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Neil Gaiman

I am – Hercules!!

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:

Neverwhere

(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 précis. 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.

-Gaspode





Readers Talkback
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  • Sept. 16, 2003, 10:02 a.m. CST

    For all its flaws...

    by Roj Blake

    ...this is still a great little miniseries. I may not rush out and buy it today (no, S1 of "Soap" gets that honor), but it's definitely on my list of future purchases. The performances are indeed the reason to watch - nearly everyone turns in something more than worthwhile.

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 10:06 a.m. CST

    FIRST!

    by bolvangar

    YES! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 10:07 a.m. CST

    Argh!

    by bolvangar

    So... Close... To glory...

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 10:08 a.m. CST

    Great book - never heard of the series

    by GigglingFist

    I really enjoyed this novel. I've seen a few reviews of this series in the past few days -- most claiming that it feels like cheap TV -- but I plan on picking it up anyway. Weren't there plans at some point for Jim Henson Studios to do a US film version of this book? I could've sworn I heard that somewhere.

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 11:20 a.m. CST

    I watched this when it was first broadcast on BBC

    by trouserpress

    I thought it was a great show. It was on back in 1996. Does anyone know if it will be coming out on R2?

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 11:27 a.m. CST

    One of my favorite books of all time

    by TotoroSan

    I love Gaiman's work and it was this book that really did it for me. I've heard the series is a bit of a letdown, but I'll probably go by it out of curiosity. I pray that this gets made into a feature film someday. No story ever had Terry Gilliam written all over it than this one.

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 12:26 p.m. CST

    Hercules, you HACK

    by Fuck You Moses

    Gaiman did the series first, then based the novel on it (in his tireless eschewing of any medium which doesn't give him complete control over a story). For all who have read the book - check out the series. You get the story and the characters without all the painfully bad descriptive writing. Unfortunately, you're still stuck with Gaiman's over-the-top "cute and witty" writing. Oh! A count named after a character from Puss 'n' Boots! Touche yet AGAIN, Mr. Gaiman!

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 1:14 p.m. CST

    Gaiman himself wasn't happy with it either...

    by Daryl van Horn

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 1:21 p.m. CST

    Gaiman wasn't happy with it himself....

    by Daryl van Horn

    Sorry didn't mean to post that alst one yet. Just hit the 'tab' to jump to the enxt field and.... Anyhoo I read several interviews where it's clear Gaiman was pretty unhappy with how that turned out and a lot of things were done completely different than he'd wanted or envisioned. He said something like 'imagine seeing the Sandman in a movie, except the studio gave him a big floppy hat and big colorful boots and a broom' or something like that. Just how producers and studios can have different 'views'. The Great Beast of London is basically a cow with prosthetics here. And as Gaiman said 'at the end of the day it was a cow and it looked like one.' It's definitely not 'must see'. It all looks and feels very cheap.

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 1:34 p.m. CST

    enjoyable, but not exactly good

    by Sir_Gibbonz

    I caught this a couple years back at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. Gaiman introduced it and answered some questions about it (it was a benefit for the comic book defense fund.) He talked a lot about his frustrations with it, like the fact that the video made it look like it was shot on cheap Dr. Who-like sets, when it fact it shot on location in tunnels beneath London. He had a great bit about his dissapointment when they brought in an animal for the beast of London, which is supposed to be a giant boar, and was, in fact, a cow. And he pointed out that if you look closely, you can see the shadow of the handler pushing the cow. Overall I think Gaspode's pretty much on the mark. I thought that the Marquis de Carabas was fantastic and Croup and Vandemar are a ton of fun. But I have to say, I thought Mayhew was pretty freaking weak. All in all, fun, but not always so great.

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 2:09 p.m. CST

    Read the book and caught one episode on PBS...

    by paddington

    And honestly, I was rather disappointed by that one episode. It'd be nice to see the series remade into a big budget movie with money for special effects and the like.

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 2:27 p.m. CST

    Mild correction, Gaiman didn't create a 90s version of Sandman

    by Gheorghe Zamfir

    I think he was planning on it though, but someone at DC just told him to drop the original Sandman all together and do his own thing. So they're two completely different, unrelated characters, the original Sandman was just a dude who knew martial arts and had a gas gun with truth serum in.

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 2:47 p.m. CST

    Gaiman's "Sandman" actually began in the late '80s.

    by rev_skarekroe

    In case anyone cares. sk

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 3:13 p.m. CST

    'bout friggin' time this got reviewed somewhere...

    by TV CASUALTY

    I ordered it and just got it today, while at work, so I haven't had a chance to watch it yet. But I love the book, and I'll give it a fair shot. It's good to know not to expect much in the production values department... Now if we can persuade Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam to do American Gods, I shall die happy.

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 3:41 p.m. CST

    Neverwhere

    by xsi kal

    Love the book... had never heard of the BBC series. May have to check it out. Thanks for the review!

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 4:32 p.m. CST

    Unwatchable

    by Harrys Man Boobs

    I tried watching a bootleg video of this last year. It's totally unwatchable, if you've read the book. If you have not read the book, don't bother getting the movie either. Spend the money on buying the book. It's far better. You'll be doing yourself a favor.

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 5:49 p.m. CST

    Too bad

    by Sakla

    I thought there would be SOME quality to this... I din't like American Gods that much. Gimme a Stardust flick anyday.

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 6:54 p.m. CST

    Netflix has Neverwhere

    by Jack Burton

    You should be able to check it out easily from there. I was afraid it would look like a British TV show and apparently my fears were warranted. Oh well. The book is great and hopefully someday "Good Omens", "Stardust", and "American Gods" will get directors good enough to handle them. I think "Stardust" would make an awesome Miyazaki movie, it struck me as pretty similar to a lot of his work.

  • Sept. 16, 2003, 9:46 p.m. CST

    Relatively obscure...?

    by Gislef_crow

    PBS in our area (NE Iowa) aired it repeatedly, until they dropped it because nobody ws interested in it any more. ;)

  • Sept. 17, 2003, 1:31 a.m. CST

    The series is pretty terrible.

    by QueenAttolia

    Wow -- they actually filmed it in London's underground tunnels? Couldn't tell it by me. The production values are definitely sub-Dr. Who, and I have to disagree with the reviewer -- the leads were very poorly cast. The guy who plays Mayhew resembles a bad Paul McCartney-lookalike from those "Fabulous Recreation of the Beatles!" shows, and the woman who plays Door is singularly unattractive, not at all like the character described in the book. Neither are very good actors, nor have a shred of the qualities described in the book. Capaldi and Jones are good, but their roles are very limited. Oh, and Carrabas looks like the lead singer of Living Colour, dreadlocks and all, which was *very* distracting. In all, if you've read and loved the book, you're sure to be disappointed by this down-market miniseries, especially after shelling out $40+.

  • Sept. 17, 2003, 3:21 a.m. CST

    Funny Miyazaki was mentioned...

    by paddington

    Considering Neil Gaiman adaptated the script for Princess Mononoke to english.

  • Sept. 17, 2003, 5:23 a.m. CST

    Avoid !!

    by Fergmeister_UK

    I remember seeing this when it originally aired and it looked awful. Definitely rent it if you can and avoid buying.

  • Sept. 17, 2003, 11:23 a.m. CST

    Gaiman sucks it

    by Delete Me

    Doctor-Who-level productions are the least of this shows problems. The problem is that NEIL GAIMAN CAN'T WRITE WORTH SHIT. He can take any halfway interesting concept and then overload it with fifty or more things he finds "cute" - "Oooh look here! Death is a cute goth girl - they will all CHOKE UPON THE IRONY!" His writing style spends so much time desperately trying to convince the reader how he REALLY REALLY IS one of cool kids that he's never bothered trying to develop believable characters or a readable prose style. The Marquis in Neverwhere is amusing, but after reading Sandman he feels like a cut-n-paste Neil Gaiman "Cool" Character, and someone who I completely fail to believe in and sympathize with in the least. In fact, it's only the hysterically over-the-top villains, Croup and Vandemar, who prove likable in the entire book (and expertly played in the series), because you're never invited to like them. Likewise, Gaiman's prose style attempts to be "cute and whimsical with ever-a-hint-of-darkness" to the point where it's just annoying. I can't read a paragraph of his writing without hearing him say something like "Her hair was like one of those old tea cozies that made you think of hot chocolate your mother made as she was filling it to the brim with spiders made from the hair of Egyptian cat goddesses." Ultimately the problem of Neil gaiman points out the much larger problem that scifi/fantasy writers in general can't write. But Gaiman clearly thinks he can, and can't, and is very stubbon about his inability to write, and wants to impress you with it. To which I say: Fuck off, Neil Gaiman. Fuck off and die.

  • Sept. 17, 2003, 3:30 p.m. CST

    Fuck Off, Delete Me, Fuck Off and Die

    by DOGSOUP

    Wow, you are so jaded that you are no use to anyone anymore.I think the only good you may have for the world is to go ahead and die so plants may feed off of your nutrients. I'm sure even then they would have the feeling that the sunlight isn't nearly good enough for them in thier self-imported glory.

  • Sept. 17, 2003, 4:04 p.m. CST

    Wow.

    by Silvio Dante

    Hey delete. You go ahead and do better, cute or not.

  • Sept. 17, 2003, 4:46 p.m. CST

    Hey Delete Me,

    by Jaka

    You are SO FAR off base that everything you said can just be laughed at. So...HAHAHHAAHHAAHAHAAA!

  • Sept. 17, 2003, 7:14 p.m. CST

    Hey Gaspode!

    by Momcat

    So now that Neverwhere has found new life on DVD (however unsatisfactory that incarnation may be) don't you think there might be a market for that book you never got to write. I'm sure more people would read (even buy!)that book than are going to see the DVD.

  • Sept. 17, 2003, 8:50 p.m. CST

    Where's the 'Enterprise' talkback?

    by SmutGirl

    TIA

  • Sept. 18, 2003, 6:52 a.m. CST

    Struck a nerve, so you KNOW I gotta be right

    by Delete Me

    Don't get me wrong, I think some of Gaiman's ideas are interesting, but man, he just milks his "Gaiman Style" till its dead and gone. Darth - you're now the third to recommend Perdido Street Station to me, so I'll probably check it out, jaded on fantasy though I am. And for any who haven't read Gene Wolfe - THAT guy is fantastic.

  • Sept. 18, 2003, 12:14 p.m. CST

    another proud limping spectacle of torn narrative tissue

    by BilboFett

  • Sept. 18, 2003, 11:03 p.m. CST

    DeleteMe, I just wasn't going to even bother.

    by SpacePhil

    Even your username screams troll, for Christ's sake. I'm just fascinated by the fact that you've actually SEEN the series, while I, still a big Gaiman fan, haven't gotten around to it yet. Why do I get the feeling you used to be a big, obsessive-type Sandman fan, who just can't stop himself from moving to the opposite extreme?... Hell. Whatever works for you, I guess.

  • Sept. 20, 2003, 5:03 p.m. CST

    A Gaiman fan in defense of DeleteMe

    by Swithin

    You know, his assessment of the characters of Neverwhere is pretty apt. *BUT*, that doesn't mean it isn't worth a look... You know, DeleteMe is right - Neil Gaiman *is* just a human being, after all. He has his cliches, his crutches, his predictable (some would say 'dependable, as I would) style, his stronger moments and his weaker. I don't know if there are any Robert Jordan fans in the audience here, but the obviousness of the RJ dilemma is a perfect parallel here: his scope, effort, uniqueness in his sphere of creation, and actual work are note-worthy, great, wonderful, etc... except that sometimes it becomes too much "just more Robert Jordan". That gets in the way. You get desensitized to it. And you know what? You can't blame those who can't get over it. The people who *remain* faithful to RJ's ongoing series, or follow up on Gaiman's major and minor products, are those people who want something in that particular groove so much, who learn to overcome or (lucky bastards) have never felt the discouragement of total familiarity after a certain amount of exposure. Power to them, and power to the people who just get tired of it all after a while, like DeleteMe. You can't judge someone on whether they still get kicks off Gaiman's writing anymore or not. And if we can't air our most vehement opinions without attacking each other, what kind of fans are we? Besides, doesn't Gaiman have a reputation for writing for people who have enough of a sense of individuality *not* to be offended by people who don't like his work? Anyway, Neverwhere the book was wonderful fluff. It's like porno you can enjoy on an airplane. And I didn't dislike the tv series (our PBS in Seattle is great about airing *tons* of obscure-in-America projects - they're not all great, but at least you get a chance to judge.) The Marquis de Carabas rocked, Croup and Vandermar were incredible, and Door was incredibly hot. I think people who display the book on their book-case *should* buy this dvd, just to complete the purchase, so to speak. People who think they *might* like it should give it a rental - it's just different enough to be worth watching despite the production value and apparent low video quality.

  • Sept. 21, 2003, 2:01 p.m. CST

    Delete me is right

    by Silver Shamrock

    and it sucks being on the ass end of this talkback, but oh well. Gay-man is really a woman's author. He proudly states that Sandman had more women readers than men. He spent a disproportionate amount of time "crafting" all his cute female characters in Sandman, and I was embarassed for him. Like a schoolboy trying to prove that he can be PC and empathetic to the plight of women. Perhaps his life long ambition is to menstrate as well?

  • Sept. 21, 2003, 2:27 p.m. CST

    Honestly, I love the series almost as much as the book.

    by Rosie_Cotton

    I read the book first, and then tracked down one of those infamous bootlegs on ebay. And while much of it is intensely disappointing, the acting is superb, and parts of it are just wonderful. I don't agree that Gary Bakewell and Laura Fraser are bad actors (or that Laura Fraser is "singularly unattractive" - honestly, are you blind?), I think they did perfectly wonderful jobs of playing the 'straight' characters amongst a group of lunatics. :) My two favorite performances most definitely, howeever, are Paterson Joseph as De Carabas and Peter Capaldi as Islington. Joseph is so self-assured and yet extremely human during his more vulnerable sequences, just the way I imagined him as I read the book, and Capaldi plays Islington with equal parts sainted benevolence and demonic insanity. (And I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the black contacts he wore - what a creepy touch). All in all the series, though lacking in many departments, is a treat to me, something I enjoy watching over and over. /// But then again, my favorite season of Red Dwarf is one, so maybe I'm just a weirdo? /// Oh, and Neil-haters: do go away, children.