Stars line up for Neverwhere

Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, Sophie Okonedo and David Harewood Going underground: Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, Sophie Okonedo and David Harewood are among the cast

The kind of cast that would have Hollywood drooling has been brought together for a Radio 4 drama.

Men of the moment Benedict Cumberbatch and James McAvoy have been joined by screen legend Christopher Lee for the six-part dramatisation of Neil Gaiman's cult novel Neverwhere, which will go out later this month.

They're joined by a roll call of British talent including Sophie Okonedo, Natalie Dormer, Bernard Cribbins, Anthony Head, Romola Garai and David Harewood - with Johnny Vegas bagging a bit part - all lured by the writing of Gaiman, the pedigree of audio maestro Dirk Maggs and respect for a sometimes undervalued form.

Start Quote

Everyone wanted to be on board and this was my dream cast”

End Quote Heather Larmour Director and Producer, Neverwhere
Gaiman fan

'It's because it's Neil,' attested Dormer, who plays 'Door' in the tale of young Scot Richard Mayhew (McAvoy) who is swept from his ordinary London life into a strange, subterranean world beneath the capital where he joins Door in her quest to discover who murdered her family.

'I'm a massive fan of Neil's writing,' the Game of Thrones actress said, at the Neverwhere radio premiere on Monday. Gaiman is also the author of Stardust, Coraline, The Sandman comic book series and episodes of Doctor Who.

Heather Larmour, the BBC Northern Ireland producer and director, confirmed that it was an easy sell.

'Everyone wanted to be on board and this was the dream cast,' she said. 'James McAvoy was always Richard in my head, Benedict Cumberbatch was always Angel. When they said yes I was like a small child in a candy shop,' said the woman who first approached Gaiman with the idea two years ago.

Neil Gaiman at the Neverworld premiere Neil Gaiman speaks up for radio drama at the Neverwhere premiere in London

The actors shared her rush, with Dormer saying she was 'astounded' to see so much talent around the table for the read-through - the only time the whole cast was together. 'It was amazing to see the likes of Benedict and James a little starstruck by Christopher Lee.'

Unconvincing beast

Gaiman conceived Neverwhere with comics and fantasy fan Lenny Henry in the nineties for a BBC Two television series. He hastily wrote the novel to tie in with the broadcast, later reversioning it for US readers and then as a more considered amalgam of both previous versions.

He spoke of the 'enormous frustration' of creating a magical realm for tv when computer-generated imagery was in its infancy. 'We were slightly ahead of our time,' he admitted, adding that he was particularly embarrassed about the Beast of London's uncanny resemblance to a Highland cow.

Start Quote

It was amazing to see the likes of Benedict and James a little starstruck by Christopher Lee”

End Quote Natalie Dormer Actress

Radio, he said, had no such limits. 'We are able to make Neverwhere as a three-hour long, giant cinema-type thing' with an 'infinite CGI budget and an amazing cast… and we have a Beast that is beastworthy'.

Credit, he believed, must go to Maggs, who adapted the work and directed the first episode, and Larmour for bringing the piece to life. 'I love the way that Heather and Dirk use sound… in ways I haven't heard since classic Hitchhiker's [which Maggs directed for Radio 4].'

He picked out the first meeting of Richard and Door with the Angel called Islington (Cumberbatch) as a favourite moment.

Pair of anoraks

So how did they create the whoosh of wings as the angel proves his credentials?

'With a pair of anoraks,' admitted Maggs, who applied his 'audio movie' approach to Neverwhere, in which he creates an immersive experience through layers of sound and music. 'We stood either side of a stereo mic and flung them in and flung them out.' Some 'slowed down pigeon' provided the finishing touches.

Start Quote

I love radio more than I love any other medium. When it works, it's not like anything else”

End Quote Neil Gaiman Author, Neverwhere

'Radio is a sort of alchemy,' he insisted. 'All of the elements combine to create something greater than themselves.'

He credited the 'rich' writing and the 'fizzing' cast for the strength of the drama, which also features Gaiman as security guard Mr Figgis.

Radio is best

'We got the cast because we have a tradition of radio drama in this country - thanks to Radio 4 mainly,' Maggs believed.

Gaiman, who spent several years writing movie versions of the novel for Hollywood and who is currently writing his first Neverwhere novella, picked up the theme.

'I love radio drama more than I love any other medium,' he insisted. 'When it works, it's not like anything else.'

  • Neverwhere, Radio 4, Saturday March 16 and continuing on Radio 4 Extra


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