Marc Warren plays The Gentleman in Jonathan Strange. Photo: BBC
Show Hide image

1864 and Jonathan Strange both suffer for being modern

Jonathan Strange is an oddly lacklustre affair, aimed, it seems to me, at a generation brought up on Harry Potter.


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

It takes a while to get your head around 1864 (Saturdays, 9pm and 10pm), the new series from the people who brought us The Killing and Borgen. For this is a Denmark that extends far beyond Copenhagen, and which belongs to the 19th century, not the 21st. Here, all your favourite Danish actors (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Pilou Asbæk, Lars Mikkelsen . . . call their names like numbers on a bingo card) are in corsets, long skirts, breeches and medals, and talk neither of police procedure nor coalition-building, but of the glory of a Greater Denmark, a land given to its people, they insist, by God. “Danmark!” they yell. “Danmark! Danmark!” It’s really quite unnerving.

Everyone who reads this column knows that Borgen bored me to sobs. Two hours in to 1864, however, and I was longing for someone to whisper something reasonable about social democracy into a mobile phone. In the years between 1851 and 1864, as this series has it, Denmark was overcome by a weird nationalist euphoria. People began to believe they could fight the Prussians for the duchy of Schleswig and win. It was folly, naturally, but the men signed up nevertheless and duly went off to be slaughtered by Bismarck’s armies.

Here, the director Ole Bornedal tells the story through a large country estate, a microcosm of Denmark. It belongs, as most of the country does, to aristocrats, whose sons are so debauched that they force themselves on cows, and whose tenants are so poor, they have no shoes. Our attention is on three such tenants in particular: the bookish Peter (Jens Sætter-Lassen) and the sexy Laust (Jakob Oftebro), who are brothers and in love with the same woman: Inge (Marie Tourell Søderberg), the daughter of the estate manager. Strong, loyal and true – aren’t the poor always so on television? – they have joined the army because they want to see the world. It has not yet occurred to them that the foreign vistas on which they’ll soon clap eyes will be veiled in blood.

I find all this soapy and heavy-handed, and to make things worse, it’s framed by a clunking and wholly unnecessary modern storyline in which, in 2014, a troubled young girl whose brother has died in Afghanistan visits the same estate, where she stumbles on Inge’s diary. (Do they really think we’re so dumb we can’t see the parallels?) My Danish is non-existent but even through subtitles it’s also apparent that no one in the main story is behaving in a terribly 19th-century manner. They’re all so . . . frisky. The only character who remotely intrigues me is Bishop Monrad (Nicolas Bro), whose job it is to stoke the nationalism of politicians and voters alike. (Monrad was a pioneer of constitutional Denmark and the president of its council from 1863-64.)

A crisis of confidence – a form of political performance anxiety – has taken the good bishop to the door of a Shakespearean actress, Mrs Heiberg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who works him up into such a frenzy behind the closed doors of her drawing room that he could be having a heart attack, or an orgasm, or both. Bro plays him beautifully, masochism and fervour oozing from his every meaty pore.

Is Monrad enough to keep me with 1864? I’m not sure he is – though there’s no doubt that I’m madly in need of something new to watch. I had moderately high hopes for the hyped adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Sundays, 9pm), starring Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan as the two weirdos who restore magic (perhaps I mean magick) to England during the Napoleonic wars. However, central performances aside, it’s an oddly lacklustre affair, aimed, it seems to me, at a generation brought up on Harry Potter and still feebly in mourning for it. I mean, there are CGI talking statues, for heaven’s sake.

It’s true that at one point Marc ­Warren wandered on looking like he’d just got back from a heavy night at the Blitz, circa 1982 (he was some kind of dead magician Mr Norrell had conjured up . . . I think). But I am fairly certain this was more by accident than design, because coke-fuelled, Blitz-style anarchy is precisely what this series lacks. Sensibility-wise, it needs to be a touch more Steve Strange and a touch less J K Rowling – and if I’m showing my age by saying so, well, hang it. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

Show Hide image

Befriending barn owls - the spirits of the night

The Polish for “barn owl”, płomykówka, evokes the birds’ flame-like plumage - and their presence evokes old magic.

Not long ago, at the cool end of an autumn afternoon, I met a woman on the street in the Polish resort town of Sopot. She was young in the face, almost boyish, her dark-gold hair intricately plaited, the light in her eyes as brown as the wing of the barn owl perched on her arm. For a moment, I thought it wasn’t real, something virtual, perhaps some new and elaborate form of accessory. Then it moved and I felt the life of it, a vivid yet contained field of resonance.

I stopped walking and the woman stopped to let me see: the bird was young but it was not at all disturbed by the people going by, its head turning this way and that to take everything in. It was simply, starkly beautiful; but without the necessary words to ask a question, or address a compliment to either bird or woman, all I could do was smile and the woman smiled back, nodding slightly before she went on her way – a fleeting encounter, no doubt, but for the rest of the day I belonged to a different world, a place touched with an old magic, a world where a woman could befriend a spirit of the night time and carry it with her through the glare of day.

When I told a Polish friend about this encounter, she said that the word in her language for “barn owl”, płomykówka, was particularly beautiful: płomyk, she said, is a “little flame” (my dictionary also gave “glimmer”) and my first thought was that the name was derived from the white of the owl’s face, glimmering in the dark as it hunted, an eerie white that, once seen, is never forgotten. Yet my encounter with the woman in Sopot suggested another possibility: look closely at a barn owl as it flies and, even as it shifts and shimmers away, vanishing here and reappearing elsewhere, there is most definitely a hint of cold blue fire in the plumage, a chill cyan, like the blue at the centre of a candle flame. (This blue is clearly visible, though less spectral, when the bird is at rest.)

A few days later, I found myself in Gdansk, talking to one of those artists who sell their work in the city squares of tourist towns all across Europe. Most of the stalls here were dedicated to views of the city or architectural details of the great buildings, destroyed during the Second World War, then lovingly rebuilt with the care that only a ruinously damaged but undefeated people can muster. This man, however, was different: a practitioner of a certain variety of mid-European surrealism, he made prints of a highly symbolic and occasionally disturbing nature – and a central feature of this art was the płomykówka.

The owls were beautifully, intricately drawn and pictured in various situations, both in flight and at rest, but one image in particular caught my eye. The bird occupied the foreground, staring out at the viewer, as if offering a challenge; behind it, in an old, partially ruined castle, a dark entrance loomed, at once inviting and remote, like a doorway in a dream. I asked what the picture meant. The man replied that the door in the wall was wisdom but to reach it you had to befriend the owl – which is to say, you had to become equal to the night.

I nodded but I hadn’t really understood and he sensed that, as I stood gazing at the picture, trying to figure out what “equal” actually meant. He laid his hand on my arm. “You have to befriend the owl,” he said. “That’s all.” He took the print down and handed it to me. “You befriend the owl, then you enter the castle.”

I nodded and thought again of the woman I had met in Sopot and of the feeling I had come away with, a passing sense of the old pagan life that, long ago, before the fall, had brightened Europe from Delphi to Donegal – and it thrilled me, suddenly, to imagine that this flame still glimmers here and there, like the little fire in the wings of
a hunting owl.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State