Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: 5 reasons to listen to Radio 4

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is on BBC Radio 4 Extra now

James McAvoy and Natalie Dormer play Richard and Door in Neverwhere

The BBC Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s beloved novel Neverwhere, starring James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Natalie Dormer, started on Saturday and continues this evening at 6.00pm, and here are 5 reasons why you should be listening to it.

1. The cast is incredible.
Neverwhere has the kind of cast that Hollywood would kill for and they’re all a perfect fit for their roles. James McAvoy is superb as Richard Mayhew, bringing the genial but nervy Scotsman to life with a combination of sparkling wit and understandable confusion. Natalie Dormer’s Door is both driven and good-natured, David Harewood gives gentleman adventurer the Marquis de Carabas a preening impatience to go with the swashbuckling, and Sophie Okonedo brings a nice sense of wry amusement to the no-nonsense Hunter.

What’s more, Anthony Head and David Schofield are wonderfully odious as Croup and Vandermar, Bernard Cribbins is perfect casting as the earthy roof-top dweller Old Bailey, and Johnny Vegas is great in his brief appearance The Lord Ratspeaker. By the end of episode 1 we haven’t even got to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Angel Islington or Christopher Lee’s Earl’s Court yet…

2. It has “a limitless budget.”
Neil Gaiman mentioned at the press launch for Neverwhere that a radio adaptation gave them a limitless budget. This is partly evidenced by the phenomenal cast but it’s also clear that radio allows them to create a complete world without building a single set. Half the series is directed by Dirk Maggs, whose peerless reputation is borne out by the incredible sound design. From the dripping, dank sewers in which we meet Door to the aural assualt that is Richard’s world of London above, from the bustling Floating Market to the rooftop where Richard and the Marquis find Old Bailey, it’s all utterly convincing. We’ve also been promised that the Beast of London will bear absolutely no resemblance to the Highland Cow which trotted out in the finale of the 1996 TV adaptation, which is a big relief.

3. It’s very funny…
Neverwhere is the kind of story that will appeal to hardened genre fans and listeners who’ve never picked up a fantasy book in their lives. Londoners will be able to appreciate all the references to the Underground, but arguably the most accessible aspect is the rich sense of humour. McAvoy and the rest of the cast make the most of Gaiman’s wit, as Richard’s increasingly bewildered everyman is confronted with the rich, magical world of London Below.

From the exchanges between humans and rats (“Sorry, ratty.” “Yes, he does mean it!”) to the duelling dandy The Fop with No Name, it’s a hugely entertaining listen. And the humour is balanced by the darker side of what lies in London Below…

4. …and it’s terrifying.
Those expecting a light-hearted fantasy romp might be surprised by the darker places that Neverwhere goes to. Episode 1 starts with hired killers Croup and Vandermar basking in the glow of post-slaughter satisfaction and they’re a persistent threat throughout. Buffy fans will tell you that Anthony Head always wanted to have an evil Giles episode, and his relish at playing someone as irredeemably horrid as Mr Croup is audible when he’s delivering lines like “Do you know what your own liver tastes like?” David Schofield’s Vandermar is the slower of the two, but no less dangerous, and together they’re a very scary prospect indeed.

There are many more dangers still to face for Richard and Door, but the first episode shows that Dirk Maggs is capable of conjuring up the sounds and atmosphere of a London Below that is as deadly as it is bewitching, with the crossing of Knight’s Bridge a particular highlight. As Hunter tells Richard, “Now is the time to be afraid of the dark.”

5. It’s a reminder of the power of radio.
The adaptation of a novel by one of the world’s most popular and talented fantasy authors featuring some of the UK’s top acting talent is a tremendous opportunity for younger audiences to be introduced to a medium of stoytelling which they may not be familiar with. All the points above demonstrate how well-made and how effective this version of Neverwhere is, and you owe it to yourself to tune in and find out.

Neverewhere continues every night this week at 6.00pm on BBC Radio 4 Extra, and each episode will be available on BCC iPlayer after broadcast.