This Saturday, BBC Radio 4 broadcasts the first episode of its new version of Neverwhere. Neil Gaiman’s nineties-vintage adventure story, for those who don’t recall, takes place in London Below, a fantasy realm of angels, assassins and assorted monsters, that exists in all the bits of the city – the rooftops, the sewers, and so on – that you never actually see.
Neverwhere started out life back in 1996, as a six-part drama on BBC Two, was swiftly novelised, failed to become a film, but has found new leases of life in comic books and on various north American stages. And the new version has assembled one of the better cast lists we’ve seen for a while, with everyone from James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch, to Andrew Sachs and Jonny Vegas popping up around the place.
To celebrate its return Londonist hereby offers seven* observations on the story.
1) Neverwhere was originally devised by Gaiman and Lenny Henry, of all people. Henry wanted to do something about the secret world populated by different tribes of homeless people in London. Gaiman worried that he’d inadvertently make homelessness look cool, and did this instead.
2) The story is largely built around puns on London place names. So earl’s court is a court with an earl in it; the black friars are monks of afro-Caribbean origin; night’s bridge is a spooky bridge where bad things happen, and so on. Perhaps for the best, the story at no point takes us up the gherkin or out to Shepherd’s Bush.
3) One of the series’ main characters is the angel Islington who (do try to keep up) is an angel, called Islington. In the original series he was played by Peter Capaldi, with the aide of some flowing hair and a backlit white robe. Nearly two decades on, with Capaldi best known as The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker (“Please could you take this note, ram it up his hairy inbox and pin it to his fucking prostate”), this casting is a lot funnier than it was at the time.
4) Another of the original cast was Patterson Joseph, who played the swashbuckling Marquis de Carabas like he was one of the more arrogant Doctors Who. So Time Lord-esque was this performance, in fact, that some of the geek sites breathlessly reported in 2009 that he’d been cast as the first black actor to play the role. He hadn’t.
5) The radio version’s cast has some pretty hefty geek credentials of its own, mind, featuring as it does Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones), David Harewood (Who), Sophie Okonedo (more Who), Bernard Cribbins (Who, twice), Anthony Head (Who; oh, and he was Giles in Buffy), Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock himself) and Christopher Lee (who’s been in pretty much everything except Who).
6) Despite a lavish budget for the timeslot, the original Neverwhere was not a success. Rumour has it, in fact, that so poor were the ratings that within the BBC the show became known as ‘Neverwatched’, and it stood for some years as a warning of the dangers of dabbling in all this fantasy rubbish. Umpteen reimaginings later, however, it seems fair to say that Gaiman had the last laugh.
7) Those who enjoy fantasy worlds, hidden in plain view in the city around us, may also enjoy Ben Aaronvitch’s Rivers of London series, about a rookie copper finding his way in the Met’s supernatural unit. Or they can just read about Londonist’s adventures in a sewer a couple of years back.
Neverwhere begins with an hour-long episode at 2.30pm on Saturday, with the other five half-hour instalments broadcast the following week.
*The choice of seven is a reference to the long-promised existence of a sequel called The Seven Sisters. It in no way reflects the fact we ran out of ideas before we got to ten. Absolutely not.