Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere on BBC Radio

the cast of neverwhere

I have to confess that this was my first ‘radio play’.  In the US, I think they went out of fashion pretty much as soon as the TV became available.  I’ve heard the stories about Wells War of the Worlds being performed and the audience thinking aliens had actually attacked Earth. But that was 80 years ago. There haven’t been regular radio dramas in the US since the ’60s. In a lot of other countries they are still really popular though (even countries with TVs!), so perhaps I’m missing out. In explaining to people that I was going to listen to a radio play based on Neverwhere, I was met with confusion.  “So, is it filmed or not?” was the reaction–partially because I kept mistakenly saying I was going to watch it rather than listen.  It’s a confusing proposition for a Yankee.

And after watching listening to it, I can’t say I love the format.  It has definite merits.  The voices of the actors become far more meaningful and it is easy to catch small moments and equivocations in a pause or a wavering syllable.  It demands more attention, and I’m always happy to give attention to stories that require it of me.  On the other hand, I did continue to wish I could see what I was witnessing.  With a book, the self-determined pace of reading allows for imagination to flourish and to flesh out the world with your own ideas. With film, the auteur’s version of the story is presented and our imaginations aren’t required.  With a radio play, it was as quick as a film and left little time for my mind to sit and contemplate how the space might look or feel, but also lacked narration or description to fill in gaps.  Occasionally, it was difficult for my imagination to keep up with the changing locales. Because of that, I’m not sure it’s the medium for me.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this play.  It was clear that there was a lot of money and skill going into this production.  The cast is spectacular, the writing impeccable and whoever is in charge of background sound and prop sound did a wonderful job of creating the impression that this existed in the real world and not in the vacuum of a sound stage.  I really enjoyed it, and cannot wait to read Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere on which this is obviously based.

Enough rambling about format, what’s the story?

Richard Mayhew is a young Scot who moves to London to start a business job. He’s voiced (in his fabulous natural Scottish accent) by James McAvoy.


He has a good life there, by any standard.  One day, he meets a woman named Door, who is hurt and needs help.  He takes her in and hides her from two villains out to kill her.

These villains are the impeccably vile and heinous Croup and Vandemar, hired henchmen/assassins of a most sadistic and unfeeling nature. In this play, they are voiced by Anthony (Stewart) Head of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame and David Schofield,an English character actor who has been in approximately 9000 films and shows.

From that moment when Richard protects Door, he is drawn into her world, London Below.  The real geography and landmarks of London are used brilliantly to color and flesh out this underworld.  The characters navigate through underground tunnels and sewers. There is an actual Earl of Earl’s Court (voiced by Sir Christopher Lee),

Earl of Earl's Court

some friars at Blackfriars, the Shepherd of Shepherd’s Bush, the Angel Islington, Hammersmith, etc. For those who have ever spent time in London, these names are familiar places.  It gives the idea that this world and these people existed long before the city above.

The people who make up London Below are the fringes of society, those that look like homeless people and the destitute to us, but they live in a complex society with magic, beasts, angels, all the things you can imagine when you think about the history of London anyway.  Once Richard crosses into Door’s world, he is invisible or unknown to the other above-world people (including his landlord, his fiance, and his boss). He has no choice but to go along with Door on her quest and to explore the world below.

They meet many characters that inhabit London Below. Some are nefarious, some are kind, some are inscrutable.  Door is trying to get revenge on the persons responsible for the death of her family members, Richard only wants to go back to the above-world.  They are joined by the Marquis de Carabas (voiced by Homeland’s David Harewood) and Hunter, employed as Door’s bodyguard. Together, they go off in search of the Angel Islington believing he may be able to help. It’s a quest story, essentially, and Islington acts as the Wizard of Oz.

A word about the Angel Islington.  He is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, and was one of my main reasons for listening to this play. Islington

Obviously, I’m a big fan of his work.  But this is also a great medium for him, because of the tenor of his voice. I have to say, actually, that Christopher Lee’s voice far outstripped Benedict’s in terms of the amount of power and presence that came through, but I can’t think of anyone with a more incredible voice than Christopher Lee.

The Angel Islington is a bit ineffable as a character.  He is an actual angel, an embodiment of an angel that very much goes along with Romantic tradition and their images of Michael or Lucifer. He says he looks after London, is its caregiver. His first city was Atlantis, which obviously didn’t go that well.  So is he on a mission of redemption with this second city?  I don’t want to give anything away, but his character is complex and other-worldly, and I really enjoyed Benedict’s work in this.

Everyone gave wonderful performances and I was shocked at how easily I could pick up on small moments and pivots of emotion just through voice alone.  It denotes serious acting chops, and they must put in a lot of thought about how to convey emotion without the use of the most obvious tools (expressions).

The writing struck an excellent balance between humorous and fantastical. Through all the unbelievable and other-worldly things and people they encounter, Richard acts as a thoroughly average person who is just as clueless as we are in this new place.  It’s very similar to Arthur Dent, guiding us through his adventures in the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy.  And any similarity to Douglas Adams is a huge plus in my book.

I can’t help but wish this was a full movie or TV series.  I wanted them to show more, to take more time with the story occasionally. I wanted to learn more about London Below.  But I think the reason they were able to get such incredible talent to act and write and produce this is because it was a short and cheap endeavor, as radio plays must be when compared to film or TV.  There was in fact, a BBC series, Neverwhere, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t make it very far into the show.  I love the BBC, but their special effects budget is apparently quite paltry, and the production values for the show were just too terrible to be ignored. But I’m glad the show existed because it actually came before the novel. It prompted Neil Gaiman to novelize the story.  And there is a pretty rabid fan base around this story that are very grateful he did.  I imagine one day soon, I will join them, since I fully intend to read the novel.

For those of you who wish to listen, the entire 6-part play is available (free) on iTunes (under podcasts). It may be under BBC Drama of the Week.  I highly recommend it if you like London, or fantasy stories, or anything Neil Gaiman.


2 responses to “Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere on BBC Radio

  1. Frivolous Monsters

    I am amazed that you don’t have radio drama (and presumable documentary and comedy) in America! Shocking. I missed which character Neil Gaiman played himself.

    • We have no radio ‘shows’ here on commercial radio; just music. NPR, which is sort of our BBC, has a few variety or comedy shows and lots of news/talk radio but nothing that could be compared to a radio drama or documentary. It was a totally new concept for me!

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