Review: Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (1996)

There is a common misconception that Neverwhere is the adaptation of Neil Gaiman's first solo novel. To set the record straight, the series was a collaborative effort between Gaiman and Lenny Henry, written for the BBC. 

While the series was being filmed, Gaiman expanded the story, using his screenplay as a platform for his novel. The book was promoted as a companion to the series, which was released after the third episode in the fall of 1996 on BBC Two. Neverwhere was conceived as a fantasy story for modern times. Unfortunately the BBC set some strict rules for production. They insisted the series be shot on video and that each installment be limited to half hour episodes, and even worse, Neverwhere was given a sitcom budget, which didn’t do Gaiman's urban fantasy any favors. There was little money for building sets, and much of the series was shot on location to accommodate the story. Luckily production was given access to a set built underground tunnel, which was extensively used in the series. Set design and camera angles helped turn the the 50 foot long structure into the vast tunnels of London’s underground. In hindsight it’s easy to understand fan’s disappointment, especially those who where first introduced to the story by reading the novel. Production aside, there are many bright spots that help balance out Gaiman’s first TV series. 

When office drone Richard Mayhew stops to help an injured girl he encounters on the streets of London, his life is immediately changed when he is introduced to London Below. London Below is a city of lost and forgotten souls that exists contemporaneously with modern London, known as London Above. The series displays Gaiman’s signature element of harmoniously mixing fantasy and reality in the same realm. 

With characters ranging from peasants to royalty, the mysterious story unfolds like a classic tale of the macabre. Neverwhere may have been a little before its time in terms of television production, but the team makes the most with what they have to work with. “It is what it is,” said producer Larry Henry during the the 15th anniversary DVD introduction, “We gave it our best shot with the resources and budget available.” Despite financial hurdles, Neverwhere was blessed with an exceptional cast. The series provided a stepping stone for many actors. Laura Fraser is exceptional as the character Lady Door, a young women from London Below, and Peter Capaldi (Dr. Who) stars as The Angel Islington. Capaldi wore black contact lens to give the character and ancient presence. Overall it’s hard to be too critical with this series. Gaiman’s story is a fantastic tale, and the actors deliver, but sadly they were only given so much to work with. The half hour time slot also limited the flow of a story. After opening/ closing credits, and episode introductions, it only allowed so much time for Gaiman’s tale to unfold. There were many cuts made to the screenplay to accommodate the time restrictions. Many of these unused scenes were used in Gaiman’s companion novel. Since 2006, Neverwhere has been adapted for the stage by 3 different playwrights, and in 2013 a radio adaptation was commissioned by BBC Radio 4. Adapted and directed by Dirk Maggs, the radio drama stars James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, Benedict Cumberbatch, and the late Sir Christopher Lee. In February of 2017, Gaiman revealed he had completed 3 chapters of a Neverwhere sequel novel entitled The Seven Sisters. In an era where remakes have become the norm, this series would make a worthy candidate. 

Gaiman’s catalog has proven to be successful when adaptedfor television and film. Original works such as Stardust, Coraline, and the Jerry Bruckheimer produced series Lucifer have all been well received. Gaiman has also written episodes for Dr. Who and Babylon 5, and he co-wrote the script for Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf with Roger Avery. The upcoming series adaptation of Gaiman’s novel American Gods looks to add another impressive credit to the author’s resume. 

After Neverwhere aired, the rights were immediately purchased to be adapted for film. Gaiman has revealed he has written at least 8 movie scripts while the rights bounced from one studio to another. Gaiman still remains hopeful, but after 20 years he’s confessed little interest in writing another screenplay for his imaginary tale of London Below. Until then, this BBC series will have to do. As mentioned before, it is lacking in several departments. Perhaps the best way to describe the production is to imagine what a ‘90s produced telenovela fantasy would look like. Luckily much that is lacking is overshadowed by an impressive cast and one of Gaiman’s most fascinating original stories. It’s easy to criticize the series’s shortcomings, but in the end, it really is impressive what the production team was able to create with such a limited budget. 

Lee L. Lind