Looking back at BBC Two's Neverwhere

Feature Michael Leader 19 Mar 2013 - 07:00

Michael revisits the 1996 incarnation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, a magical BBC series that was ahead of its time...

Spoiler warning: While this article is about a 17-year old TV programme, it inevitably discusses plot points that are also present in the currently-broadcasting radio drama remake. 

“Let me tell you a story. No, wait, one’s not enough. I’ll begin again...” 

So reads the back-cover blurb of Neil Gaiman’s 2006 short story anthology Fragile Things, but it’s as apt a beginning as any for an expedition back through the knotted overgrowths of time to the author’s 1996 foray into television: the six-part miniseries Neverwhere

Now, let’s get this out of the way first: there is no single, true ‘Neverwhere’. Like its signature setting, a semi-mythological, hidden version of London that exists below the streets of Britain’s capital, Neverwhere is a story that has taken many forms, the most recent of which is a BBC Radio 4 drama starring, amongst others, James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch and David Harewood. 

For nigh-on 17 years, the story of Richard Mayhew, a city-boy white-collar worker, who finds himself trapped in London Below in the company of young noblewoman Lady Door and the mysteriously dashing Marquis De Carabas, has been told and retold - but first, it was a TV series. A TV series that comes from a televisual past that now seems to our 21st century eyes like a foreign country, so differently did they do things then. 

The project sprung from the mind of comedian Lenny Henry, who initially tapped Gaiman to write an urban fantasy series set among London's homeless community. Not wanting to make it seem like sleeping rough was either cool or magical, Gaiman instead re-shaped the idea as a jaunt through a timeless underworld that lurks beneath London’s streets. 

London Below, in Gaiman’s words, was inspired by puns and the London Underground, and the fanciful questions he would ask himself when travelling on the Tube: who are the Seven Sisters? Is there really an Earl at Earl’s Court? And how far down does Down Street go? In a similar vein to the work of Patrick Keiller, Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore, this was to be a psychogeographic tour of London, assessing how multiple versions of an urban space - be they historical, mythological or literary - can coincide and coexist. As the title suggests, this city under London would be populated with people out of place and out of time, living in a sort of neverwhere. 

Our hero - and guide through London Below - is an Everyman by the name of Richard Mayhew (Gary Bakewell). He’s one of the hard-working, humble schlubs that keeps the capital ticking over, toiling away at an anonymous office job while completely out of his depth dating the upwardly-mobile Jessica (Elizabeth Marmur). In a talking-head segment that introduces the series, he calls himself ‘boring’, and reveals that he still gets lost on the Tube and is terrified of both rats and heights. Hardly a warrior, really. Yet when an act of selflessness leads him to taking home a young girl he finds on the street, his life takes a turn for the fantastic. She’s the Lady Door, daughter of Portico, one of the head honchos of London Below. For years, Portico had been trying to unite the various fiefdoms and baronies of Underside, but now he and his family have been murdered by Mr Croup (Hywel Bennett) and Mr Vandemaar (Clive Russell), two intimidating goons who, with their little-and-large double act of eloquence and menace, seem to be the Laurel & Hardy of butchery. And then, as quickly as she came into it, she’s out of his life. Door hooks up with the Marquis de Carabas (Paterson Joseph) - named after Puss In Boots’ master - and vanishes into the broom cupboard next to Richard’s flat. 

This real-world-meets-fantasy set-up soon takes on a very Twilight Zone-style tone, as Richard discovers that, actually, he might as well have vanished along with Door, as not only do all of his friends and colleagues seem to see right through him, but his phone has been disconnected, his credit card has been cancelled and his flat has been put up for rent. Playing on a very universal fear of being swallowed and chewed up by the big city, and eventually being forgotten, ignored and alone amongst millions of fellow citizens, Neverwhere pushes Richard out of his dull, everyday life, and into the dangerous and exciting London Below for an unlikely adventure. 

There, he finds a whole world of wild subcultures and crazy characters, from Old Bailey (Trevor Peacock), a man clothed in feathers who trades in birds and information, to Hunter (Tanya Moodie), a legend in her own lifetime, who is pursuing her most fearful game yet - the Beast of London below, whom they say even whole regiments of soldiers have failed to kill. It’s a place of rat-speakers and floating markets (which hop around the city, and are held in the shadows of London landmarks), a place of magic and mystery, supervised by its very own angel, Islington. 

Truly, London Below is a fictional universe that could only have leapt from the creative mind of Neil Gaiman. While its collision of high fantasy, fairytale, Biblical stories and literature in many ways resembles the world he created for his long-running comic series The Sandman (you could definitely imagine Croup and Vandemaar existing in the same world as the Dreaming’s Cain and Abel), Neverwhere’s use of London as a backdrop, with the Tube network as its spine, gives it a very unique edge - one that stays sharp even decades later, after Waterstone’s ‘London In Fiction’ shelf has become a whole section in its own right, filled with fantastical tales of weird and wonderful adventures in the Big Smoke. 

But for all its large-canvas ideas, Neverwhere was hamstrung by mid-90s television practice. This was the odd period of time when the BBC didn’t know what to do with Doctor Who, and when Sherlock Holmes was the star of a long-running ITV series that looked more like a Jane Austen adaptation than a swashbuckling sleuth-em-up. Revolutionary series like Twin Peaks and The X-Files may have made waves in the States, but their impact was yet to hit mainstream British TV. 

So, Neverwhere was boxed in, shot in a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio, and, despite the artistic ambitions of Gaiman, Henry and director Dewi Humphreys, the BBC didn’t let them shoot on film - instead promising that, if they shot on the more raw, less cinematic medium of video, then the footage could be processed through a ‘film filter’ afterwards. However, this never came to pass, and the sequences lit for film, but inevitably broadcast from a video source, look garish and cheap - in Gaiman’s words, in bitter reflection, it looked too ‘Doctor Who-y’. Coupled with some of the changes to the characters' accents demanded by BBC producers - the Earl had to be northern; Hunter had to be African - and the various cuts and amendments made to his scripts during shooting, Neverwhere strayed a little too far from Gaiman’s vision than he liked.

But hang on a minute. Neverwhere is still - massive production problems aside - a delightful, magical series, bolstered not only by Gaiman’s grand ideas, but a triple-whammy of fabulous production design (part shabby urbanism, part otherworldy fantasy), unparalleled location scouting and a damn near perfect cast. For a story set in a fictional, ethereal spin on a familiar city, it’s astounding that the crew were able to shoot the series in actual London locations, effectively dressing real settings to make them seem at one step’s remove from reality. 

From Oxford Street to Piccadilly Circus, from Battersea Power Station to HMS Belfast, from the vaults underneath Clink Street to the rooftops above St Pancras Station, you can chart your own trivia-filled tour of London by simply studying every shot of Neverwhere, mirroring the narrative’s own locales (eg, the closed-down British Museum station, where Door and Richard go to find their way to the Angel Islington), with others, such as Aldwych station, the Tube stop that, after it closed two decades ago, has since been used as a location for scores of television series and films. 

However, in a century of being used as a playground by filmmakers, London has rarely been as widely exploited, or as deeply excavated, as in Neverwhere. In one scene, characters stumble through the secret Royal Mail railroad that runs underneath Central London (now disused, but a haven for urban explorers), while in another the entire sequence is shot on a platform at Down Street station which, while closed, still has active trains trundling by - meaning that, in the midst of this fiction, you get a glimpse of real, oblivious, non-acting Londoners. 

The cast - a mixture of veterans and newcomers - are by turns charmingly weak and bullseye-perfect. Gary Bakewell, the man who has the rare honour of portraying Paul McCartney twice on screen (in Backbeat and the made-for-TV The Linda McCartney Story), is as tremendously dull as Richard needs to be, while Paterson Joseph steals every scene he’s in as the Marquis de Carabas, every bit embodying Gaiman’s hope for the Marquis to be the perfect Doctor, who gives off a feeling of ‘danger, of oddness, of being trapped in their world’. 

But what proves to be the most enduring and surprising fact about Neverwhere, especially for those who caught it first time around in the mid-90s, is that, even though the series itself didn’t take over the world, the cast certainly did. In the years since, cast members have grown and matured into some of the UK’s top TV talent. Not Bakewell, admittedly - after a rather blokey ad for Rolling Rock he vanished behind the microphone, recording Neverwhere’s audiobook and other voice-over parts - but almost everyone else. 

After a stint on Casualty, Paterson Joseph took prime-time comedy Peep Show by storm as Mark Corrigan’s no-bullshit boss Alan Johnson, while Peter Capaldi, androgynous and distant as the Angel Islington, grew up to be the deliciously-detestable swearing machine that is The Thick Of It’s Malcolm Tucker. But it doesn’t stop there: Laura Fraser, after stumbling with quirky computer rom-com Virtual Sexuality, now appears in Breaking Bad; Clive Russell had an integral supporting role in geek-touchstone Spaced as the evil head of a comics publishing house; and Tanya Moodie popped up in the first series of Sherlock, while Tamsin Greig, who had the small Neverwhere role of the succubus Lamia, has leapt from sitcom to sitcom over the years, from Black Books to Green Wing to Friday Night Dinner to, most recently, Episodes. It’s also worth noting that seven Neverwhere cast members have appeared in Doctor Who - although more (ten) have appeared in daytime British medical soap Doctors, whatever that means. 

But perhaps the most notable star to rise from Neverwhere is Gaiman himself. It’s easy to forget, with the benefit of hindsight, but this was 1996. Gaiman might have been one of the most famous writers in comics at the time thanks to The Sandman, but beyond a co-authored novel with Terry Pratchett (Good Omens) and a handful of delightful short stories, to the majority of pop culture he was still a tousle-haired writer in a leather jacket. Neverwhere would be not only his first TV series, but his first novel. Stardust, American Gods and Coraline would all come later. 

And then, ten years after Neverwhere, we’re back to Fragile Things. In his introduction, Gaiman says that the title refers to the stories themselves, which are 'made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks', but even these most abstract and airy things can prove remarkably difficult to kill, often outlasting those that initially told them. 

Out of Gaiman's storied and story-filled career, no single narrative has proved to be as enduring, as flexible or as quixotic as Neverwhere. When he felt that the TV series drifted too far from his initial vision, he wrote a novel in response, putting back in all of the deleted scenes and flights of imagination that budget and televisual restrictions didn't allow - but even then he found that he had to return to the book later and publish an 'Author's Preferred Text' version in 2006. 

A film version, initially optioned by The Jim Henson Company and The Weinstein Company, went through eight drafts between 1997 and 2000, and briefly returned to the rumour mill in 2008, but Gaiman had more luck seeing his novels Stardust and Coraline brought to the big screen. That didn't stop him letting others have a crack at it, though, as Mike Carey and Glenn Fabry adapted the novel into a rather garish comic book adaptation in 2005, while Robert Kauzlaric's 2010 stage adaptation found the author flying to Chicago to see it with Lenny Henry, and furiously tweeting his approval afterwards. 

But there's something unmistakable about that original television version. It is undeniably imperfect but, despite Gaiman's reservations, it is, as he says, remarkably difficult to kill. And rather than outlasting those that told it, this story has instead outlived its cultural context and seen its story, players and author grow beyond its tidy borders. 

And yet, time and again, Gaiman and others have ventured back into London Below, and fought with the beast that lies at its heart - but even when they emerge victorious, it is never a clean victory. No, wait, let them begin again... Maybe next time it'll be perfect.

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