Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere BBC Radio 4 launch report

We went along to the press launch for Radio 4’s hugely exciting Neverwhere drama, and here’s what was said…

A TV show, novelisation, comic book series, stage play, and now, radio drama. Just as soon as someone performs an interpretive dance and/or knocks up a cross stitch sampler telling the story of Richard Mayhew’s fantastic adventures in London Below, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere will have done the lot.

It’s easy to see why audiences, performers and writers are so keen to return to Gaiman’s story. Neverwhere’s premise, that beneath London exists a rarefied mythological city populated by beasts, bodyguards, and angels, is a seductive dream for anyone who’s ever travelled, head-lolling with boredom, through the London underground. Gaiman’s novels are fantastic, immersive worlds; plush, dark capes of oddness and humour that sweep heavily from shoulder to ground, cloaking their readers from the dull stuff of the everyday. And as every good fantasy fan knows, there’s very little cooler than a swishing cape.

BBC Radio 4 is poised to air the latest trip into Gaiman’s imagination, a six-part audio version of Neverwhere, adapted by Dirk Maggs and produced by Heather Larmour, beginning on Saturday the 16th of March. The cast is great, the story is equal parts witty and creepy, the sound design is cathedral-large. In summary, Neverwhere is appointment radio. You shouldn’t miss it.

“I said I’ll take the idea and turn it three or four twists through and make it impossible” 

Asked how the notion of London Below came about at the press launch, Neil Gaiman remembered back to a distant age, a time of fax machines…

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“It actually began with a conversation with Lenny Henry, who is a huge comics and fantasy fan, a very long time ago. Lenny basically said at the time would I write a TV series for him on the BBC. He said, ‘I’ve got one idea. We could do something about tribes of homeless people in London.’ I went home and thought about it, and I sent him a long fax  – which dates the conversation, it’s like sending strange pigeon messages – and I said to him thanks, but I don’t want to do tribes of homeless people in London, because I think I could make it really cool to be homeless in London. I don’t ever want to think of some kid having a rotten life somewhere running away to London because they’ve seen how cool it is on the telly.

“I said I’ll take the idea and turn it three or four twists through and make it impossible, and that was the beginning for me of the idea of London Below, creating a London that doesn’t exist based partly around puns and partly around what I always wonder about with London, which is what is really going on.”

“Then Christopher Lee said yes, and we all nearly fainted.” 

The words ‘dream cast’ are chucked about so often and so carelessly by press releases, it’s rare to come across an ensemble that genuinely merits the accolade. By some wonderful alignment of the planets though, Larmour and co. were able to amass what it’s very hard to disagree is exactly that: a dream cast.

In the lead role of Scot-in-London Richard Mayhew (so named for nineteenth-century London social researcher Henry Mayhew) is James McAvoy, an actor who carries the part with effortless charm. Joining him as the Lady Door is the similarly talented Game of Thrones and The Tudors’ Natalie Dormer (who happens to be a big Gaiman fan), supported by – deep breath now – David Harewood, Sophie Okenado, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Head, David Schofield, Bernard Cribbens, Romola Garai and Christopher Lee.

Dormer recalls the full-cast read-through very fondly, “I think we were astounded. You saw the cast looking around, and it’s amazing to see the likes of Benedict and James a little bit star-struck by Christopher Lee at the end of the table.”

How did it come about? “We were all unemployed” offers Bernard Cribbens, to a big laugh. “Because of Neil” is Natalie Dormer’s instant answer. “Because of Dirk” answers Cribbens, before mock-accepting a fiver’s worth of bribe from the director. A combination of the above, along with the vision of Neverwhere’s producers, seems a sensible answer. “James McCavoy was always Richard in my head,” says Larmour, “Benedict was always Angel Islington”. When you hear them in the roles, she’s not wrong.

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“An infinite budget” 

Neil Gaiman has never kept his frustration with the limitations of the 1996 BBC TV series that kick-started Neverwhere under his hat (chiefly, because that’s where he keeps his glorious thatch of hair). It did its best with the modest budget available, and boasted a few ‘dream cast’ members of its own, but it’s hard not to see his point. “There was enormous frustration for television, partly I think because we were slightly ahead of our time. The generation of directors, the generation of CGI, the generation of people who would make it, and who are now doing things like Doctor Who, they just weren’t around then.”

“I remember my sorrow when the first incarnation of Neverwhere on the television happened and the Great Beast of London turns out to be a rather sad-looking cow, and this thing that you’ve been building up to for several hours comes round the corner and you go ‘That’s a highland cow’. So on this, we have at least a beast worthy.”

What this version of Neverwhere gains according to Gaiman then, is “an infinite budget”, and “this magical wonderful feeling that we’re getting to make Neverwhere as a three hour long giant feature film level thing in which we have an infinite CGI budget, we had this amazing cast budget. We got to do it in a way that we really, really couldn’t do it.”

“There’s a specific magic to it. When it works it’s not like anything else.” 

Infinite budgets aside, Gaiman and Maggs are full of praise for the UK’s tradition of radio drama, and specifically the BBC’s role in continuing that tradition, “I love radio drama more than I love any other medium,” said Gaiman, “There’s a specific magic to it. When it works it’s not like anything else.”

“I literally remember sitting in the driveway the first broadcast of episode one of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a very, very long time ago, just not getting out of the car. I’d been driven home, this was on, my dad got out and I said ‘No, leave the car on, I don’t want to miss a second of this’ and that feeling I think is something unique to radio.”

Bernard Cribbens, in agreement, cites an old truth, “You get much better pictures on radio”.

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“We don’t have that visual stimulus, it all goes through the side door” 

Director and writer Dirk Maggs is perhaps best known for his modern radio retellings of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series and the Harry Enfield-starring Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Translating Adams’ comic fantasy and sci-fi worlds into “audio movies” then, was the perfect preparation for adapting Neverwhere.

Maggs describes the task of telling stories without visuals as that of having to go “through the side door”. It’s a particularly apt metaphor for the adaptation in hand, and one that could equally apply to Gaiman’s askew universes, mad, baroque junkyards built on a bedrock striated with layers of myth.

“It bypasses that optic nerve” says Maggs, “so the idea is how can you very quickly establish a feeling of cold, of desolation, of space, and so on. It’s a combination of sound effects and the music and the actors. The wonderful thing about radio is that it has this slightly loose, relaxed side to it, but it’s also a sort of alchemy where all of the elements combine to create something greater than themselves.”

“I did add a little bit of pigeon, slowed-down pigeon.” 

“I love the way that Heather and Dirk use sound in this,” Gaiman says, “They use sound in some ways that I haven’t heard done really since classic Hitchhiker’s time, that sort of obsessive detail”.

Two of the clips we were played in particular showed off that obsessive detail, the first, a section, in which Richard and his companions cross the Knight’s Bridge (the place and character names of London Below mapped out with puns on London Above locations), a sequence that presented some difficulty to Maggs. “This was our first big bit of scenery, which is a hard thing to do in sound alone, where you’re actually thinking ‘How can I get the audience to see what’s in my head?’ A bit of ESP is involved in radio at this point.

“My main impression of the Knight’s Bridge, which is not Knightsbridge as we know it, but a huge underground span, was something that has been there for hundreds of years, sort of like the bridge to Valhalla, in that it’s got a huge epic quality to it. The original draft of this scene had about a page of dialogue describing the bridge and as we were working through the scripts I was thinking, ‘This is really naff, it’s so ‘the gun in my hand is loaded’ radio’ and I thought if I could just find two lines to describe the bridge and then a sense of huge space and then a really good piece of music I think that might just paint the picture, and so that’s what I ended up with.”

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The second moment we heard that encapsulates just what radio can bring to the drama involved Benedict Cumberbatch’s purr, a bottle of wine, a pair of anoraks, and, according to Maggs, some “slowed-down pigeon”, but we won’t spoil it by saying any more.

“I know this Radio 4 thing is happening, how do you listen to it?” 

“Heartened” is the word Gaiman chooses to describe how he feels about the number of young fans getting in touch on social networks to find out when, where, and how they can listen to this anachronistic thing: a radio play. “Baffled” is the word he chooses to describe how many of them feel about the idea of tuning in to do so. “You realise they don’t really know radio, but they know Benedict Cumberbatch, and they know Bernard, and they know Doctor Who, and they know me”.

You can listen live to the hour-long first episode on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday the 16th of March at 2.30pm (repeated on Sunday the 17th of March at 6pm), and then hear the five subsequent thirty-minute episodes on BBC Radio 4 Extra at 6.30pm from Monday the 18th to Friday the 22nd of March. The episodes will additionally be made available on international iPlayer and as a podcast. 

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