Six Damn Fine Degrees #109: Neverwhere

A homeless person lies on the street covered by blankets

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Different people experience London very differently. But for Richard Mayhew, the London he ends up in is nothing like any version of London we are familiar with. Well, not if we’re lucky. Up until that point Richard has led a regular life. Office job, an apartment, a fiancée and the small worries that entails. Until, that is, he finds a severely wounded woman on the street and decides to help her. In this world no good deed goes unpunished, and soon after this chivalrous rescue, he starts to become invisible. Or unnoticeable, rather, as his colleagues and even his fiancée seem not to notice him unless he gets right in their face and speaks to them. He has slipped through the cracks into another, more peripatetic London. He rapidly loses everything. Job, apartment, fiancée; because to the people around him he has all but ceased to exist. And so he can think of only one option: descend to the underground into London Below, find the woman he rescued, and somehow make a way back to his previous life.

Laura Fraser, as the Lady Door points an object at the viewer.

So begins Neverwhere, the imaginative allegory by Neil Gaiman. The boundaries between what we would consider a normal life and abject poverty and homelessness, is so much thinner, after all, than most of us imagine. Well, as long as we’re lucky. If this makes the book sound dark, its writer’s innate compassion leads us on a rollicking adventure in the gloom, rather than just on a bleak tale of the sudden and dramatic downfall of a regular Joe. We meet the Lady Door (Laura Fraser), the wounded woman Richard (Gary Bakewell) decides to help. We meet the two base and animalistic assassins who are on her trail, Croup (Hywel Bennett) and Vandemar (Clive Russell). We meet Hunter (Tanya Moodie), the legendary warrior and bodyguard, on her quest to slay the Beast of London. We even run into an actual Angel (Peter Capaldi). And we meet the inimitable Marquis de Carabas: fixer, diplomat and trickster extraordinaire (Paterson Joseph).

Paterson Joseph as the Marquis de Carabas, looks ironic but not unfriendly, just off camera.

While the novel was released in September 1996, and is perhaps the best known Neverwhere project, a BBC television series preceeds it. The novel follows the plot of the series, devised by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry, but expands on the world of London Below and its characters.

The series is, truth be told, not very good. The production values are poor, the actors intermittently seem to think they’re in a kind of goth sitcom, and a climactic scene with the Beast of London is underwhelming to say the least. But there are splashes of colour. Many of the ancilliary characters are really very cool. The old roof-dwelling pidgeon fancier (Trevor Peacock), with a coat that would put a shedding Ginger Rogers feathered gown to shame, the various rulers of all the tiny fiefdoms of London Below and, of course, the Marquis himself. Creative set pieces, such as a private subway carriage, create an atmosphere of a London at once very alien to us, and disconcertingly close by.

As you’d expect with the talents of both Lenny Henry and Neil Gaiman, the writing is lush, and while the delivery sometimes oscillates between wooden and pure camp, it gives the characters and their relationships the depth and dignity which Gaiman typically bestows on his outcasts. Some scenes even deliver some real chills, as when the Marquis inevitably falls into the talons of Croup and Vandemar, and some real laughs, as when a very unexpected fate befalls a priceless porcelain figurine.

Some of the worldbuilding has definite staying power. The reason why, in this world, a tinny voice commands unsuspecting travellers to “mind the gap”, for example. And the now oft-used idea that the London Underground has many unused and secretive lines and locations, which can hold treasure and horror with equal probability.

A subway tunnel in which an oncoming subway glares with a white light in the darkness. A figure flees.

Where the series really hits home is in its forceful message that there but for the grace of God, go we all. A scene later in the series – and the book – has Richard go through an ordeal. It consists of Richard himself, now a homeless man talking to himself in a subway station, rejected by his former friends. He hears voices, some of them urging him to suicide. This is the fate that would befall someone like him in our world. Forgotten, rejected and with no recourse. For the benefit of readers as yet unfamiliar with the story, I will refrain from saying any more.

Personally I am very fond of the series, for its flaws as much as for its strengths. And the message has seldom seemed more timely than in the current day, where the thread between having a regular life and destitution has never felt flimsier. Is that a reason to see it? Unless readers share my tolerance for rickety production-values and oddball miniseries, perhaps not. There is, however, always the novel. The audio is beautifully read by Neil Gaiman himself and it has a bonus chapter, too. There is also a BBC radio adaptation, featuring the likes of James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Christopher Lee, to name but a few. Temple and Arch, dear reader. With such consummate storytelling, surely we may all find a little respite from the chill in these most uncertain days.

Gary Blakewell as Richard Mayhew and Laura Fraser as The Lady Door hug eachother.

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