie Lovatt - The Voice

The coaches have credibility…
Jessie J and Danny O’Donoghue did not return for series 3. They were replaced by Ricky Wilson, who has made as many albums with the Kaiser Chiefs as both Jessie and Danny put together, and Kylie Minogue, who, well, is Kylie. Alongside (Sir) Tom Jones and Will.I.Am, long-time artist and producer in his own right (Black Eyed Peas notwithstanding), this set of judges carry more industry weight that the previous line-up conveyed.

…and they actually seem to like each other
I don’t know what the chemistry between the coaches was like before and these four could all just be really good at pretending to get on, but I enjoy the interplay between the professionals. Maybe it’s because Kylie is so adorable. Maybe it’s Ricky’s charming everyman. Maybe it’s Will’s left-field wackiness. Whatever it is, they bounce off each other entertainingly (while Tom looks on, bemused) and their chatter doesn’t make me cringe. I don’t see any of the weary cattiness that I associate with these judging panels.

The Voice - Kylie and Tom

It’s only positive
The combination of the above reasons means that the whole experience feels like it can only be positive. Because all the contestants can actually sing, the judges never have to be harsh with anyone. The people they don’t pick, even though they haven’t got what they wanted, are encouraged to keep going and given constructive advice for improvement. They get a lot of personal interaction (and a whole lot of hugs) from the coaches – who do seem more like mentors than judges. There isn’t a Simon Cowell panto villain anywhere.

The blind auditions are now over, and with it the show’s selling point, so maybe the following episodes with their confusing ‘battle’ structure will lose me and perhaps the competition between the mentors will escalate and detract from the camaraderie I like so much. Even so, I’m looking forward to finding out and a few months ago, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be saying that. Sometimes, it’s nice to be surprised.

Watch This – The Night of the Doctor

The Night of the Doctor

A treat for your Thursday lunchtime as the BBC have delivered a meaty prequel to the much-anticipated 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who. This is a video best watched without any idea of what it contains. I did and it was all the more surprising for it. It should answer a question or two you might have about the upcoming feature-length episode and the three Doctors within. Now watch!

Exciting, no?

The Day of the Doctor airs on BBC One and in cinemas worldwide on 23rd November 2013.