Another Review: Neverwhere (BBC Radio 4)

Not a TV series, not a book, not a video game, not even a movie — where to put this?

I’ll start out by saying I am not the biggest Neil Gaiman fan in the world. I love him and respect him very highly as an artist and an author. I am a fan of Sandman, which to me is the apex of what comic books are capable of. Sandman is what happens when a true master of story is given full control of Oneiros and uses the God of Dreams to create timeless magic. And I think Gaiman and Pratchett complement each other to perfection in Good Omens.

However, of Gaiman’s other endeavors that I’ve experienced — the movie adaptations of Stardust and Coraline, and the novels Neverwhere and American Gods — while they were compelling and beautiful stories in their own rights, they just weren’t mine, you know? They didn’t speak to me on a personal level. The narrative voices just didn’t resonate with me as audience, just didn’t match up with things I sincerely enjoy. And that’s fine. I’m perfectly happy to live in a world where some stories are meant for me and some stories are meant for others.

With that caveat out of the way, the voice cast in BBC Radio 4’s recent audio adaptation is pure delight. James McAvoy does something playful with the lead role that made me actually understand and relate to the curious blank slate reactive protagonist of Gaiman’s that I’ve never really liked. Benedict Cumberbatch brings his Midas touch to the story, making it glitter in ways that just reading it never did. The Marquis de Carabas, Hunter, the Black Friars, they all popped to life as they never had before.

I’m not sure how much credit for the magic of this version goes to Dirk Maggs’ script adaptation rather than the voice cast. Some, definitely. Serious editing skill was deftly applied here to lift a picture from page to sound, a picture that I enjoyed more in audio than in text, which is a rare thing indeed.

Natalie Dormer as Door is probably the least magical part of this audio story for me, but I’d say that’s a quality of the character, rather than the acting. She’s too much of a plot device and not enough of a person for my tastes. That being said, this version of Door actually piqued my interest in Portico’s family for the first time. The idea of a family of openers slipped beneath my notice when I read Neverwhere years ago. Suddenly, now it’s something I muse on with no small amount of glee. Thank you, BBC.

If you’ve got a patch of time coming up where listening to an audio play will brighten the hours (e.g. a long drive or walk, some mindless yet necessary physical chores, a lot of boring dailies to do in an MMO), Radio 4’s Neverwhere is a serious hard recommend from me. The story is very much Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, still not my perfect story cup of tea, but the concoction that is this cast and this version is just too good to ever willfully miss.

((It came to my attention after writing this that Neverwhere was actually originally a TV series, and that the novel I read was the novelization of said series. That explains part of why it transferred so well to audio, but I still think the cast made it amazing.))