Neil Gaiman, who got really famous for creating the ‘90s version of DC’s Sandman (to say nothing of his siblings, The Endless), writes novels now. One of those novels, 1996's “Neverwhere,” was adapted into a BBC miniseries, and now it’s out on DVD.
Coax correspondent “Gaspode” brings us the review:
(A & E Home Video)
Back in 1996, I spent an entire winter in London Below. The BBC was shooting their new six-part fantasy series Neverwhere, written by Neil Gaiman, and I'd received permission to cover the entire shoot for a possible making-of book. For the better part of two months, I kept a journal chronicling every detail of the production, got to know the cast and crew and generally did my best to be unobtrusive; no easy task for the only American on set.
Although the Beeb had high hopes for Neverwhere, the series got mixed reviews and less-than-stellar ratings. Plans for a second season were quickly abandoned, as was the making-of book. That should have been that, but a strange thing happened. Gaiman adapted his scripts into a novel, which eventually became a worldwide best seller. American fans heard about the original series and tried to track it down, creating a brisk trade in grainy, tenth-generation black market copies for the past several years.
And now Neverwhere has been released as a two-disc DVD by A & E Home Video. While some Gaiman fans may be rejoicing, others will almost certainly be disappointed. The reason? Well, one of the reasons the TV series has now attained cult-like status is due largely to its lack of accessibility. Now that the DVD is readily available, it can be judged on its own merits. And on that basis, Neverwhere is far from perfect.
I'll try to explain why in a moment, but for those who are unfamiliar with the series, here's a quick prÃ©cis. Office drone Richard Mayhew (Gary Bakewell) is on his way to dinner with his fiancee when he comes across an injured girl lying on the London sidewalk. Feeling sorry for her, he takes the girl (Door, played by Laura Fraser) back to his flat, hiding her from a pair of Dickensian assassins, Croup and Vandemar (Hywel Bennett, Clive Russell). When Door returns to her home in the mysterious London Below- a magical world that co-exists with the real London- Richard suddenly discovers that he's become virtually invisible to his girlfriend and co-workers. They seem him but don't notice him, not unlike the homeless people that we encounter every day.
In order to get his life back, Richard undertakes a perilous journey into London Below. Along the way, he finds allies in the wily Marquis de Carabas (Paterson Joseph) and the aptly named Hunter(Tanya Moodie), and gets caught up in a bizarre quest that ends with an enigmatic angel named Islington (Peter Capaldi) and the Great Beast of London.
The problems with Neverwhere, whether we're talking about the TV series or DVD release, basically originated during the actual production. Number one is the actual look. For reasons that will probably never be fully known, the BBC insisted that the series be shot on video not film. Although this may have saved them a couple of bucks in the short term, it cost them badly later on, because it limited the number of countries they could sell the project. Video also gives the picture a flat, cheap-looking feel, robbing Neverwhere of much of its texture.
Problem number two is budget. The BBC has never been known for heaping money on its genre programming, whether it's Doctor Who, Blake's 7 or Red Dwarf, and Neverwhere is certainly no exception to that lack of funds. To their credit, the crew manages to work some minor miracles with what they've got, but you can't squeeze blood from a stone. The cost cutting also forced Gaiman to rewrite his scripts, trimming some of the more expensive scenes from the final drafts.
And problem number three is the direction. Dewi Humphreys was perfectly capable as a sitcom director, but on Neverwhere, he was out of his depth from day one. The result is that he literally couldn't finish scenes on the daily shooting schedule, which meant those scenes were pushed back to the next day, pushing back the next day's scenes until great chunks of narrative had to be cut out. On more than one occasion, a frustrated Gaiman could be heard muttering (loudly enough for most of the crew to hear), 'That's okay, I'll just put it back in the novel!' which he did. Good for the book, not so good for the series.
So what are the good points of Neverwhere? The performances for one thing. Paterson Joseph is superb as the Marquis, a role reportedly written for Richard O'Brien, but Joseph definitely owns it now. Bennett and Russell are wonderfully creepy as Croup and Vandemar, arguably two of the greatest villains that Gaiman ever created. Bakewell and Fraser are good in the lead roles, as is Moodie, who is let down in a big way by her costume. Note to future directors: if you have a black actress playing a character called Hunter, you don't give her a big-ass spear to carry around for the entire series!
Some of the quirkiest performances however, are by actors playing the smaller roles. Freddie Jones as the insane Earl of Earl's Court. Trevor Peacock playing the equally eccentric Old Bailey, a roof-dwelling hermit who trades in birds and information. Peter Capaldi as a less-than-angelic Islington. Most of these veteran actors came in just because they loved Gaiman's script and couldn't turn it down. They certainly weren't being paid the kind of money they were used to.
The other obvious selling point is the story itself. Gaiman creates characters and scenes that are so unique that they remain memorable even after being watered down by a rushed production without much money. My personal favorite is the Floating Market, a massive rave-like gathering that sets up in a different place every week and is long gone by sunrise. It's just a shame that viewers get to see so little of what was actually created during filming.
Oh, and before I forget, Dave McKean's opening credit sequence is a masterpiece. Picture a moving version of his most memorable Sandman covers and you'll have a small idea of what to expect. I just hope his upcoming film Mirrormask is as good, if not better.
Now let's talk about the DVD extras. Press notes tout 'extensive bonus features,' but viewers are bound to be disappointed. They include a bio of Gaiman, brief descriptions of the main characters, and a modest photo gallery. There's also an extended interview with Gaiman originally done for the BBC home video release, but is still quite interesting.
Not surprisingly, the most compelling bonus feature is Gaiman's feature length commentary, which for some reason isn't listed on the first disc but can be accessed by changing the audio track. Viewers who have already seen the series will probably go right to the commentary and watch all six episodes in one sitting.
On a strictly personal note, I wish Gaiman had spent more time talking about the development of his original scripts, how some characters evolved over the several years that the series was being written, casting decisions, and so forth. These are the areas that he was deeply involved in, and could have provided some real insights.
And also on a personal basis, I found it interesting to see how Gaiman's comments intersected with my own memories of filming. For example, he mentions that the running figure seen in the opening credit sequence is Gaiman himself. What I remember is Dave McKean standing in an abandoned building, 16mm camera in hand, trying to find some poor soul to put on his long coat and run down a glass and debris-covered hallway in pitch darkness over and over again. Who should happen along but…Neil Gaiman? And so a reluctant star was born.
And that brings up to the final verdict on Neverwhere. Is it worth it? At a list price of just under forty bucks, it's bit pricey for six half-hour episodes and a handful of extras. For dedicated Gaiman fans, it probably doesn't matter. If I can make one final suggestion though, I would suggest reading the original novel as well. It's what Neverwhere was meant to be, untainted by budget, production difficulties and a non-visionary director who somehow managed to turn magic into mulch.