“Craftsmanship, Mr. Croup.”
Neverwhere was a major stepping stone for writer Neil Gaiman (Coraline). It’s where he began his transition from cult-following comic book writer to worldwide bestselling author who marries rock stars.
Neverwhere is an odd production no matter how you look it at. The story has to do with two Londons existing in the same space, one of which containing magical/fantasy elements. Behind the scenes, the six-part miniseries was made on a shoestring budget in the roughest of conditions. It’s odd, but it’s wonderfully odd.
Richard Mayhew (Gary Bakewell, Backbeat) is an ordinary Londoner. He works in an office, is engaged to a career-minded lady, and he collects troll dolls. Then, one night, he meets a young girl named Door (Laura Fraser, A Knight’s Tale), who needs his help. Turns out she’s from London Below, another London existing underneath and around London, in hidden places ordinary folks are unaware of, just beyond the corner of the eye. Door’s family has been murdered, and she’s on the run, hoping to discover who was behind the attack. Richard ends up tagging along, journeying deep into London Below with Door and her other companions, the shifty Marquis De Carabas (Paterson Joesph, Survivors) and bodyguard Hunter (Tanya Moody, Sherlock). While traversing abandoned subway tunnels, dank sewer passages, and hidden floating markets, Richard and Door piece together the mystery and encounter more of London Below’s colorful characters. They are pursued throughout by ruthless hired killers Mr. Croupe (Hywel Bennett, Vatel) and Mr. Vandemar (Clive Russell, The 13th Warrior).
Of all the modern mythologies and contemporary folklores to be found, some of my favorites have been tales that take place underneath big cities. There’s a powerful sense of mystery wondering what goes on far below those city streets. You have labyrinthine subways, dank sewers, and tunnels and passageways off all sorts. As such, writers and artists have often searched this underground in their own ways. Urban legends abound about alligators in sewers, not to mention Ninja Turtles. Vincent from the 1980s series Beauty and the Beast prowled the underground as he protected a secret society in hidden tunnels. Marvel Comics’ mutant Morlocks lurk down there, vigilantes from Batman to Angel use the underground to get around, and let’s not forget those darned C.H.U.D.s. The list goes on and on. Neverwhere plays strongly on the wonders, the mystique and the fears of this otherwise unseen world—one we know exists all around us but will never see.
Just as fascinating as the world of Neverwhere is the circumstances of how it was made. With the tiniest of budgets, the miniseries made up for lack of special effects or mammoth sets with a guerilla “you are there” style. Gaiman has famously compared Neverwhere to a Jackie Chan movie. Not because there’s a lot of punching and kicking (though there is a little) but because when Jackie is hanging off a helicopter, there’s no stuntman, no CGI, no effects—that’s really Jackie hanging off a real helicopter. Similarly, when the characters in Neverwhere are walking through abandoned subway tunnels, those are real abandoned subway tunnels deep beneath London. One of the show’s most celebrated scenes has the characters sitting around a dinner table as subway trains speed by in the background, shaking the table and blowing wind in everyone’s faces. Those were actual trains filled with actual Londoners who probably had no idea they were cameoing in Neverwhere. The genuinely grimy, gritty quality of the real underground gives Neverwhere a look unlike any other TV show you’ve ever seen. To be fair, part of that is unintentional, as the locations were lit to be shot on film, and were instead shot on video, making the lighting look kind of “off” throughout. I didn’t mind this so much, but it has been a real sticking point with many viewers, not to mention the producers.
As Richard, Bakewell does a good job of looking perplexed throughout the series, but when you think about it, Richard undergoes a tremendous amount of growth from beginning to end. One scene has Richard and Door returning to London Above where Richard is reunited with someone from his normal life. This happens early on, and yet even by this point we can see how much London Below has changed Richard from the person he was when we first met him. Later, Richard must undergo an “ordeal,” in which we get a deep look inside his head, as his inner struggle is illustrated in a simple but effective way. In a lot of fantasy adventure stories like this, the Richard-like character, the one from Earth who ends up exploring the magical otherworld, is merely a cipher for the audience. The ordeal, however, reveals a depth of character to Richard that other cipher characters do not often have. Richard’s issues, for lack of a better phrase, have been with him for quite a while before he retreats to London Below, and the ordeal just brings them out. This sets the stage for the final confrontation at the story’s climax. The joke here is that Richard doesn’t really earn his hero status, and yet if you look at his Neverwhere journey as a whole, it feels earned nonetheless.
Door is a “Gaiman girl,” the type that shows up in a lot of his writings. She’s quirky and a little bit ditzy, but with layers of great emotional strength underneath her flighty exterior. She bounces back and forth from showing her kind, caring side with a smile that speaks volumes, while also dealing with the recent murders of her family. It’s a lot to ask of a young actress, but Laura Fraser pulls it off nicely. It’s easy to believe that this underground world hinges around the future of this girl, and that she might grow into a great leader someday. Paterson Joseph, meanwhile, gets all the best lines—and the best wardrobe—as the Marquis De Carabas. He’s a standout as the trickster character, so charming and so untrustworthy at the same time. He’s electric every time he’s on screen. As Hunter, Tanya Moody can sometimes come off as one-note, but she has some great moments, notably a speech she gives at one point about her desire to slay the great beast of London. The words are so stirring and her delivery is so passionate, you’ll want to pick up the nearest spear and go hunting for the monster yourself. Finally, of course, Bennett and Russell dive into their roles as villains Croup and Vandemar with relish, nicely combining darkly comedic absurdity with pure evil.
If you bought the previous release of Neverwhere, what are you getting new with this one? First, the whole series is now on one disc instead of two, and it’s been given a new transfer. Considering the limited budget and odd lighting situation, there’s not much that can be improved on. It’s clearly shot-on-cheap-video, and all the digital scrubbing can’t change that, so colors tend to be flat and some color bleeding can be seen. Beyond that, though, I didn’t see any streaks, haze, or other such flaws. Audio is a middle of the line 2.0 surround, clean and clear, but not exactly an immersive experience.
New to this release is a 15th anniversary introduction by Gaiman and the producers, as well as a brand new commentary by the same. They show a lot of fondness for the series, while also not hesitating to point out where they think it could have improved, if circumstances had been different. All of the other extras have been ported over from the previous release, including a Gaiman interview and solo commentary, both of which repeat information with the new commentary. There is also a text bio of Gaiman, and text descriptions of the characters. Finally, new to this release is a fold-out insert described as a “map” of London Below, but is actually just a piece of artwork spelling out the word “Neverwhere.”
The novel Neverwhere and this miniseries were written and produced simultaneously, so one is not an adaptation of the other, and yet as is often the case I recommend that first-timers read and enjoy the book first, and then dive into the miniseries. This will add layers of understanding to London Below that the fast-moving miniseries can’t quite capture.
Having said that, though, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Neverwhere the series. Take a script with great ideas and dialogue, add a group of excellent performers, and then film it in an actual hidden underground world, and you’ve got an entertainment experience like no other. Have an open mind, and check it out.