I love an urban fantasy, especially one set in that multifaceted gem of a city that is London. This was the city of my childhood so perhaps my perception is skewed, but to my mind no other city is quite so magical and yet mundane, benign and yet sinister, slipping from one state to another in the blink of an eye. This is a place of contrast and contradiction, a place in constant phase transition, both solid and in flux, where fashion and novelty come but never go, simply layered over what came before, becoming part of the background.
Of all the forays into this beguiling territory, two pieces of work stand out for me: China Miéville’s debut novel, King Rat (1998), and Neil Gaiman’s television series turned novel, Neverwhere (1996). Strictly speaking, Neverwhere is the child of two fathers, Gaiman and comedian turned producer, Lenny Henry, who approached Gaiman with the idea of a fantasy set amongst the homeless of London.
The result was a six part TV series that delves deep into London Below, a magical world that coexists with London Above. The name is deceptive because while London Below does occupy the strata that lie beneath the city, layer upon layer of tunnels, passageways, sewers and cavernous places, the inhabitants of this other London also occupy spaces above ground level, hidden amongst the roofs, spires and chimneys of the city.
The writing is classic Gaiman with its blend of reality, history, metaphor and the fantastical, it is funny, scary and thrilling, slipping in and out of drama and comedy. Much of the narrative occurs in and around the London Underground which Gaiman has transformed into a labyrinth of wonder and horror, playing games with the names of the stations: the Angel Islington is an angel, Black Friars is occupied by a mystical order of Black Friars, Knightsbridge is transformed into a place of nightmare, Night’s Bridge, where the toll for crossing is a life.
When office drone Richard Mayhew (Gary Bakewell) rescues a mysterious girl named Door (Laura Fraser), he unwittingly finds himself part of her quest to learn why her parents have been killed. The next thing he knows, Mayhew’s life changes forever as he’s pulled into the fantastical world of London Below, far from his mundane life in London Above. Pursued by the murderous Messrs. Croup and Vandemar, Door and Richard, with the help of Hunter and the Marquis de Carabas, attempt to find the Angel Islington, who knows the secret behind the murder of Door’s family, and possibly a way for Richard to return to his former life in London Above.
This November, the BBC has released the 15th Anniversary Edition of the TV series. If you haven’t seen the series, this is the edition to pick up. If you have seen it already and possess a copy (as I do), there is one good reason to pick up this edition: the specials. Alongside the original interview with Gaiman from the earlier edition, there is a new interview with Gaiman, Henry and producer Clive Brill in which the trio discuss the good and the bad about the series, in particular the limitations imposed from above which meant finding some very creative – read “cheap” – solutions to breathing life into the fantastical world of London Below: the series had a small budget more typical of a sitcom than a fantasy series, and it was shot on video rather than film in 30 minute episodes. Gaiman’s original audio commentary is included with the dvd, but there is a new commentary with the trio. And frankly, any opportunity to listen to Gaiman talk about his work and ideas is worth taking.
As Gaiman, Henry and Brill openly admit, the series has its flaws – at times the limited budget shows, and for all the creative solutions the designers came up with to realise the fantastical world of London Below, the series would have looked far better on film than video. But Neverwhere has something that many series with bigger budgets lack: creative genius. The writing is exceptional and as we’ve seen time and again, good writing stands the test of time when the slick and glamorous fades from memory.
Neverwhere may not be slick, but it has substance. Highly recommended.
You can own the 15th Anniversary Edition on DVD from 15 November 2011. Check out the official site here. And for a peak at the series, check out the clips below: