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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.

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.

My Top 5 British Everything! part one

My monetary situation continues to not be conducive to buying new movies or books.  That means it’s time for another list–a long one this time! Part one will cover Books, Movies, and my favorite places in the British Isles.

My Top 5 British Everything*

*not comprehensive.

First off, books! This is very hard for me, obviously, as a quick inventory of my bookshelf will prove that about 60% of all the books I own are British.  To pick only 5 is like picking one meal to eat every night for the rest of your life.  But, nevertheless, here are my favorites!

1.The Harry Potter Series

Of course this is number one.  And, don’t gripe about this being 7 books, not one.  This list is only my top five, and it would be pretty boring if all five were HP books, as they most assuredly would be.  The bottom line is these are my desert island books, the only books I would truly need to be fulfilled for the rest of my life, if, god forbid, it came to that sort of choice.  These books absolutely and tangibly changed my life–cured my depression, inspired me to go back and finish my degree, inspired me to read again, to write again, to enjoy and love my time on earth.  When I am sad or weary, I pull out these books and, like some sort of black market European antidepressants, they make things better. Not only do I own the original 7 novels in their American versions, but also several foreign editions as well.  I picked up the British (children’s) copy of Deathly Hallows, plus an Italian Prisoner of Azkaban (which it took me 3 months to read), a Greek Half-Blood Prince, a Croatian Chamber of Secrets, and even a copy of Philosopher’s Stone that has been translated into Latin!

These books are largely responsible for my love of British culture, and you could draw a pretty direct line from my first experience reading HP books to me creating this blog.  They are the end all be all of my reading life.

2. Pride and Prejudice

See my earlier entry for why this is such a lovely book.  I can’t say it had the same impact on me as Harry Potter, but I just finished a reread last week and even after so many times reading it and watching the miniseries, I still find new and lovely bits that are delightful.

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3. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ‘trilogy’

The first time I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it was sitting in the Barnes & Noble cafe. I laughed so hard and so loud that I made an idiot of myself. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the story, Arthur Dent is whisked off Earth minutes before its irrevocable destruction by his best friend, Ford Prefect, who reveals himself to be an alien.  But this isn’t science fiction; it never takes itself particularly seriously. What it is, in my opinion, is just funny and silly and wonderfully imaginative. The wordplay alone is enough to furnish me with great quotes for the rest of my life.  Here’s just a few to choose from:

In the beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

And my favorite (not technically from the series, but wonderful anyway):

I like deadlines.  I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

There is something very British (in my American mind at least) about this love of and playfulness with words and phrases.  Compare it, for a second, to something by Hemingway, whose prose has never even bordered on playful (at least, in my experience).  If you haven’t read Hitchhiker’s Guide,you should.

4.Hamlet

I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare in my life. I think I’ve taken 3 or 4 Shakespeare courses in college, plus the plays I read in high school.  I’ve read all of his sonnets and most of his other poems.  Of his 37 plays, I have read 20, so far.  I think Hamlet may have been the first one I read, back in middle school.  It has always been my favorite.  Some people think that Hamlet is indecisive and incapable of action. I just don’t see it.  He’s overcome with grief, with anger, with a questioning of the purpose of life and of revenge.  He feels trapped by circumstances and he talks his way through his feelings.  And he talks so beautifully.  I think it is, by far, the most poetic of Shakespeare’s works, and I can’t imagine anyone who has ever been depressed or suffered tragedy can read his famous soliloquy without finding echoing questions and statements in their own hearts. I think it is an absolute masterpiece, and encourage everyone to read it.  If you don’t think you can stand reading the play, please do not go get the Mel Gibson DVD.  At least invest the time in the Kenneth Branagh version, or at the very least the new David Tennant.

5. North and South

Please do not confuse this with that civil war miniseries with Patrick Swayze.  Though Elizabeth Gaskell is not that well known in America, she is considered just as popular as Jane Austen in England.  This is the story of a family who is forced to uproot from their life in the South (i.e. London and the counties surrounding it, which were agricultural, were old money, and were considered the most civilized) to the industrialized North (full of factories, the working class, unions, and pollution).  This dichotomy is a huge factor in England, even today someone with a Northern accent can be (unfairly) assumed to be less civilized than his/her Southern counterpart.  The book has the same plot as an Austen novel, and does have a truly scrumptious male love interest, but all of that is against an entirely different background. Gaskell weaves in poverty, unions, strikes, factory conditions, changing social norms, religious disparities, etc. etc. etc.  It’s a great way to get to know some of the background of the time, but to still get a fulfilling love story.  I also highly recommend the miniseries with Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton.

Honorable Mention: Jane Eyre

now, on to Movies.
Please keep in mind that I am not a cinema expert and haven’t seen a lot of what are considered the British ‘classics’. These are mostly mainstream films that were also very successful in the US.

1. A Hard Day’s Night

My love for the Beatles from an early age meant that, at the age of 9 or 10, I dragged my father to the video store every weekend to rent the same two movies: this one, and Help!.  Help! doesn’t stand the test of time quite as well as this one, but A Hard Day’s Night is a brilliant film. It captures the madness of the Beatles’ schedules and touring demands, the ridiculousness of press junkets, and the cheeky humor of the Fab Four.  It features great music, cute British boys, and lots of genuinely funny bits.

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2. Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz

I am listing these two together because, recently, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg revealed that they will be making a third in what they are calling the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. Shaun of the Dead can be described as a romantic comedy with zombies, while Hot Fuzz is a buddy cop action comedy.  But not action comedy as in Rush Hour; it’s more funny than it is action. Also, it’s not terrible, so that’s another key difference.  These movies are both hilarious, have cemented my eternal love for Simon Pegg, and spoof other genres so well that they manage to be both great parodies and great examples of the genres they are spoofing.

3. Snatch

 

This movie is just…unique.  Or, it’s unique if you haven’t seen Lock, Stock, and 2 Smoking Barrels. But seriously, Guy Ritchie made this movie and it was like nothing I had ever seen before.  Vinnie Jones is amazing, Jason Statham is in his first big role (at least in the US), and Brad Pitt plays an absolutely incomprehensible gypsy/boxer.  It’s a stylish, interesting, funny film.  It also provides one with endless quotes. This movie contains both my least favorite moment in perhaps any movie (Brick Top–aka the foulest man on earth–talking about feeding corpses to his pigs) and one of my favorites (Tyrone backs into a van and claims it was at a funny angle. Vinny says It’s behind you Tyrone. Whenever you reverse, things come from behind you.).

4. Atonement

Couldn’t be more different from Snatch.  For all my bitching about Keira Knightley and Joe Wright’s version of Pride and Prejudice, they do a spectacular job with this movie.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it might be better than the book, and I loved the book.  The book didn’t have James McAvoy though, and the movie has an absolutely amazing score that actually works to help translate it from book to screen.  A word of warning, if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, it will absolutely fuck you up. I was sobbing for days.  Ian McEwan’s fiction always does that to me, but this is a prime example.  It’s either going to make you depressed or make you very angry, or both. But it’s exceptionally good.

5. Bridget Jones’ Diary

How could I not love this movie? It’s based on Pride & Prejudice, has the real Mr. Darcy playing a man named Mr. Darcy, and features an imperfect heroine who Darcy loves anyway.

I do occasionally have a problem with the fact that Bridget is a bit of an idiot, and compared to Lizzy Bennet she’s a complete moron.  But she does have a sort of wonderful, vivacious, goofy energy that is a good contrast to stuffy, conservative, Mark Darcy.

Honorable Mentions: Notting Hill, Love Actually

Now, on to my favorite Places to visit during a trip to the UK.  Let me preface this by saying I have, by no means, seen the majority of the UK.  These are just the 5 favorite places I visited during my time there.

1. South Bank of London

I spent a lot of time on the South Bank during my time in London, though I didn’t live anywhere near it.  I did go to the theatre there almost every week, and it is among the most beautiful of all the places I spent time in Europe. As the name implies, it’s on the South Bank of the Thames, and features tons of big attractions within about a block or two of the water.  There’s the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, the London Eye, the London Aquarium, the Waterloo station, the Old Vic and Young Vic theatres, and City Hall (popularly known as Darth Vader’s helmet because of its shape).  It’s a beautiful, vibrant, interesting, artistic part of town.  It should also be avoided during tourist season, but if you go when it’s not packed, it can be absolutely beautiful. A few blocks east are the Globe theatre, the Tate Modern, and the Millennium Bridge.

2. Prince’s Street Gardens and the Castle of Edinburgh

I went to Edinburgh and was blown away by how beautiful this part of town was.  The castle sits at the top of a huge cliff and the gardens sit at its base.  The history of the place goes back thousands of years, you can see the entire town from the top of the cliff, and everywhere you go in the area, you have at least some chance of running into J.K. Rowling.

3. Oxford

Talk about history, beauty, the whole thing.  You can walk around this city in about an hour, but it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.  I’m still considering going to Oxford for grad school, because can you imagine having this place for your home? Wandering around the same halls and rooms as so many of the important figures in political and literary history (26 prime ministers, 12 saints, kings, queens, Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking, Joseph Heller, Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde…just to name a few. I could go on).  Plus Rowan Atkinson.  I think I could spend the rest of my life inside the Radcliffe Camera (reading room).

4. Bath

A place famous with Roman settlers for its healing waters, home to Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Rupert Giles, and set in a really beautiful part of a really beautiful country.  It’s a small town, but I found it really charming and lovely to walk in.  There are tons of Regency-era museums and houses open for viewing, plus the Jane Austen house, the original Roman baths, and a kickass chocolate shop across from the Cathedral.

5. Hampstead and ‘the Heath’


I lived approximately 1 mile from Hampstead, and ran on the heath most mornings during my time in London. As such, I have a lot of affection for the place.  Plus, it was home to John Keats, my favorite poet ever.  Hampstead is a small village to the northwest of London, rather trendy with celebs and the rich and famous. It’s got nice restaurants, and is surrounded by beautiful neighborhoods on one side and the ‘Heath’ (park) on the other.  The Heath itself has two basic parts, from my recollection, an open park, and a wooded section.  From the top of the hills you can see downtown London landmarks like the BT tower and the ‘Gherkin’ building (so named because it resembles a pickle).  It’s similar, in my eyes, to Central Park, because it is a place that tons of people go when the weather is good and they sit in the grass and just enjoy life.  What’s not to love?

That’s all for this list.  Next time, I’ll tackle my favorite British TV, British music, and my favorite tidbits from British history.