In this realm, an Earl literally holds court at the Earl’s Court tube station, black friars are indeed in residence beneath the area known as Blackfriars, and the Angel, Islington is an actual angel. (Among many, many other things.) Full of larger-than-life characters and fascinating settings, it’s somehow still a story that feels as though it’s happening in the corners and crevices of our day-to-day reality, close enough to make you wonder whether you might be just a hairsbreadth from a dark adventure of your own.
But although Neverwhere was first published in 1996, it did not begin its life as a novel. In an odd (and uncommon) reversal, it was first a six-part BBC television series for which Gaiman wrote the screenplay alongside Sir Lenny Henry. The book that followed was Gaiman’s first solo novel (Good Omens, co-written with Terry Pratchett, hit shelves six years earlier) and was meant to serve as an official novelization of the TV show. It turned out to be a bit more than that. The novel expands and reshuffles some of the lore introduced in the television series, adds new scenes, and restores various elements of Gaiman and Henry’s original idea that had to be changed or cut for the TV version. (The author has spoken before about how the absence of specific things in the show was one of the reasons he wrote the book in the first place.)
To be clear, it’s not like the 1996 Neverwhere series is bad. Far from it, in fact. Sure, it feels more than a little dated now, but the show worked wonders with what was clearly a very limited budget, unabashedly embracing the high fantasy elements and sprawling, complicated fictional universe that have proven so popular today but which were frequently and openly sneered at in the late 1990s. (Sorry, guys, the nerds did inherit the Earth, eventually.)
Wildly imaginative and full of inventive, entertaining characters—Paterson Joseph’s over-the-top Marquis de Carabas, Peter Capaldi’s exquisitely coiffed Angel Islington, and the devilishly creepy evil assassin duo of Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandermar are just a few of the reasons to tune in—it’s evident from the story’s opening frames that Neverwhere is something special, even if the final product doesn’t quite manage to live up to the scope of Gaiman and Henry’s vividly imagined original world.
The BBC Radio 4 adaptation from 2013 comes a bit closer to capturing some of that magic, bolstered by the specific, indescribable alchemy that is radio drama in general, the power of listener imagination, and a truly stacked voice cast that includes big name stars ranging from James McAvoy and Natalie Dormer to Benedict Cumberbatch, Bernard Cribbins, and Christopher Lee. But even at its most affecting, it’s hampered by the fact that it’s not the visual, onscreen version we all wish it was. (Just imagine Cumberbatch rocking that Capaldi-style Islington hair.)
Which is, of course, exactly why now is the perfect time for someone to try again. And, hopefully, give us the big, lavish version of this story that Gaiman’s work—and its fans—deserve. It’s hard not to look at Prime Video’s carefully detailed rendering of Aziraphale’s Soho bookshop from Good Omens or the glittering library at the center of the Kingdom of Dreams on Netflix’s The Sandman and not wonder how amazing the Floating Market, the medieval-style Earl’s Court train car, or the horrors of the Night’s Bridge might look if created by the same sort of design teams and special effects budgets. Part of the problem with the original Neverwhere is that it was originally lit for film, but shot on video and the production ran out of money before they managed to convert the final product. It’s why its visual world feels so oddly flat and seems so consistently at odds with the more imaginative and fantastical vibes of its own story.