The thing is, I like Neil Gaiman’s stories. I have all the collections, all the novels, loads of the comics and I just bought and read The View from the Cheap Seats last weekend. I like his viewpoints, I am fascinated by his visions, I am captivated by the sense of atmosphere he evokes with his ever so slightly archaic turn of phrase, his almost oral sense of formality. And I was intrigued that Sky Arts were turning four of his short stories into a micro-series under the above name, broadcast a short time ago.
I have now watched all four today. They were not well-received in the Press, and I can understand why, because they were uniformly dreadful.
The underlying theme in Neil Gaiman’s work is Story: what it is, how it shapes us, how it shapes itself. At least a part of all his work is about how stories are structured. Everything is self-referential to some degree. Stories are about telling stories: how and why people do this, and how stories transmit themselves from one person to another, taking on their own form of life, like a sexual disease.
That’s eminently suitable for stories that are written down, to be read in private or aloud. We are all of us capable (even if many of us do not exercise this aptitude) of reading through the story, of understanding and recognising that the story is about more than a single thing, about more than what is being told to us by a voice either external or internal.
The problem is that, when a story consists of someone telling a story, and a story in which very little actually happens, and you want to turn that into a television programme in which the events of the story will be seen happening, and actors will transform themselves into character to undertake those actions, a method needs to be found to make this into something that the audience will want to brings its senses to bear upon.
Things must be seen to be done, words must be heard to be spoken, and the problem becomes particularly acute when there are not actually things being done in the story itself, or when the words are not in the mouths of characters.
Practically every single artistic choice in Likely Stories taken to effect this did not work with me. The pace was less than funereal. Mixing an interview with Neil Gaiman, talking about writing and what goes into it, into every episode was inane at best and a massive disruption to any sense of reality these situations hoped to acquire. The music, by Jarvis Cocker, attempted to define atmospheres but only ended up defining itself as ‘atmospheric’. And the use of a repertory cast, with a single guest per episode, was also a distraction from any substance the story might have hoped to gain. What accent will Monserrat Lombard’s character be using this time? should never be the first thing you notice about a story.
It could be argued that the level of artificiality Gaiman brings to his stories is best served by this approach, but I disagree. I pointed out, when excoriating the relatively recent adaptation of An Inspector Calls, what problems can arise from concretising someone or something meant to be open to individual interpretation, and the moment the characters in Gaiman’s stories – especially the narrators – gained faces and voices and, in the case of the last one, tits, they became concretised and the change of format demanded a greater attention to the reality of things.
(This latter was the most serious failure: ‘Charlotte, 19’ is supposed to be an embodiment of erotica: on the page she is whoever we believe we see in our own minds when we are most in tune with our erotic natures. On the screen, she is Chloe Hayward, who is attractive but, if she’ll forgive me, not my dream woman).
Translated to television, four deeply intriguing stories fell flat on their arses: slow, ponderous, hollow and without point. Gaiman didn’t write that kind of story when the ideas came to him, no more than did Alan Moore write workable films when he was writing V for Vendetta, Watchmen or From Hell.
Ironically, BBC TV used to have a television format that would have been ideal for each and every one of these four stories. It ran for decades, very successfully. It was called Jackanory and it would have been brilliant.