Neverwhere -- A BBC Series (BBC, 1996; DVD release A&E, 2003)

Richard Mayhew, "normal, boring, a good laugh," is a Scot living in London and working in securities. He's got an apartment in a nearly fashionable street, a high-powered fiancee who wants him "to make the best" of himself, and a collection of plastic trolls. He's reasonably content... until the night he helps a young woman he finds bleeding on the pavement. Suddenly, his fiancee leaves him, his desk at work is missing, his apartment is being rented to someone else, and no one sees him. Richard is plunged into an underground world of Rat-speakers, Floating Markets, and men with names out of fairy tales.

Like most American fans of Neil Gaiman, I read the novel Neverwhere years before seeing the BBC television series he based it on. Having written the script for the show and been aggravated by the changes he'd been forced to make in it, he started writing the novel on the set so he could put all the bits back in. A&E finally put the show on a region-free two-disc DVD set this autumn. And there was much rejoicing.

Look, it's impossible not to compare the show to the book, but I'll try to save it for the end, okay?

Where to begin? The story's pure Gaiman (well, almost; those nasty interfering BBC people, you know). Imagine The Wizard of Oz set in the spaces under London, with villains both funnier and scarier, characters at least as weird, and plot twists based on puns on the names of Underground stations. No, really. It is, however, obviously Gaiman's first television screenplay. The plot gets sharply limited by the form, and shrunk even more by the changes required by the blokes at the BBC. Shame, really.

This series features some wonderful location work. Nearly the whole thing was shot on location, on Underground platforms, in Royal Mail tunnels and Victorian sewers, and on the HMS Belfast, to name a few. Lovely. Except, of course, that the whole thing was shot on video. Because it had been promised that the tapes would be run through a film filter, everything was lit for film. Unfortunately, the filtering never happened. The result is that even the magnificent lions of Trafalgar Square end up looking two-dimensional and fake, as if they were painted flats. Shame, really.

The acting is typically British, so that I've seen a number of American reviewers complain that performances are lifeless. Personally, I like British TV, and I didn't have that problem. Richard Mayhew (Gary Bakewell) is very normal and boring, and struggling to keep his head above water as he gets more and more out of his depth. Door (Laura Fraser) is gamine and slightly otherworldly. The Marquis de Carabas (Paterson Joseph) is charming, foppish, and utterly mercenary, and the baddies of the piece, Croup and Vandemar (Hywel Bennet and Clive Russell) pull off amusing and menacing beautifully. Unfortunately, if you're used to the dramatics of American soap operas, you probably won't like most of them. Shame, really.

There aren't many special features on the DVD set, just some brief character profiles, a BBC interview with Gaiman about the series, a few other things. But if you select the Commentary option on each episode's menu, or switch the Language over to English 2, you'll get Neil Gaiman's commentary, full of fun anecdotes and intriguing insights. Watch it through once, then put on the commentary and watch it again. Trust me.

I promised I'd hold off on the comparisons with the book. Well, now I'm going to give them. If you haven't read the book, you can skip down a bit. The story suffers a fair bit from Gaiman's ideal as expressed in the book. It more or less has to, doesn't it? You simply can't get all of it into six thirty-minute episodes. A number of my favorite bits were cut. Despite the visual problems caused by the taping, I found the settings really charming. They really fleshed out my mental pictures. Well, I don't know what a Victorian hospital basement looks like, do I? As for the characters, well, you know how it is. Real actors will nearly always fail to live up to the ones in your head. And that was mostly true for me, here. Hunter, especially, was very odd to watch. Tanya Moodie did a grand job playing the character she was given, but this is not the Hunter from the book. This Hunter is not a woman anyone would ever mistake for a prostitute, not someone whose dangerous side is hidden by her sensuality. Instead, she looks and acts like a female Masai warrior in some bizarre fantasy (which she more or less is). Most of the others do a fair enough job, all things considered. But it was Paterson Joseph who really made this show for me. The Marquis Paterson plays is actually better than the raggedy man I had in my head. I was simply delighted.

I enjoyed the show. I really did, despite all the things I've tutted over in this review. And if you're a Gaiman fan, or a Dr. Who fan looking for something new, or you like urban fantasy and don't mind the BBC's style, you'll probably like it too. But if you're addicted to The O.C. or Friends or some other shining example of American TV, you'll probably be happier skipping it.

Shame, really.

[Rebecca Scott]