Neverwhere (15th Anniversary Edition)

Actors: Hywel Bennett, Gary Bakewell, Paterson Joseph, Clive Russell
Writers: Neil Gaiman
Format: Color, DVD, Restored, Subtitled, NTSC
Language: English
Region: 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: BBC Warner
DVD Release Date: November 15, 2011
Run Time: 173 minutes





Neil Gaiman holds a sterling reputation among the annals of genre fandom, thanks to his extraordinary work on the Sandman comics and subsequent pieces like Stardust and Coraline. Fifteen years ago, he conceived of a series about a fantasy universe beneath the streets of London called Neverwhere. It only lasted six episodes, but it curried a cult reputation befitting its marquee creator. To honor the anniversary, it’s been re-released on DVD, and proves at once a fascinating and extremely frustrating affair.

Some of the difficulties stem from an over-familiarity with Gaiman’s work, something that was far less of a concern back in 1996. Many of his tropes feel a trifle threadbare and some of the concepts have appeared elsewhere in more engaging form. Then there’s the issue of budget. The sets and effects leave a lot to be desired, while the decision to shoot the series on video and then alter it to make it appear like film proved extremely ill-conceived. It lends the images an off-putting quality, while drawing attention to the fact that Gaiman’s imagination is hopelessly outstripping the means to realize it.

Thankfully, Gaiman is too adept a storyteller to let those flaws derail the proceedings entirely. His script brims with sharp dialogue and clever ruminations. The story concerns an average Londoner named Richard (Gary Blakewell) who stops to help a girl in distress one evening on the way to a dinner date. The girl, Door (Laura Fraser), belongs to a hidden world called London Below: governed by rival noble houses and inhabited by people with wondrous abilities. Having assisted her, Richard now finds himself invisible to the normal world, and must travel through London Below in an effort to regain what he has lost.

His quest is filled with a slew of marvelous Gaiman-isms, many of them similar to the things he did in The Sandman. The villains get the best of it; Richard and Door are pursued by a pair of cads named Croup (Hywel Bennett) and Vandemar (Clive Russell) who play golf with live frogs as balls and casually mention that they burned Troy to the ground. Those sorts of throwaway details cram every corner of Neverwhere, helping to sell the universe in ways that the shoestring budget could not hope for. The cast dives into them with the relish that only theatrically trained Shakespeareans can muster, and while they occasionally veer into hamminess, it works marvelously with dialogue of this nature.

It’s also apparent that Gaiman is accustomed to writing in a four-color format. Many of the asides and reveals in Neverwhere show comic-book sensibilities, giving the production a unique sensibility that serves it well. It meanders a bit and the dog eventually displays quite a bit of shag, but six half-hour episodes make it easy to pick up and put down without losing the thread of the narrative.

Gaiman’s fans will appreciate it the most, of course, and Neverwhere speaks most directly to their sensibilities. Those less enamored of his auteurial style will struggle with it a bit more, and anyone outside of its ethos will likely find it baffling. But it knows itself very well and does some quietly remarkable things with the limited resources at its disposal. It remains a curiosity among Gaiman’s adaptations: lacking the flash of bigger efforts, but bringing a scruffy charm with it that more polished productions could never achieve. 15 years later, we’re still talking about it. That’s a rare enough feat to justify venturing back into its twisting corridors for a second look.

THE DISC: The disc is pretty no-nonsense, containing the six episodes that comprise the miniseries and a smattering of extras. Gaiman himself contributes a pair of audio commentaries, including a new one that also includes insight from series co-developer Lenny Henry and producer Clive Brill. A third interview with Gaiman headlines the extra features, which also include a brief introduction, a photo gallery and brief character descriptions to help everyone keep track of who’s who. The commenters are all brutally honest about the shooting conditions, and aren’t afraid to note shortcomings as well as triumphs. Image quality is as good as one can expect given the history of the piece, but its clarity actually highlights the problems with the visuals rather than making them look better. Fans, however, will appreciate the folded map of London Below that comes in the DVD case.

WORTH IT? Gaiman fans should relish it, though it lacks the flair that marks his best work. Newcomers will find it readily accessible, provided they can look past the low budget to see the imagination working beneath it.

RECOMMENDATION: Neverwhere isn’t the masterpiece that its strongest adherents would have you believe, but Gaiman’s skills as a storyteller help it cross the finish line.

- Rob Vaux



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