Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is possibly my favorite story of girl with a murdered family on the run, boy encounters girl on pavement, boy blows off date with fiancee to help girl, boy conceals girl from the terrifying duo hunting her, boy helps girl get in touch with crazy magnificent bastard, boy gets completely screwed over as a result and falls between the cracks to another London beneath London, ever.
Okay, that requires a bit more context…
…which Gaiman’s wonderful text can give far more humourously than I ever could. Witness:
‘Dear Diary…On Friday I had a job, a fiancee, and home, and a life than made sense. (Well, as much as any life makes sense.) Then I found an injured girl bleeding on the pavement, and I tried to be a Good Samaritan. Now I’ve got no fiancee, no home, no job, and I’m walking around a couple of hundred feet under the streets of London with the projected life expectancy of a suicidal mayfly…
…There are hundreds of people in this other London. Thousands, maybe. People who come from here, or people who have fallen through the cracks. I’m wandering around with a girl called Door, her bodyguard, and her psychotic grand vizier. We slept last night in a small tunnel that Door said was once a section of Regency sewer. The bodyguard was awake when I went to sleep, and awake when they woke me up. I don’t think she ever sleeps. We had some fruit cake for breakfast; the Marquis had a large lump of it in his pocket. Why would anyone have a large lump of fruit cake in his pocket? My shoes dried out mostly while I slept.
I want to go home.’
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere, Author’s Preferred Text, Review, 2005, pp135-6
Right, that’s enough to be getting along with for now. (Yes, I know it’s the introductory quote on the Tv Tropes page as well, but it does a very good job of establishing things, even if it does leave out the psychotic assassins, the old man who lives on a roof with his pigeons, the earl holding a court on a train carriage and the angel in Islington. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)
Neverwhere began life as a tv script that Gaiman wrote for the BBC back in 1995. Then, as the series was produced and Gaiman watched as scenes had to be cut, things had to be left out and the whole thing fell a bit short of what had been in his head, he made the decision to write the story again…and this time, as a book.
Which he did. And lo, it was bloody brilliant. Not that the tv series wasn’t good; I still really enjoy it. The actors – in particular Paterson Joseph as the Marquis de Carabas and Hywel Bennett and Clive Russell as Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar – turn in stellar performances. Really, the only character that I felt didn’t fit their role was…
…wait a second. Peter Capaldi as the Angel Islington?!?!?
How did I not realise that until now?!?!?!?!?!
…um, yeah, and that wasn’t any fault of Capaldi’s, he’s a great actor and I am highly anticipating his portrayal of Cardinal Richelieu in the BBC version of The Three Musketeers next year – it’s just that, talented though he is, he never sold me on his being an immortal, gracious and beautiful angel.
I know, I know, I’m very shallow.
The show’s fairly funny, intriguingly designed, some of it’s actually filmed in disused Tube stations…but I can see why Gaiman thought it couldn’t capture the story that he really wanted to tell, because it couldn’t. It did it’s best, but it’s not the book.
The graphic novel adaptation of Neverwhere by Vertigo comics was…interesting. There were certain stylistic choices that rather threw me for a loop and left me going , ‘Wait, what???’ It wasn’t a bad run, but it wasn’t anything spectacular either.
Then, some time last year, I heard that the BBC was making a radio drama, possibly from Neil’s own blog. I thought something along the lines of ‘Huh, a radio drama, that should be interesting, I wonder who’s going to be in itwoooAAH that’s a lotta big name actors. James McAvoy as Richard? Natalie Dormer as Door? Bernard Cribbins as Old Bailey? Benedict Cumberbatch??? Christopher Lee????????????
Oh, I’m there.’
So, after many months of waiting until the programme debuted on BBC Radio 4, March 16th, and much elaboration on this post up until now: does Neverwhere make a good radio play?
It’s only the first episode as of yet, but…yes, I have to say I think it does.
This is no mean feat. Even though Neverwhere is a very action filled book, a lot of the story and the humour comes either from the thoughts and backstories of characters, or from narration, which can’t easily be translated into dialogue or sound effects. For example, there’s a bit early on in the book which goes on a short ramble about how very unkeen on heights Richard is, which is amusing and informative and which just wouldn’t work in a radio drama, so it’s summed up as Richard, when asked if he’d not very good with heights, gasping in reply ‘Is Jupiter bigger than a duck?’
In short, the story works well in radio. Things are described naturally with enough detail that you can get a fair idea of them, but not in an overblown manner that could be awkward. Characters state their experiences or thoughts fairly fluently without sounding hackneyed, whether it’s recalling what exactly ‘widdershins’ means or stating the memory they were forced to experience of someone else’s death. The plot moves quickly through different locations, switching between characters at a rapid pace, but not so fast that you never lose track of what’s happening.
Then there are the ‘magical’ aspects. Sound and dialogue are used superbly wihen dealing with the supernatural elements in the story, particularly Richard crossing ‘Night’s Bridge’ with two companions – a journey that was a silent, agonizing mental experience in Richard’s head in the book and tv series – and the terror they feel as they realise that there’s something in the dark with them. One particular touch I really liked was the translation into radio medium of Door’s ability to open anything – while in the series and book this was a silent ability where she would touch a lock (or other things) and they would open, here she recites a phrase in Latin to signal an opening. Rather like the BBC adaptation of The Lord of the Rings back in 1981, which signalled someone putting on or removing the Ring by a noise that, frankly, always reminds me of a tuning fork being rapped against something.
Which is probably what it was, but still…
Making all this even better are the voices behind the characters. Natalie Dormer admittedly sounded a little old to play Door at first, but she managed the switches between good humour and grief very well. James McAvoy plays Richard wonderfully; David Harewood gives Paterson Joseph a run for his money as the perfect Marquis de Carabas; Anthony Head and David Schofield are extremely unnerving as Croup and Vandemar; Sophie Okonedo makes for a magnificent Hunter; Bernard Cribbins, in the short amount of time he got this episode, is a great Old Bailey. And what a surprise to find the story’s creator, Neil Gaiman, voicing two cameo roles! (One of which happens to be a bodyguard for hire called The Fop (With No Name), who gets to say such things as ‘Have at thee, nappy wearing imbecile!’ You just can’t make stuff like that up.)
All this, and I still had Christopher Lee and Benedict Cumberbatch to look forward to, along with plenty of twists, turns and dripping sewers in the gorgeously dark and twisted London Below. What more could you ask for?
Neverwhere aired on BBC Radio 4 on March 16 with a one hour pilot episode, and the story continues on BBC Radio 4 extra from March 18 to March 22 in five half hour episodes. It was written by Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs, directed by Dirk Maggs and Heather Larmour, and produced by Heather Larmour.
Learn more about Neverwhere, the book, here: http://www.neilgaiman.com/works/Books/Neverwhere/
Learn more about Neverwhere, the tv series, here: http://www.loony-archivist.com/neverwhere/frames.html, hereh ttp://h2g2.com/dna/h2g2/alabaster/A471313 and here http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115288/
Learn more about the story of Neverwhere and evolution of the radio production, and listen to the episodes, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01r522y