Over the past week, the BBC has been broadcasting a dramatisation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, making this the third format in which the story has been told. First it was a 1996 TV series, from the days before the BBC had such a thing as a special effects budget; then it was a book, adapted by Gaiman from him own scripts; and now it is a six-part radio play, featuring such stars du jour as Benedict Cumberbatch, Natalie Dormer, and James MacAvoy alongside acting legends like Bernard Cribbins and Christopher Lee.

The dramatisation is currently available world-wide on the BBC iPlayer.

This matches the order in which I’ve seen/read/listened to the story, and the thing that really strikes me is how consistently the story works across all formats. Each format has its strength – the TV series has its visual effects, the book its descriptions, the radio its atmosphere. First and foremost, though, it’s the story that shines through.

Sometimes with Neil Gaiman you imagine that’s he’s come up with a concept and then tried to work a story around it. That definitely seems the case with Neverwhere – the conceit revolves around a secret London below the city, where all those famous London placenames are taken literally. There is an Earl in Earl’s Court, an Angel in Islington, and an old man called Old Bailey. Into this mix Gaiman throws some chestnuts like the young man (Richard) on the hero’s journey and the damsel in distress – “we have a damsel to undistress” says de Carabas early on, quite blatantly – and the said damsel Door does display an alarming number of the qualities of the manic pixie dream girl – a female character with no inner life, the only purpose of whom in a story is to knock the hero out of his boring humdrum existence.

But fortunately Gaiman can introduce the tropes, play with them, and go beyond them. Richard goes on his hero’s journey, but spends most of the time trying to get back to his old, comfortable life – the life he’s worked hard for, with the flat and the good job and the posh girlfriend. The quest is not his, but belongs to the damsel – Door has her own story, her own motivation, her own power, and for big chunks of the story Richard is a passenger on her journey, rather than the other way around.

So we read, or watch, or listen to the story, and it feels familiar and new at the same time. We recognise the hero and the damsel, we have that immediate connection, but they’re not stale stereotypes – we want to find out more about them, and care about what happens to them. This is probably the thing I like most about Neil Gaiman’s writing – the sense of familiarity, of recognition, of archetypes made flesh, all viewed from a different, fresh angle.

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s work for a very long time – since Sandman in the early 90s – and there are some pieces of his work that will stick with me forever. I was reminded today of his issue of Hellblazer with that wonderful piece about butterflies:

Don’t you just love it to death? When the leaves start to crisp and yellow, and the mists crawl in off the Thames, and all the good-looking women vanish.

I was chatting to this cab driver the other day. He said he thought the pretty ones in the summer dresses were like butterflies.

He said when it gets cold they go off and hibernate in empty rooms. S’pose he must have been a frustrated poet, or a horror writer.

This one seems to be a National Front recruiter.

That piece has stuck with me for decades, and it’s rare that I encounter an opinionated taxi driver without thinking of that scene.

But it’s Neverwhere, in all its incarnations, that remains my favourite of everything of his that I’ve read. Perhaps it’s because so much is set underground, with which I’ve always had a fascination – it’s no coincidence that I’m writing a book called The Chimney Rabbit and the Underground Mice.

Or perhaps it’s because it tells a good story, develops a rich mythology all of its own, is populated by interesting, sympathetic characters, and even when the sense of familiarity is because you’ve read and seen it before, each new incarnation provides another viewpoint on the story.

But it’s probably the underground thing.


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