Starring: Gary Bakewell, Laura Fraser, Paterson Joseph, Hywel Bennett, and Clive Russell
By Preston Nelson
22 August 2011 — Saying you're a Neil Gaiman fan on the Internet is like saying you're a human being or a cat intelligent enough to use a keyboard and mouse; of course you are. Gaiman is not just a beloved author online, he's something of a social quantifier for my generation. Geeks love Gaiman; he's the modern Douglas Adams. But before he made bank with his novels and married the chick from The Dresden Dolls, Neil wrote a TV show for the BBC.
The show was Neverwhere, and it's big hunks of Doctor Who mixed with ideas from Sandman and what would become Gaiman's most famous work, American Gods. Admittedly, Gaiman wasn't perfectly thrilled with how a few things in the series turned out, so he reworked it into a novel. Up until this year, Neverwhere was the only Gaiman book I hadn't read. I'd had a copy for years, and just never managed to get around to it. I took the book to Mexico on my honeymoon, and somehow the combination of sunshine, beachfront, and piles of free liquor were exactly what I needed to be pulled into the London Underground. I devoured Neverwhere, and I immediately knew that it would work wonderfully as a film, or, better yet, a television series. Imagine my surprise and excitement when I saw that, not only was it a show, the show had actually come first.
Does the show live up to my expectations, lofty though they are? Is it the amazingly deep, beautiful world the concept demands?
The concept I'm referring to is thus: beneath every major city there is a society of forgotten people, the people who slipped through the cracks. The homeless, the mythic creatures, and people of every time butt up against one another in the sewers and subways. Amongst all of these people are the Openers, a family with the inherent skill of opening things: doors, boxes, anything. The entire family of Openers is killed, with only the eldest daughter, Lady Door, surviving. She goes on the run from two hired guns, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. Injured, she stumbles into the London we all know. There she meets Richard Mayhew, a run-of-the-mill man in his 20s. She pulls Richard into the the chaos of London Below, into a diverse cast of characters, and into the mystery of who had her family killed. The concept itself — a city below the city, where society's material refuse meets its human refuse — is brilliant. The execution, however, suffers from being a low-budget product of mid-90s BBC.
The biggest problem with the show is purely aesthetic. The sets and effects just look cheap. Don't get me wrong, I can forgive a lot when it comes to cheap effects; I don't want every show to have Hollywood backing to get made. However, when things look so rough that my suspension of disbelief is hurt, we have a problem. It's not a spoiler to say that there is a giant beast below London. It's supposed to be something between a boar, a mammoth, and a bull. It's a centuries-old monstrosity, fueled by rage and hate and pure animal lust for carnage. How does the show choose to represent such a creature?
If you're thinking "That's not so bad," then you're not a former farm kid from northern Wisconsin. See, from the silhouette, I can tell you what that is. And it's not a beast. Hell, it's not even scary. As a matter of fact, take it out of shadows and it's fucking awesome.
That's a Highland cow. He's a sweetheart and he's adorable and I want to take him on adventures. This is, without a doubt, the best example of the problems with the show, but it's not the only one. There are countless moments which are ruined by poor effects — from glasses of magic wine that are clearly filled with glow stick fluid to a man passionately making out with a piece of pottery. All that said, if you can get past the dodgy effects and sets, there is actually a lot to like about the show; the story is engaging, and the costumes and actors are fantastic.
Our viewpoint protagonist is Richard Mayhew, played by Gary Bakewell. Bakewell is the spitting image of Paul McCartney, and plays Richard's wide-eyed naivety very competently — though the part doesn't really require a pile of depth or range. The Lady Door is played by Laura Fraser, who does well enough, but the role is a little bit bland. That's more the part than the actress, however. Our heroes pick up a bodyguard named Hunter, a part that seems like it was made for Firefly's Gina Torres. Since this was produced in 1996, however, the role was given to Tanya Moodie — who is appropriately terrifying.
Two of the most interesting characters are the assassins Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, portrayed by Hywel Bennett and Clive Russell, respectively. These guys are incredible. They're sadistic, insane, and really funny. Throughout the series they torture people, eat live animals, and consistently make me laugh. The premise of these characters is that they're not quite human, though they are in the shape of men. For Hywel Bennet, this is in his face and his eyes, as well as the way he speaks. Clive Russell's Vandemar, however, is much less verbose, leaving his character to develop through his blunt speech and physically imposing demeanor. Above all, though, the star of the show (even if he's not the protagonist) is The Marquis de Carabas, played brilliantly by Paterson Joseph. The Marquis is The Doctor by way of Ford Prefect, with a dash of the Cheshire Cat. He's a liar, a charlatan, and even something of a monster — but you have to love him. He's just so damned charming. There are a dozen other characters, including an angel, rat-people, vampires, monks, and every single damn thing you can think of.
I do recommend Neverwhere, but with a caveat. Don't read the book first. I love the book, and I highly recommend reading it. But due to the amateurish effects, the things you imagine are going to blow this show away. It's the kind of program that deserves a remake, because it could be so much more than it is. It's fine for what it is, which is a lot of fun, but it's hardly perfect. Give it a shot, and if you enjoy it, then read the book. It's a six-episode show spanning two DVDs. It's not a huge commitment, and there are worse ways of killing time until Game of Thrones and Doctor Who are back on the air.