Neverwhere (1996)

Sometimes serendipity occurs in the most unexpected ways, but that’s exactly how it occurs. I was browsing the racks of DVDs available to check out at my local library branch (which happens to have a lot of foreign and Criterion titles, but that’s a story for another day). I came across a DVD case with a spiked fist, the BBC logo, and Neil Gaiman’s name on it. Sold! I immediately checked the DVD out, noting that it was the 15th anniversary edition – it has to be good if it’s endured this long and gotten a re-release. I love 80’s and 90’s fantasy films, especially if it was on a low budget.

In fact, I probably prefer movies with low budgets. Not schlocky-low budget Grade Z movies, but well-done movies that overcome the challenges of a constrained budget either by focusing on a magically compelling story or finding inventive approaches that utilize old school special effects. Neverwhere has the storytelling power of Gaiman fueling it past the constrained budget (which was a topic of discussion in both the Gaiman interview and the group 15th anniversary interview on the DVD extras).

Neverwhere is about two separate Londons – London Above and London Below. London Below is full of the people that ‘normal’ London Above people ignore or just don’t see at all. Gaiman explained that the producer (and co-writer, Lenny Henry) proposed that they tell a story about the overlooked homeless people of London, but Gaiman didn’t want to dramatize and glamorize being homeless, so they changed the working of the concept, which worked out even better as they got to bring in the mystique of the London Underground (which definitely upped the appeal for a lot of people).

While the miniseries is fantasy – it doesn’t actually contain any monsters of any sort apart from one blurry bull/boar/monster that you never actually see up close and in detail. Neverwhere is a pet project that Lenny Henry brought Gaiman in, and they were given a budget by the BBC normally given to sitcoms (not to fantasy shows) – and the BBC required that they do it on video. Shooting with video (rather than film) on a budget less than half of what they actually wanted and needed meant that they had to film on location instead of building stages somewhere – and that’s a good thing. Being filmed on video means that the quality of the series on DVD is probably the best it’ll ever be, but this series is about the storyline itself, rather than the special effects*.

* – The exception is the simply amazing inter-title sequence created by Dave McKean (whom also illustrated all the covers for the entire Sandman comic series that Gaiman wrote).

With all the burdens placed upon Henry and Gaiman, they knew they had to find a director that saw their vision, especially with how wonky the script was. They finally found their director with Dewi Humphreys, who did a fantastic job, although I think their casting decisions was even better. The main characters were played by Gary Bakewell (who hasn’t done anything else really), Laura Fraser (A Knight’s TaleThe Man in the Iron Mask, and even Iron Jawed Angels), Paterson Joseph (The Beach and Aeon Flux), Peter Capaldi (appeared in the recent World War Z), Clive Russell (Sherlock HolmesThe 13th Warrior, and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows), and Hywel Bennett (the Shelley television series). Paterson Joseph stole the show in my estimation, with the duo of Bennett and Russell coming in second.

The main character is Gary Bakewell’s Richard Mayhew who meets the mysterious Door (Laura Fraser), bloody on the London street and fleeing the supernatural assailant duo of Mr. Croup (Hywel Bennett) and Mr. Vandermaar (Clive Russell). Door is able to summon and enlist the assistance of the Marquis De Carabas (Paterson Joseph) to guide her back to London Below and to find out who killed her family. The drama concludes in just six brief episodes, although as the writers mentioned – they would have had a lot more plot to expound upon – enough to fuel multiple seasons in the world of Neverwhere, and that was originally the plan. As it is, we’re lucky to have this single mini-series with all 6 episodes it contains.

When I first began watching Neverwhere, I was struck by the cinematography which featured sweeping/swooping camera movements (there’s no easy way to describe it without watching it for yourself). Those movements seem to be uniquely British and lend themselves well to the series as a whole. The props are well-chosen as well (or lack thereof). The story is the real focus of Neverwhere and it shows.

The London Underground map is always integrated into the beginning of each episode as the background (while a brief recap is provided of pertinent details prior to the episode beginning). It almost has a quasi-documentary feel to it, but it’s thematic and in-character. The scenes and their locations are kind of grimy, grungy, and that’s exactly the feel that Neverwhere wants to convey about itself. London Below just cannot be pristine, sterile, and unaffected by the ravages of nature and time. Having a low budget probably was a blessing for Neverwhere, since it’s admirably succeeded by taking advantage of natural locations and maximizing their dollars by getting creative.

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