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

1864
BBC4

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
BBC1

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

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder