The BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s bestselling novel Neverwhere is one of the most exciting pieces of genre entertainment that we’ll see (or rather hear) this year. The 6-part radio series boasts a cast that includes James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Natalie Dormer, David Harewood, Sophie Okonedo, Bernard Cribbins, Anthony Head, Romola Garai and Christopher Lee. It’s the story of Richard Mayhew (McAvoy), a Scot in London, who helps Door (Dormer), a girl in trouble, and finds himself accompanying her on a magical journey through London Below, where the names are as real as the danger.
We attended the premiere of the Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra co-production, which saw Gaiman, Dormer, Cribbins, writer/director Dirk Maggs (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and director/producer Heather Larmour discuss how this latest version of the story came to be, the fantastic possibilities of a radio adaptation, and why Neverwhere refuses to go away. We were also treated to a few clips which allowed us to hear several of the cast in action. So we can confirm what we already suspected: that the cast is absolutely perfect. The sound and atmosphere that Dirk Maggs has created is something special and the first clip we heard, with Croup (Head) and Vandermar (David Schofield) pursuing Door through a dripping sewer while Richard fuddles through his busy working life above, is beautifully rendered both in terms of design and the performances.
We also heard Richard accompanying the Marquis de Carabas (Harewood) on a visit to Old Bailey (Cribbins), his crossing of Knight’s Bridge with Hunter (Okonedo) and Anaesthesia (Yasmin Paige), and his sharing a glass of Atlantis wine with Door and the Angel Islington (Cumberbatch). Oh, and we shouldn’t forget Gaiman’s cameo… From the moment the cast was announced we had high hopes for Radio 4’s Neverwhere, and what we heard did not disappoint. So, on to the panel:
Neil Gaiman: It began with a conversation with Lenny Henry, who is a huge comics and fantasy fan, a very long time ago. Lenny said would I write a TV series for him and for the BBC and he said “I’ve got one idea, do something about tribes of homeless people in London.” And I went home and I thought about it and I sent him a long fax, which dates the conversation, that’s practically like sending strange pigeon messages, but I sent him a fax saying “I don’t want to do tribes of homeless people in London because I think I could make it really cool to be homeless in London. And I don’t ever want that, some kid having a rotten life somewhere running away to London because they’ve seen how cool it is on the telly.” I said “But I’ll take the idea and turn it three or four twists through and make it impossible.” And that was the beginning for me of the idea of London Below, just creating a London that doesn’t exist based partly around puns and partly around what I always wonder about London, which is “What is going on in the background?”
What does it lose or gain by being on the radio?
NG: Mostly, from my perspective, what it gains is an infinite budget. There was enormous frustration making it for television, partly I think because we were slightly ahead of our time. The generation of directors, the generation of CGI, the generation of people who would make it who are now doing things like Doctor Who, they just weren’t around then. But also there is this magical, wonderful feeling that we can make Neverwhere as a three hour long, giant feature-film-level thing in which we have an infinte CGI budget, we have this amazing cast budget, we got to do it in a way that we really couldn’t do it before.
I remember my sorrow when the first incarnation of the first incarnation of Neverwhere on the television happened and the great Beast of London turns out to be a rather sad looking cow. It walked around the corner and this thing that you’ve been building up to for several hours comes round and you go “That’s a Highland Cow.” So on this we have a Beast that is Beast-worthy.
Did you record your cameo in the States?
NG: No, I recorded it here, in Broadcasting House, with Dirk and Heather staring at me, making me do it again and again. And it was great, technically it now reduces my Kevin Bacon rating because I’ve now been in something with Christopher Lee, who has been in everything.
So how did this happen?
Heather Larmour: It started about two years ago. My colleague and I were having a chat about what we’d love to do, and he said “Neverwhere.” And the more I thought about Neverwhere the more I thought that we could do something amazing with it but I didn’t know whether it would be possible. I sent a letter off to Neil’s agent and fortuitously he was in the UK and said “Why don’t we chat about it?” We met in a café and Neil said “So, you want to do Neverwhere on radio?” “Yes please!”
We chatted about it and Neil loves radio, and was hugely supportive of the idea and we talked about how it might and what we might be able to do and we kind of thought “OK, let’s try it.” And I then spoke to Jeremy Howe, drama commissioner at Radio 4 and Jeremy loved the idea and was hugely supportive of it as well. So we started thinking about how we could do it and the best actors we could have and so on, so slowly and surely, and Jeremy came up with the fabulous idea of being able to broadcast it across Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra, which we thought it was amazing to able to do it. It would give us half hour episodes and was something quite unique and exciting that we haven’t done before. So we were thrilled that we could do that. And then we got [Dirk Maggs] involved, and asked him to adapt it. So from this time last year it all came together, Dirk started writing the scripts and then in November we started casting these guys.
And how did you get such an amazing cast?
Natalie Dormer: Because of Neil, basically.
HL: James is a huge fan, Natalie is a huge fan, and it just happened that for some miraculous reason you guys weren’t off filming something.
Bernard Cribbins: We were all unemployed.
HL: Everybody just wanted to be involved in the project and so many were just huge fans of Neverwhere. This was the dream cast. James McAvoy was always Richard in my head, Benedict was always Islington, and when they said yes I was like a small child in a candy shop. And then Christopher Lee said yes and we all nearly fainted…It was all wonderful, but it was the material and the project and Dirk adapting and knowing that Dirk would be involved in creating the sounds, we just had an amazing team of people that everybody wanted to come and work with.
So Bernard you keep the company of pigeons and wear clothes made of feathers?
BC: Well he has birds around the whole time, he’s sort of spotted the whole time, throughout various things are flying over his head and doing what they do. But he’s got ravens, he’s got rooks, he’s got crows, he’s got starlings, all of which they eat. Because he does talk about starlings, “It’s a bit rank but it’s alright!” Yes, he’s very, very fond of his birds. He’s a roof man, essentially. I think he was on The Shard for a while but he didn’t really like it because it was a bit like sitting on an icicle! So he’s better off on a flat roof. That’s where he lives with all his birds and he loves them!
Dirk, I know this adaptation is described as an audio movie. How do you start?
Dirk Maggs: Well you start with a really good story, which of course we have from Neil. And it really is a case of building layers, and I think over the course of the last few years radio drama has built in sophistication. Digital technology is coming and we can spend more time creating the world. Obviously it all boils down to the budget but the thing is that we can actually create layers of reality and you can be much more immersive, and the clarity we have now is so wonderful. So when you get something as rich as London Below, as Neverwhere, the joke was really that Heather said “Would you direct the first episode?” And I said “We don’t go down to London Below, that’s the bit with just normal street scenes!”
But it really is a world of the imagination and it’s also thinking in ways in which you can shortcut. We don’t have that visual stimulus, it all goes through the side door, it bypasses the optic nerve, so the idea is “How can you very quickly establish a feeling of cold, of desolation, of space?” and it’s a combination of sound effects and the music and the actors and between the three we can get the feel right. It’s a wonderful thing about radio is that it has this slightly loose, relaxed feel, it’s a sort of alchemy where all of the elements combine to create something greater than the sounds.
Did you sit down and start at the beginning or did you start on something in episode 5?
DM: I was lucky enough or fortunate enough, and I’m very grateful for the chance, to actually adapt it so I could actually work the scenes in such a way that I knew I was playing to the strengths, not only of the medium and of the book, but also what I knew I could do well, so certain set-pieces like the Angel Islington, the big ending which I can’t give away, and The Beast, which I was particularly keen not to have sound like a Highland Cow, they’re bits that I was pretty sure I knew where to go for the elements I needed to build those. Others were more challenging. The hardest part for me was the really ordinary stuff, like Richard arriving at work, those scenes are the hardest because not a lot’s happening. But I’ve got to quickly pay tribute, first of all to the cast, who were wonderful and took what we’d got and ran with it, I mean a lot of James’ little asides are James, who’s being the part. That’s James really getting into it and it’s fizzing because the cast give so much and Natalie and James are really playing with the material. And the other thing is, we got the cast because we have a tradition of radio drama in this country, thanks to Radio 4 mainly. I think we should be really grateful because you’d work very hard to find a cast of this calibre anywhere else because nowhere else has this tradition that we’ve got. So I think we have to really have to thank Radio 4 for still being there for us and having such faith in radio drama.
Natalie and Bernard, you both said Neil, why you both said yes.
ND: Yeah, that was totally the reason I said yes. I’m a massive fan of Neil’s writing and then you add the pedigree that Dirk brought to the show, and it was a no-brainer really.
BC: I think Dirk was the attraction for me particularly, because we’re both mad musicians. (DM reaches for his wallet) You said a fiver! I just read the piece and thought it would be very nice to be involved.
Did either of you know Neverwhere at all before?
BC: No, I didn’t.
ND: I did, I went through a phase of adoring Neil through my early twenties so I read American Gods, Neverwhere, Stardust, so yeah. My fiver? It was just a bonus to find out the cast, and I don’t know about Bernard but when I walked into the table read and saw the other actors…
BC: It was ridiculous, wasn’t it?
ND: Absolutely astonishing. And very rarely do you walk into a table read and, and table reads are always fun because you catch up with people, but I think we were astounded. You saw the cast looking around, and it’s amazing to see the likes of Benedict and James a little bit starstruck by Christopher Lee at the end of the table. We were all so excited, and it was a gift to be able to sit down like that because we couldn’t record it chronologically because of people’s availability and so forth, so to sit down with that cast and just do it was fantastic.
BC: Christopher Lee was awful because he said “You’re sitting on my hat!” Totally untrue, it was actually between me and the person next to me. Christopher you know, that’s what he would accuse you of. And then I said “This is Australian, isn’t it?” And then he went into a long…where he bought it in Queensland, three kangaroos died…yes, a man of few thousand words.
DM: I should say that Natalie picked me up on stuff in the script. She says “Doesn’t he go there?” And I had to go and check things!
BC: Teacher’s pet!
ND: Yeah, I’ve been called worse.
And was that table read the only time you were all together?
BC: Yes, I only saw I think two or three of the actors after that doing my scenes and that was it.
Neil, you’ve got an appeal that goes across generations, do you think this will bring a younger audience to radio 4 and speech radio in general?
NG: I really hope it does. I’m definitely heartened by the number of questions I’m seeing from the UK and around the world on Twitter and on Tumblr and on Facebook from people going “I know this Radio 4 thing is happening, how do you listen to it?” Which I think is great, and I keep explaining iPlayer and live radio and all of this over and over, so it’s definitely bringing an audience because they are baffled. And you realise they don’t really know radio but they know Benedict Cumberbatch. And they know Bernard and they know Doctor Who and they know me, so that’s definitely helping.
I hope it does. I love radio drama more than I love any other medium. I think there’s a specific magic to it. And when it works it’s not like anything else. I literally remember sitting in the driveway during the first broadcast of episode 1 of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a very very long time ago and not getting out of the car. Having been driven home, my dad got out, I said “Leave the car on, I don’t want to miss a second of this.” And that feeling, I think is something unique to radio. So we’ll see. It’s the sitting in the driveway test, if it works.
You were never tempted to adapt it?
NG: No, I wasn’t actually. Mostly because there comes a point where you have to stop writing Neverwhere or you might turn into your own word processor. And having done it as a BBC TV series, as a novel, three different versions of the novel. Because I wrote it incredibly fast to come out with the TV series and I got to go back and adapt it for the US and add extra stuff, and I got to sit down a little bit later and go “This is the author’s final preferred text” with all the bits from the English edition and all the bits of the American edition put together. And then I spent several years writing movie versions of it for Hollywood, then one day I said “I’m done.” And I stopped writing Neverwhere and it was hard. Except right now I’m writing my very first Neverwhere short story ever, and my first return to Neverwhere since I first wrote it, a novella called ‘How the Marquis Got His Coat Back’
We have had several incarnations of Neverwhere now, what is it that keeps people coming back to it?
HL: I think it’s the characters. The alternative world of London Below, the fact that there really is an Angel called Islington, there are Black Friars at Blackfriars, you’ve got an Earl at Earl’s Court, you’ve got a Baron at Baron’s Court, you’ve got a Shepherd at Shepherd’s Bush…
DM: It’s so rich, and you really just barely scratch the surface. I mean, just going on the tube now, and you do, it’s what I like about this, is you go in with Richard, who’s this sort of slightly callow youth and he goes in, it’s his rite of passage through this thing. It was interesting talking to James, because he said to me at the table read, “In episode 3 Richard’s really sort of whingey, can we make him less whingey?” I said “I’m sure that’d be fine.” He said “I’ve turned down so many characters who are just whingeing all the time.” So we had a rewrite session on episode 3.
But the thing was he came in knowing, like all actors that he brings a certain amount of value to the script, both with his talent and with his name. And I said, as I’ve said to all of you, “It’s just so wonderful that you’re doing this, a cast of this calibre is so great,” And he said “I had to do it. I love this shit!” And the thing of it is that it gets everybody, it does suck you in, you become a part of London Below.
ND: And I think as a Londoner it’s so refreshing and a nice change to do something that’s London, home-centric. We’ve got such an American culture in our entertainment and what we watch, and to do something that is about home and looks at the rich tapestry in our fables and our stories, and you can update it continuously. Because The Shard wasn’t there the first time you wrote it, and you see London growing and changeing and changing, and one of things I love about Neil’s writing is the way he describes historical London banging and rubbing against modern London, and that’s how you can continue to update Neverwhere because London, London Below and London Above, continues to develop and change itself. The story will always stay fresh.
DM: And that affects sound design as well. We talked about how it would sound, and one of the things you said was the old street cries of London, a really evocative thing, and I thought the deeper you go into London Below, the older the bits are that have been slipping through the cracks. So by the time you get to the Labyrinth where the Beast is that’s where you start to hear the street cries, where Mayhew…was that a coincidence, Neil?
NG: He was named after Henry Mayhew who did London labour. That was one of those clever things that authors do when they need to name characters.
Do you think people need to sit down and really focus on the radio?
DM: I listen to it while doing the ironing. The ironing test in the kitchen. We’re not sit-in-the-drive people, we do something constructive.
ND: I listen while cooking dinner. And now with technology people will be able to listen to it on their iPhones while sitting on the tube.
DM: Yeah that was always my dream. It’s the tyranny of the image isn’t it, once you see an image you’re locked on to it.
NG: With radio you can walk around, I love cooking to the radio. For me, The Archers is something I listen to while I’m cooking whenever I’m in the UK. And you’re allowed, it gives you freedom. The way that I listened to all this, is they emailed me the mp3 files and I had a terrible, terrible cold and just took myself off to bed and listened to nothing but Neverwhere for the next day and a half, occasionally drifting into peculiar Neverwhere-scented sleep, in which the action would continue in very peculiar ways, and then I’d wake up and pick up where I’d left off.
ND: Just to say, I don’t think it should be a big surprise to us, it’s our oldest form of storytelling. As human beings, huddled in the warmth in our caves, human beings have been telling each other stories and letting our imaginations take us there. Our visual obsession is only near-centuries long, this is how storytelling has always been done.
BC: Someone said a long long time ago that you get much better pictures on radio.
Neverwhere begins on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 16 March at 2.30pm, and continues on BBC 4 Extra from Monday 18-Friday 22 March at 6.30pm.