Shiny Shelf


Neverwhere 15th Anniversary Edition DVD

By Mark Clapham on 28 November 2011

Ironically, considering its premise is that there’s a separate ‘London Below’ entirely unseen by the denizens of the normal, everyday capital, ‘Neverwhere’ seems to have slipped over from a parallel reality.

Broadcast in the mid 90s on BBC2, during a period when British TV didn’t make really make any fantasy or SF shows, its a real oddity. Six thirty minute episodes, shot on video for a sitcom budget, it has the slightly shoddy feel of what ‘Doctor Who’ might have been like if it hadn’t been canceled in 1989 and had instead limped on to 1996 in increasingly compromised form.

(Instead we got a semi-Americanised ‘Doctor Who’ in 1996, but that’s a completely different dead-end altogether.)

‘Who’ aside, it feels a lot like a BBC children’s fantasy serial, albeit one that’s been bumped past the watershed due to a surprise inclusion of swearing and grotesquerie.

Whatever comparison you make, ‘Neverwhere’ is an oddity, and nothing else like it was broadcast during that period.

Now, a Neil Gaiman-penned fantasy series from the BBC would be a big deal, but at the time ‘Neverwhere’ more or less sank without trace: no-one knew quite how to take it, and arguably the producers didn’t know how to actually make the damn thing.

‘Neverwhere’ was made by Lenny Henry’s Crucial Films (the series is co-devised by Henry, who approached Gaiman with a germ of an idea about a London-based fantasy series), and on the new introduction to this 15th anniversary edition Henry admits that an independent production company that had mainly worked on comedy wasn’t necessarily set up for making a fantasy drama on this scale, especially on a tight budget. Gaiman adds that while new digital film-making and editing techniques were emerging in the mid 90s, the makers of ‘Neverwhere’ didn’t have the knowledge to apply these.

BBC decisions certainly didn’t help, with the network imposing the thirty minute episode length (odd for a drama), and requesting that the series be recorded on videotape and ‘filmised’ later, only to then decide not to use the film-ising process after all. The result is visually somehow both flat and garish due to being lit for film but captured on unsparing video, and because of this manages to look oddly cheap even when shot in some spectacular locations around London.

Even the better creative decisions feel ill-at-ease. Dave McKean’s title sequence is striking, but it looks a bit  like something from a 1980s hologram gallery and is too ethereal and vague to work as a tone-setter. Brian Eno’s music is rattlingly distinctive, but yet again feels slapped on and rarely complements the action. There are a couple of set-piece moments of action that, for all the production team’s efforts to create and edit them effectively, just don’t work well enough.

The acting is more consistent in quality, although there’s a bit of wrestling with the tone. Gary Bakewell, best known as Paul McCartney in 90s beatopic ‘Backbeat’, is fine as everyman Richard Mayhew, and brings a little acidity to a role that could have been overly bland. Laura Fraser is appealing as Door, one of Gaiman’s signature quirky female characters, but is held back a bit by the need to deliver cutely opaque dialogue that takes away from the urgency of the character’s motivation.

Elsewhere, Hywel Bennett and Clive Russell are brilliantly over the top as sadistic villains, Peter Capaldi brings some complexity to a role that could be very silly in other hands, while Paterson Joseph doomed himself to be forever tipped as a potential Doctor Who with his hugely doctor-ish turn as the very doctor-ish Marquis de Carrabas. There are also a number of show-off character roles for the likes of Julie T Wallace and Freddie Jones, and right at the bottom of the cast list a young Tamsin Grieg as a sexy goth.

‘Neverwhere’ has a good premise, the idea of this other London where the names on the tube map are literal, from seven sisters to an order of black friars to a real angel in Islington. Gaiman gets some mileage out of this, and creates some really distinct characters amongst the subterranean denizens of London Below. Gaiman’s strength as a writer has always been that he writes lyrical, poetic dialogue, a quality which set him well ahead of the pack in comics and is similarly rare in television drama, and there are some fantastic lines here, even if they’re occasionally overwrought.

While Gaiman’s writing style is great, his plotting can often be more prosaic. For a writer who made his name with ‘The Sandman’, a story about the history of stories, he often writes fairly straightforward, linear quest narratives. ‘Neverwhere’ is one of those, six episodes of the characters going on a journey through London Below and encountering a number of challenges and eccentrics on the way. There’s not much in the way of twists for six weeks of television, although obviously that’s less obvious on DVD where any but the slowest viewer is likely to watch the whole thing much quicker.

For all its production problems, budgetary problems and eccentricities I found myself enjoying rewatching ‘Neverwhere’ a lot more than I expected to. On broadcast it arrived in a landscape parched of fantasy shows, on a wave of low-level fanboy hype, and I ended up disappointed. This time I set out with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised – although the production is shaky there’s an odd verve and charm to ‘Neverwhere’ that makes up for a lot of its flaws.

‘Neverwhere’ is an oddity, certainly, and part of the interest of the special features on this DVD is hearing about the background to such a flawed and strange production, but it’s a good little drama series, and therefore gets a cautious recommendation.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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