“This piece brands me a philistine,” Neil Gaiman confesses to the crowd from a pulpit at London’s Barbican Hall. The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mihhail Gerts has just played Dukas’ 1897 work The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Gaiman still can’t hear it, he tells us, without thinking of “Mickey Mouse and the mops and pails” from Disney’s Fantasia.
It’s a bright, warm opening to the event – a night of orchestral music interspersed with readings by Gaiman collected under the title Playing In The Dark. It’s also a fitting one; magic is after all, Neil Gaiman’s business. The readings, selected from across his collected works, take in genies, vampires, Norse gods, a pondful of talking ducks, an angel and a demon.
Credit: BBC/Mark Allan
The demon in particular is met by uproarious applause when he arrives in person, in the form of David Tennant. A surprise guest, Tennant is there to read a passage from Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s 1990 novel Good Omens, in which he stars on screen.
‘Read’, ‘passage’ and ‘novel’ aren’t the words for it. Without costume, make-up or set, Tennant conjures up his TV character (louche fallen angel Crowley) and his angelic counterpart Aziraphale (played in the series by Michael Sheen). He performs the drunken bookshop scene in which the point is… the dolphins, and it’s glorious.
Also glorious is the surprise performance of David Arnold’s Good Omens theme that rounds off the night. At the side of the stage are Gaiman and musician Amanda Palmer, who earlier sang, and performed her husband’s poem ‘The Mushroom Hunters’ to music by the composer of the National Theatre’s forthcoming production of Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. They sway, David Tennant bobs rhythmically. Everybody looks delighted, and so they should. It’s been a delight.
The music, chosen by Gaiman and orchestra director Paul Hughes, ranges from comical Gershwin and Gilbert and Sullivan (performed by baritone Simon Butteriss) to invigorating Wagner, melancholic Sibelius and, as part of a tribute to writer Ray Bradbury, the prelude to Bernard Herrmann’s score to Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 film adaptation.
Credit: BBC/Mark Allan
The readings, like the opening joke, feel warm and personal. Some were chosen for silliness and others for feeling, but all share the elemental sorcery of a story read aloud. Words, music and the imagination – a timeless combination that, whether huddled around a fire in the dark or echoing in a grand orchestral hall, makes magic.
You can hear Playing In The Dark broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday the 23rd of December, and on BBC Radio 4 on Christmas Day.