London Underground. No, sorry, I meant 'London under ground'. Add a single space and we're no longer talking about the city's track-based transport system, which frustrates locals and baffles foreigners. We're talking about the city beneath our feet, below the pavements and roads and buildings on the surface. A world of tunnels and tracks - not just those belonging to the Tube - and twisting stairs and jerking lifts, and tiles and bricks and hidden bunkers. For someone on a Tube train, rattling along in the dark, catching flashes of empty platforms and tired, waiting commuter faces, this London beneath London proper may seem rather dull and depressing. But for someone with a little imagination this 'London Below' can become a whole new realm of magical possibilities.
Turns out there was someone with such imagination. Or rather a pair of someones. 'Neverwhere' was a 6-part dark fantasy drama first broadcast on television in 1996, created and written by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry. It introduced another dimension to the city of London as its regular inhabitants knew it. Our familiar London was 'The Up World', a place of deeply 90s power-suits and estate agents, but hidden beneath it was 'London Below', a shadowy, dripping mediaeval land filled with silent ladies clad in alarming amounts of crushed velvet, sneaky rat messengers and flamboyantly dressed marquises. Rather like J.K.Rowling's muggles living in blissful ignorance about the wizarding community which coexists besides them, the up-worlders have no knowledge of London Below.
Pity then, Richard Mayhew, the protagonist of Neverwhere - an affable Scot with an awful (and somewhat unlikely) fiancee - who stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a pavement. She turns out to be from London Below and life is never quite the same for poor old Richard. The wounded girl, 'Door', is blessed with the magical power to, er, open things, and she's on the run from a pair of murderous henchmen, Croup and Vandemar. ('Croup & Vandemar' actually sounds like one of those slightly pretentious East London basement speakeasies which are so popular right now...get working on that tie-in merch, BBC/Mr Gaiman.)
In coming to Door's aid, Richard gives up his London and his unexciting life within it, finding himself in limbo, belonging to neither world as he explores 'London Below'. He visits 'Earl's Court', an actual court overseen by an actual earl on a moving train. He meets 'the angel, Islington' (Peter Capaldi doing sinister crazy long before Malcolm Tucker came along), a group of 'black friars' and 'Old Bailey', an ancient, crusty pigeon keeper. The stations and iconic buildings which many of us hurtle through each day here in London are transformed by Gaiman and Henry into a mystical cast of characters who inhabit this parallel world.
Gaiman also turned the script of Neverwhere into a spin-off novel of the same name back in 1996. Almost 10 years later a DVD box-set of the original television series was released. The script became a play in the US and then Ireland, before finally making its way back to the UK, but not quite London, last year. Having been developed into almost every imaginable art-form, Neverwhere is one of London's most referenced and recognised fictional forms. All that was left was a radio dramatisation, but the BBC recently remedied this, assembling a cast of the stalwart and stellar (including Benedict Cumberbatch, Sophie Okenedo, James McAvoy, Bernard Cribbins, hell, even Christopher Lee was on board!) to record a radio version of the drama, broadcast over the past few weeks.
In an interview given to the LA Times, Gaiman describes how the original concept of Neverwhere was developed from Lenny Henry's desire to make a television series that featured the homeless of London, those who dwell in the city's dark, marginal spaces. Those who see a very different urban world to the average Londoner. Isn't it said that fact is stranger than fiction? Much like the probability that there is life on Mars, what is the likelihood that in these gloomy, transient spaces life goes on right under our noses in ways and places we might never imagine? (Those of us who are not Neil Gaiman that is.) Watch, read or listen to the spooky and intriguing Neverwhere, and then head down beneath London to hop on the Tube; it may never feel or look quite the same again...