Sunday, November 28, 2010

Signals From Left Field: Neverwhere (1996 British TV)

"It's when you're safe at home that you wish you were having an adventure. When you're having an adventure you wish you were safe at home." ~ Thorton Wilder

Those words hold a significant truth about the basic theme of the 1996 British miniseries, Neverwhere, a story crafted by one of my favorite writers in Neil Gaiman. Upon watching the six roughly half-hour episodes, it sums up everything the protagonist experiences in quite the pretty little package. It's an adventure, pure and simple, underneath all of the fantastic and fairy-tale stylings in which Gaiman dresses the story. And some of the best adventures involve the fish-out-of-water, the inexperienced catalyst, the unaccounted-for fly in the antagonist's ointment. Neverwhere features one wonderful example of that type of character in an atypical hero named Richard Mayhew (Gary Blakewell).

Gary Blakewell as Richard Mayhew (above) and Laura Fraser as Door (right)

Neverwhere appeared first as the miniseries then as a book penned by Gaiman, a veteran of acclaimed comic book stories such as the tremendous Sandman series. The series aired on BBC Two and eventually became available on DVD through A & E in the United States (I first watched it on loan from Netflix). One of the most noticeable traits of the series, at least in the way it looks, is the "PBS video" appearance. Yes, Neverwhere is shot in video. It was meant to be edited later to give it more of a "film" appearance, yet that never happened, so it aired "as is." And you know what? It doesn't take away from the story's richness one bit.

Hywel Bennett as Mr. Croup and Clive Russell as Mr. Vandemar

The story is a modern odyssey, a retelling of The Wizard of Oz if Dorothy was a befuddled Scottish guy and the denizens of a reality right under our noses played for keeps. Richard Mayhew has a typical life with a bossy fiancée and a boring job, yet he's an optimist and has a notoriously kind heart. That heart gets him into trouble the minute he rescues a mysterious homeless woman named Door, a pretty little wisp of a girl who has the ability to open any door with the touch of her hand. She's pursued by hired assassins, the theatrical Mr. Croup and the Vinnie Jones-lookalike Mr. Vandemar, who wish to deliver her to an unseen benefactor. Richard's life takes a turn for the bizarre the minute he becomes involved with Door.

Door, Hunter (Tanya Moodie), and Richard

After nursing Door back to health and enlisting the help of the dandy scoundrel Marquis de Carabas (Paterson Joseph), Richard is left to find that no one remembers him. His brush with what's called London Below - where the homeless mingle with the fringes of time and reality - has drawn him into a world of political intrigue and high adventure against a backdrop of urban fantasy. Richard must now find Door and join her in her quest to reach The Angel Islington (Peter Capaldi) to find answers regarding the massacre of her family, royals set to unite the kingdoms of London Below. Like a dark reflection of Dorothy Gale's team of unusual beings, Richard finds himself teamed with Door, the legendary warrior Hunter, and the Marquis.

Paterson Joseph as the Marquis de Carabas

The journey is rife with the strange and unusual, and poor Richard is the key to the entire thing. There are "floating markets," street carnivals and trade shows that take place suddenly in abandoned buildings or closed-for-the-night tourist attractions. Souls can be bought and traded, or stored in inanimate objects for safekeeping. An ancient order of monks have been guarding an important key for centuries in a darkened corner under London. Every stop along the London tube lines has its own personality, a reason for its name. Through it all, Richard is the catalyst. He's the innocent, and that is perhaps his most powerful trait. He doesn't understand everything, but he wants to do the right thing every time. When his true trials come, you're never sure he's going to make it. He's not from London Below. It's not his world.

Peter Capaldi as The Angel Islington

Oh, and the ending. To me, the ending is one of the most satisfying conclusions I've ever seen. I will absolutely not spoil it here. I can tell you that when I read the book (which I did first instead of seeing the series), then watched it on the screen, I uttered an audible "yes." It's how I wanted it to end. Maybe it's an obvious ending, maybe you'll see it coming, but it really is satisfying.

I love Neil Gaiman's work. I enjoyed the Sandman series, his 17th century reimagining of Marvel superheroes in 1602, and the enormous imagination of Stardust, Coraline, and the book I just finished, American Gods. Gaiman is known for painstaking research and detail, digging up fairy tales and giving them a new wash for a new audience. Neverwhere demonstrates that word imagination very deftly. World creation in a fictional setting is never easy, yet here's London Below, as realistic and alive as if it actually existed. The characters, both good and evil, so endearing, you might wish you really knew them.

Neverwhere is pure adventure, pure storytelling from the mind of one of the great modern weavers of fantastic fiction. If you can get past the "PBS video" look of it - which really doesn't take much effort - you'll find a wonderful tale that should be listed among the great journeys that heroes have taken in literature.

But that's just me. Find out for yourself, and I hope you enjoy the adventure.

No comments: