Neil Gaiman 's Neverwhere is the grand TV epic that never really was. Scripted by Gaiman from an idea by Lenny Henry in 1996, its origin as a BBC One series was simply a case of the wrong place at the wrong time. For of all the story-telling mediums that could handle the imaginative scope of the authors' urban fantasy, mid-’90s BBC television was not one of them – hence why, for fans, it’s the much-beloved novel adaptation which followed that truly does the story justice.
With this new star-studded adaptation, however, Radio 4 may just update that.
For those who don't know, the central premise of Neverwhere is that there are two Londons: our London Above and London Below, a fantastical world where the capital comes alive. In this hour-long opener (with five half-hour episodes to follow), we're introduced to Richard Mayhew (James McAvoy), a young Scot who, through a chance encounter with a young girl called Door ( Game Of Thrones ' Natalie Dormer), finds himself not existing to anyone or anything. If he's to have any hope of getting his Above life back, he must journey Below to help find out who ordered the murder of Door's parents all the while being pursued by the actual murderers, the sadistic double-act Croup (Anthony Head) and Vandemar (David Schofield).
The cast is not only Hollywood in calibre, but quality too. Unsurprising (as they were hardly going to sound like amateurs), but it is still weirdly wonderful to hear even those in minor cameo roles – Johnny Vegas' Lord Rat-speaker or Bernard Cribbin's endearingly eccentric manifestation of The Old Bailey, for instance – throwing themselves so enthusiastically into the surreality of the material. Above all, though, it's the main band of David Harewood's swashbuckling Marquis de Carabas, Sophie Okonedo's warrior, Hunter, Natalie Dormer's grieving Door and James McAvoy's hapless Richard who lead it – the latter, especially, portraying 'the everyman out of his depth” as remarkably relatable.
• Neil Gaiman On The Neverwhere Radio Adaptation
The cast, however, is only as good as the story itself; which, whilst whimsical and strange, is built on the profoundly dark and twisted exploration of those who have fallen through the cracks of life – Gaiman's development on Lenny Henry's original idea of doing something about the homeless tribes of London. These are the people – just like Richard Mayhew or young rat-speaker, Anaesthesia, who ran away from home after being abused – that those Above don't see.
Director Dirk Maggs (adapter of Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy ) embraces the darkness of this premise in only the way the sound-scapes can – swamping London Below with a stark sense of atmosphere and menace. The sound-design, especially when combined with the cast, is astoundingly detailed and effective. Take the scene in which Richard, Hunter and Anaesthesia must cross the dreaded Knight's Bridge, which requires a toll of life. Not only does the production nail the scale of the bridge beforehand but the crossing of it – a journey through nightmares themselves – is the sort of abstract horror that only the myriad potential of the imagination can do justice.
And that, above all, is the novelisation and this adaptation of Neverwhere 's great strength. Its ideas and imagery are far too intricate and bizarre to be left up to the medium of television. Instead, it thrives from the suggestive power of description – to let you fill in the gaps. The best pictures, after all, are in your head.
Now, onwards to the Angel Islington...
Stephen P Kelly
• Neverwhere begins on Radio 4 on Saturday 16 March at 2.30pm.