The amazing entryway to London Below.

The amazing entryway to London Below.

Neverwhere

  • Author:  Neil Gaiman
  • Published:  1996
  • Publisher:  BBC Books
  • Pages:  370
  • First Line:  “The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself.”
  • Last Line:  “And they walked away together through the hole in the wall, back into the darkness, leaving nothing behind them; not even the doorway.”
  • Film:  1996  (BBC – ***.5); Radio Drama (2013)
  • First Read:  2003

The Novel:  Great worlds can be just around the corner.  C.S. Lewis taught us that, when a wardrobe was opened and a magical world was found inside.  While I love Middle-Earth, in many ways this is a more appealing fantasy world.  It gives you the illusion that someday you might find it, just around the corner, just inside the wardrobe, or, in this case, waiting in London Below.

This is an interesting book in a lot of ways, but in one particular way, in that it was not originally designed to be a novel.  Like with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I loved this and read it not ever knowing that it had originally been created for an entirely different medium and that this was the adaptation.  Neverwhere was actually created for the BBC television series and then Gaiman decided the novelize the television show as it was being produced (the novel came out halfway through the show’s original broadcast).  You can enjoy the novel without ever watching the show (I didn’t watch the show until a few months ago), not only because it manages to expand upon things in the show, both in terms of background, and because of budgetary or other issues (the floating market in the show was supposed to be in Harrod’s but they cancelled on the production – it is in Harrod’s in the book), but because it’s written by Neil Gaiman, one of the great fantasy writers of all-time.

Gaiman doesn’t just give us a fantasy world – he gives us perfectly formed characters who you might meet at any time (“Richard had been awed by Jessica, who was beautiul, and often quite funny, and was certainly going somewhere.  And Jessica saw in Richard an enormous amount of potential, which, properly harnessed by the right woman, would have made him the perfect matrimonial accesory.”).  Richard’s potential is unleashed, not because of Jessica, but because of the basic human decency he shows to help someone he sees in trouble (“The girl’s face was crusted with dirt, and her clothes were wet with blood.”).  This is not just a girl on the street (“She was dressed in a variety of clothes thrown over each other: odd clothes, dirty velvets, muddy lace, rips and holes through which other layers and styles could be seen.  She looked, Richard thought, as if she’d done a midnight raid on the History of Fashion section of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and was still wearing everything she’d taken.”), but the Lady Door, royalty from London Below, a dark and dangerous world that Richard is about to be swept up in.

First, though, he must find the man who will help the Lady Door, the most fascinating man in this whole tale: The Marquis de Carabas.  “He wore a huge dandyish black coat that was not quite a frock coat nor exactly a trench coat, and high black boots, and beneath his coat, raggedy clothes.  His eyes burned white in an extremely dark face.”  The coat will turn out to be quite important, and will be the focus of the later story “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back”, a wonderful story published just last year that continues in this amazing world.  We later see the first time he is shown to Door, when she is just five, and her father gives him the perfect description: “He’s a fraud and a cheat and possibly even something of a monster.  If you’re ever in trouble, go to him.”

This is a world where you speak to rats, where crossing Night’s Bridge is a truly dangerous endeavor, where the night, “the kind that comes when the day is over” is something to be truly frightened of, where the Earl in Earl’s Court is truly important, where the shepherds in Shepherd’s Bush are the kind you don’t ever want to meet (they turn up in the later short story) and where there is a very real angel named Islington.

This incredible world, where even death can not stop you, but merely delay you for a while, would be nothing if not for what Gaiman does, both with the characters (Richard, as the straight man, is believable, if a bit boring until his first major triumph but the other characters – Door, the Marquis, Hunter, the two assassins, are all brought brilliantly to life) and the story itself.  Though this begins as a flight from death, this story turns into a quest, and in the end, a face-off against a power our heroes can not possibly hope to win against.  What they do, of course, involves very careful planning and exceptional cleverness.  It’s a story and a world that keeps you riveted, that draws you in, that you want to return to time and time again.

Laura Fraser, Tanya Moodie and Gary Bakewell in the original BBC tv series.

Laura Fraser, Tanya Moodie and Gary Bakewell in the original BBC tv series.

The TV Series:  The actors start to look familiar and it’s like you’re stepping into comfortable shoes.  Laura Fraser, the Lady Door?  She was the female lead in Casanova.  Paterson Joseph, who is so absolutely brilliant as the Marquis?  He was on the last two episodes of Eccleston’s run of Doctor Who and was one of the villains in the magnificent Jekyll.  Tanya Moodie, so dangerous as Hunter, isn’t nearly as dangerous as Watson’s therapist on Sherlock.  Tamsin Grieg, so deadly here as the Velvet, will always, to me and Veronica, be Fran on Black Books.  Even Hywel Bennett, so talkative and grotesque as the assassin Mr. Croup was more of a sex object as the original Ricki Tarr in Tinker, Tailor.  And of course, you find yourself dealing with the angel Islington, and if you don’t know who Peter Capaldi is, well, then that’s just sad.  Having seen them all before just makes it that much more fun.  If you haven’t seen any of the things I’ve mentioned, well then you have a list to go to after you watch Neverwhere.

In some ways, those are all improvements on Neverwhere.  Neverwhere is hampered by budget constraints and shot on video and has a kind of dated look to it.  But that look also gives it a strange timeless feel – the world of London Below shouldn’t seem as glossy as the world might be filmed in HD.  It’s dirty and dangerous and there is death around every corner.

The show is quite good.  Laura Fraser is the key component, bringing the Lady Door vividly to life (Gary Bakewell is solid as Richard, but his main role is to get through the adventures and he is probably the biggest weakness of the cast).  But the most important member of the cast is Paterson Joseph.  Joseph looks strange (his hair is very weird), but he perfectly embodies the character of the Marquis – he has the right level of arrogance and knowledge, the right sense of danger and when to run from it.  He’s interesting every time he’s on screen and he helps carry the series.

Most importantly, the art directors and set decorators did their job properly.  The hardest thing about fantasy is making certain it looks good on screen.  What the BBC team did here is bring us a London Below that we really believe could exist, just below the streets, just out of reach, just around a corner, and always waiting for someone to just open the door.

The absolutely magnificent cast of the 2013 Radio Drama of Neverwhere.

The absolutely magnificent cast of the 2013 Radio Drama of Neverwhere.

The Radio Series:  Like I said on Hitchhiker’s, radio drama isn’t really my thing.  I have listened to a few major ones over the last few years (Hitchhiker’s, LOTR, Star Wars), but in general, it’s not something I am drawn to.  So I probably would have skipped the radio dramatization of Neverwhere had I not seen the cast.  There was James MacAvoy, of course, a big step up over the original Richard.  There was the iconic voice of Christopher Lee in a small role as the Earl.  Sophie Okonedo, who has earned Oscar nominations, would be Hunter.  But most importantly for me, was the idea of listening to Benedict Cumberbatch, who not only is a brilliant actor, but has proven with Smaug, that he’s a brillaint voice actor, taking on the role of the angel Islington.  For a half hour a day over six days, listening while at work?  Yeah, I was gonna give this one a try.

The quality of that cast is a key thing in adapting this for radio.  Unlike the original television series (where they could physically create the magic and danger of London Below) or the novel (where you get a line like “And then they set foot on Night’s Bridge and Richard began to understand darkness: darkness as something solid and real, so much more than a simple absence of light.” to make the world comes to life, or to darkness), the radio drama is entirely reliant upon some sound effects, but mainly the actors themselves to make the world come to life.

So, we can’t see the doddering look of the Earl or the description of him (“The old man was larger than life in every way: he wore an eye-patch over his left eye, which had the effect of making him look slightly helpless, and unbalanced, like a one-eyed hawk.”), but we do get the magnificent voice of Christopher Lee, making us realize the weight of the Earl’s importance, as well as his age and his growing senility.  We can’t see Hunter’s imposing presence, but Okonedo makes it felt in every syllable.  Likewise, while Paterson Joseph had been so perfect as the Marquis, the distinguished David Harewood also brings him magnificently to life (and, in a bizarre coincidence, he was in David Tennant’s last episodes of Doctor Who).  Of course, I daren’t tell you what is involved in the two different encounters with the angel Islington, because so much of the story hinges on those, but safe to say that Benedict Cumberbatch holds nothing back in his performance.

Radio drama might not really be your thing.  It’s not really mine.  But sometimes you can find one that will absolutely captivate you and keep you coming back until it’s over.  Neverwhere was like that for me.

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