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

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia