Uncollected Thoughts: Good Omens – part 1

I’m not used to this Netflix all-at-once bit yet (and yes, I do know this isn’t Netflix but Amazon Prime and the BBC, but it’s the same idea), and I don’t have another five lots of fifty minutes stretching out in front of me right now, but I have just watched  the first episode of Good Omens, the TV series of the brilliant book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, by Neil Gaiman, and I am here to tell you that it’s ok, you can watch it without thinking it’s vastly inferior to the book, and in fact you can enjoy it, and you can laugh at it. No, make that: you will laugh at it.

This was only to be expected, though I was going more along the linesof hoped for, because it’s adapted by Gaiman himself, wanting to do the very best by his friend, it has an all-star cast starting with David Tennant and Crowley and Michael Sheen as Aziraphale, andit’s  had enough money thrown at it to fill up a whole chain of gravel pits, but even so you have to wait and see for yourself.

Teennant is all wonderfully laid-back and with-it, but it’s Sheen who has the harder task because Aziraphale is supposed to be an angel, also somewhat unwordly, definitely unrealistic, and it’s so much easier to do bad because then you have positive traits to work with, whereas good is ethereal and altogether bland, especially when you’re tying to be funny with it, but Sheen is as good as can be, rather like Ryan Giggs running at a packed Arsenal defence.

As for the adaptation, given how much of the book’s humour is in its narration (and its footnotes), it’s awe-inspiring just how closely Gaiman manages to adhere to the exact plot, keeping scenes focused and brief without the sense of anything being rushed or pared down or letting you start to drift off and remember what’s been left out.

No, take it from me, this is one that works, at least up to End of Part 1, and I’m confident it won’t all fall apart, despite the lukewarm reviews that have appeared this week. And I speak as one of the ones who’s owned Good Omens since it came out, who’s read it a dozen times, who’s inordinately pleased that they left out that line about Manchester, and who can safely and defiantly say that for this series the Omens are decidedly Good.

Film 2018: Coraline

There’s an imbalance of animation in the steadily dwindling pile of Film 2018 DVDs and the first of these is Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short horror novel for children, Coraline, made in 2008. In a much more angular fashion than the Aardman studio films, this was made in stop-go animation, using puppetry and individually crafted objects, many of which were produced by 3D printing.

Like Stardust, this isn’t a pure representation of the original novel, in which the titla character, eleven year old Coraline Jones, acts independently. To give Coraline someone to talk to, Selick introduced a boy character, Wybie, who shares some of the limelight with her and who, in a much-criticised move, saves the day at the last.

The film is set in and around Pink Palace Apartments, an old and dilapidated wooden-frame building in Oregon. Coraline and her parents are newly-arrived from Michigan. She’s a bright, mentally-energetic girl, with an abundance of curiosity, and they are both writers, jointly producing a Garden catalogue, meaning that they have no time for Coraline or keeping up with her need for attention.

This isn’t any kind of over-developed or narcissistic need, just the average, healthy child’s need to be secure in their place. Coraline explores the building thoroughly but uninspiredly – everything is boring and that’s not because she’s an eleven year old but because it is – and meets its eccentric other boarders, the acrobatic Russian the Amazing Bobinsky (Ian McShane) and the ex-burlesque dancers Miriam Forcible and April Spink (French and Saunders). They, like Wybie, assume her name is Caroline, instead of listening to her properly. That’s Coraline’s problem; no-one listens to her.

But there’s a door in a wall that’s been wallpapered over and locked which, when Coraline’s mother finally unlocks it, turns out to be bricked up too. Except in Coraline’s dreams, when it leads to a tunnel to another world. This world is identical to Pink Palace and its gardens except that everything’s brighter, fresher, newer, cleaner, happier, more vivid. It’s more exciting, more fantastic, it’s everything an eleven year old girl could want.

It’s even got a Mother and Father in it, who are more traditional, more fun, more devoted to Coraline. These are her Other Mother and her Other Father. They love her, they’d do anything for her. It’s an ideal world. Except for the fact that everybody has sewn-in buttons instead of eyes. There’s even another Wybie, and this one’s mute because the real world one talks too much.

Coraline revels in it, and is frustrated to keep waking up in her own bed, in her own Pink Palace. Her eccentric neighbours offer cryptic warnings that she’s in danger, whilst her Other neighbours put on wonderful shows: Bobinsky’s Jumping Mice Circus is a hoot and a magical display. Everything’s wonderful. Even the cat, who is the same creature in both worlds, passing by his own means, talks in the Other World, though he warns Coraline.

Because it’s all a construct. Coraline can stay forever, she just has to agree to have buttons sewn over her eyes, which, she being far too smart and level-headed to ever be taken in permanently, immediately treats as a deal-breaker. But the Beldam, the witch-like, spider-like being at the centre of this, the love-craving Other Mother, won’t let her go. Coraline is not the first child, summoned by dolls sewn to look exactly like them, brought into an idyllic world to love and be loved and when not loved any more, have their life eaten out of them.

Coraline escapes, but finds that her real parents have been stolen and imprisoned in the Other World. With the cat for an ally, she returns to challenge the Beldam to a game, in which she must find a ghost eye for each of the three ghost children, and her parents.

As Coraline makes her way through each of the three wonders, she finds an eye, which causes bits and pieces of this Other World to die, turn grey and splinter off into nothingness. She finds her parents trapped in her real Mother’s favourite snow globe. She wins home, but there is still a catch. Tje Beldam’s severed hand, a thing of sewing needles, has followed her. To prevent the Beldam ever returning, the key must be removed beyond reach. Coraline intends to chuck it down the deep, disused well outside the garden.

Here is where the controversy sits. Selick invented Wybie for someone to talk to, a device to keep the film from ending in under fifty minutes. Now it takes an intervention by the real Wybie, deus ex machina, to destroy the hand, and the two of them to weight everything down with a rock to drop down the well.

In a way, it’s an heroic convention, not quite a cliche, but a subtle trope: the hero carries the burden but, at the last, needs the help of the ineffectual sidekick to complete the task: think Frodo and Sam or, more aptly in the last instance, Frodo and Gollum in the Mountain, in the book if not the film.

But think of it a different way, and it’s a chauvinistic ending. The film’s about a girl, an independent, enterprising girl, who acts alone, who fights and defeats a superior enemy. But it takes a boy to pull her fat out of the fire or it would have all gone for nothing. Girls: can’t do anything right.

All it needed was a slight twist: Wybie intervenes, finds himself in danger, Coraline recovers her breath, finishes it off. Maybe thirty seconds extra footage and you don’t revert to cliche.

That caveat aside, I love the film. It’s visually inventive, it takes its time, it’s creepy and wierd. There are angles and parallels to the story that I haven’t mentioned, making the Other Mother more closely aligned with the real one (Teri Hatcher), oodles of visual detail that treat the eye. And the voices are also excellent, with sixteen year old Dakota Fanning playing the lead role.

Though the Wybie rescue is an intrusion, the film has the wit to end on a charming note, suggesting Coraline’s future in the real world will be a bit more balanced. The Garden Catalogue is a success and Coraline organises a planting party, with plentiful lemonade, at which the utilitarian garden is, at her suggestion, planted with colourful tulips, and the guests get her name right.

I doubt we’ll ever get a pure Neil Gaiman adaptation, not one that captures his severe, almost austere tones, but what Coraline brings to the story is a mostly delightful substitute, just like Stardust. Sometimes, a little more light in victory is a necessary thing.

Film 2018: Stardust

Stardust wasn’t my first choice for this week’s film, rather a last minute replacement when I decided that bright sun on an early Sunday morning wasn’t the best conditions for my original choice.

It’s a film that comes shrouded in memories that will always affect me. When it was first released, we went to see it twice in as many weeks, we being my wife and I  in the first instance and two of her children in the second. We chose the film for one of our rare nights out: a meal in Stockport followed by a visit to the now defunct Grand Central Cinema. The meal overran and we missed the start of the film. But we both loved it, and we knew the boys would like it too so, to give them the treat, and allow ourselves to see what we’d missed, we took them next week. It turned out we’d only missed about thirty seconds, which made us both laugh but so what? It was a joy to watch again, even so soon.

Stardust is adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, originally published in four installments, illustrated beautifully by Charles Vess, by DC Comics. The film follows the substance of the story in its narrative, although Captain Shakespeare and the Lightning catching Pirates is a complete invention, but takes a completely different approach to what was intended as an adult fairy-tale. Director Matthew Vaughan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jane Goodman, turns the story – with Gaiman’s blessing – into a whimsical comedy, filling it with a modern, sceptical comedy that has one foot firmly entrenched in cynicism but which leaves the other foot free to dance. Like The Princess Bride it can successfully poke fun at the tropes of which it is made precisely because it is made by people who love and respect what they are playing off.

The story glories in its fairy-tale elements, even though it attracted a wider demographic who, instead of seeing it as fantasy, enjoyed it as a romantic adventure with magical elements. Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox, then unknown) lives in the village of Wall, so named for the Wall that separates it from the magical kingdom of Stormhold. Tristan, the product of a brief affair between his father, Dunstan, and a then-nameless slave girl in Stormhold, eighteen years before at the start of the film.

Tristran loves the beautiful but spoilt Victoria (Sienna Miller), who is more interested in the more upmarket Humphrey (Henry Cavill, though his is only a bit part). Humphrey’s going to go all the way to Ipswich for a ring for Victoria, but Tristran will go through the wall to bring back a fallen star for her, to prove his love.

The star (Claire Danes), whose name is Yvaine, has been knocked from the sky by a diamond hurled there by the dying King of Stormhold (an impressive cameo from Peter O’Toole). Whichever of his sons can find it – there were seven, but they’ve been whittled down to three: poor show, really, the Stormhold tradition is for only one surviving brother when the King dies – will be King.

Meanwhile, three incredibly aged witches are also after the star, since to cut out and eat the still-beating heart of a fallen star grants youth and near-immortality. The eldest sister, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer, still decidedly woo hoo, once the aged make-up comes off), goes to get the heart.

So: Yvaine’s got three different forces after her, that’s if you call Tristran a force, which he isn’t to begin with but becomes, in a very likeable manner, during the course of the film.

There’s some conventional structures in there: two sources for a chase thriller, one with elements of a Quest, combined with the picaresque journey during which two initially hostile enforced companions gradually start to like and then love each other, which goes back at least as far as the Alfred Hitchcock version of The Thirty-Nine Steps. It’s highly entertaining in itself, thanks to the lightness Vaughan and Goodman bring to everything, no matter how serious it may be – one strand involves mass-fratricide and it’s even funnier than Kind Hearts and Coronets – and that’s amplified by the fantastic setting, which combines some very effective CGI with location filming in the kind of scenery that made me want to climb through the screen and go climbing mountains in the background. Much of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Scotland, with other parts in Iceland. The contrast is obvious, but not distracting.

There’s a primarily English cast: Rupert Everett, David Walliams and Julian Rhind-Tutt are among the bit parts, Melanie Hill, Joanna Scanlan and Sarah Alexander are witches, and Mark Wiliams is brilliantly loopy as a goat turned into an innkeeper. The two big American stars make the most of their parts: Pfeiffer is a major protagonist, but de Niro’s role is a primarily comic one. He’s supposed to be a rough, tough, notoriously evil pirate but he’s actually a softie who’s had to keep his father’s business going.

Captain Shakespeare is there to given Tristran and Yvaine safe haven for a time, to transform Tristran from provincial boy operating on dumb luck to sophisticated and capable man who can handle problems. It’s only a supporting role, and de Niro combines flamboyance and underplaying with the confidence of a  great actor enjoying himself. Apparently, the other possible star for the role was Jack Nicholson, who I doubt could have played this role anything like as effectively.

Ultimately, though, the film belongs to Cox and Daines. He’s innocent in the best sense throughout, an overgrown boy taking on manhood before our eyes, whilst retaining a boyish delight throughout. He has to undergo this adventure to become worthy of his role, because his mother, slave to a caravan witch, Ditchwater Sal (Hill) is really Una, daughter to the King, and after the last son, Septimus (Mark Strong) is killed by Lamia, Tristran becomes the Heir to Stormhold. But he also has to undergo this adventure to discover his real true love and to become worthy – both in person and in the heart – of the love of Yvaine the star.

And Daines is simply wonderful, not to mention unconventionally beautiful. Her face is always mobile, initially in a hunted, indeed neurotic manner, and her anxieties never wholly disappear until she saves the day by Shining, but the longer the film goes on, and the closer she comes to falling in love with Tristran, the more that mobility is just evidence of an underlying energy, the force of love unable to be contained yet unable to be expressed.

I’ve left so much out, so many little details that demonstrate the comprehensive vision that Vaughan had for this film. It’s another of those where the casting is ideal – Olivia Grant was cast in the minor role of the female version of Bernard (don’t ask) literally weeks out of Acting School and, without any lines, makes a wonderfully comic cameo – and whilst there are those who regret that the tone was not more faithful to the original story, they don’t include Gaiman, who was happier with an artistically satisfactory comedy than a serious film that would have failed: like me with so many other versions, he thinks of this as the Earth-2 Stardust.

That’s not to say the film’s perfect. It was released in 2007 and includes a minor role for Ricky Gervaise as Ferdy the Fence (behind a door marked ‘Ferdy’s Office’). It hasn’t worn well, rather like Gervaise’s star since those halcyon days. Gervaise isn’t convincing in his acting, but then he’s playing against Robert de Niro soo that’s a more than adequate excuse. It’s just that it’s David Brent, with an Andy Millman catch-phrase, out of context and in 2018 it no longer works.

But I’ve no other complaints about Stardust, not even the Take That song, ‘Rule the World’ in the credits. My wife was a major league Take That fan, but even I loved this song from the first moment I heard it, then and now.

I love Stardust. Like Gregory’s Girl, last week, it’s one of my ten favourite films, for itself and without the memories I have attached to it. Other adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s work have been far more faithful to the source than this, and I am very glad of it.

The Infinite Jukebox: Take That’s ‘Rule the World’

Some songs get a place on The Infinite Jukebox for reasons that are personal.

And sometimes those reasons are personal also to someone else, whose privacy deserves to be respected.

This is, however, also a gorgeous song, with a superb arrangement and brilliant singing, and comes from one of my favourite films of all time.

Uncollected Thoughts: American Gods episode 1 – The Bone Orchard

Oh my God, how good was that?! Ricky Whittle was immense, Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday was hilarious and how about Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney? Fucking massive! If this is what these people can do with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, then imagine, just imagine(and how I am imagining!) what they could with with Sandman?

If I sound slightly hysterical, forgive me. I haven’t had a television series – or a film, come to that matter – do that to me in a very long time. This adaptation is incredibly good, on any level you choose to name, and even more so when you consider the book from which it’s taken. Writing, acting, effects, conception, it drew me in instantly and refused to let go and if this were the kind of Netflix deal where all eight parts were available all at one, I would be phoning in sick and not surfacing for another seven hours.

I have the advantage of having read the book, so I know what’s going on, which the first episode took care only to hint at, even if the astute (who had not read any of the pre-publicity) could have worked a lot of it out from what we got, especially from the ubiquitous Mr Wednesday. To give the most slight of precises, Ricky Whittle plays ‘Shadow’ Moon, coming to the end of a six year sentence for aggravated assault, and wanting nothing more than to get home to his wife, Laura (Emily Browning, who hasn’t had much to do yet).

Unfortunately, Shadow gets released a few days early, because Emily has died in a car crash. What he doesn’t know until he gets to the funeral is that Laura was having an affair with Shadow’s best mate, who had a job lined up for him, and who was killed in the same car crash (with his cock in Laura’s mouth, which, through involuntary motion, snapped shut…)

That, at least, wasn’t shown onscreen, but in every other respect the show does not shrink from being graphic: the opening sequence alone spills as much liquid CGI blood as the average episode of Spartacus.

Travelling across country, Shadow keeps running into some kind of super, super-confident conman, who gives himself the appropriate name of Mr Wednesday. I’ve never particularly liked Ian McShane, even though I used to watch Lovejoy many years ago, and I was entirely dubious about him in this part, but I withdraw all dubiety, I can’t imagine anyone better. Mr Wednesday wants to offer Shadow a job, as a right hand man.

Shadow doesn’t yet know what the job entails, but by the end, confronted by Technical Boy (Bruce Langley, mesmerisingly loathsome), he knows there are enemies. Mind you, when you count the outrageously tall leprechaun, the fighting mad Mad Sweeney, you can’t really say that your friends are that, how shall we put it? Sane?

And that’s without the scene where sex Goddess (literally) Bilquis sucks a man into her vagina whilst fucking.

Like I said, I’ve read the book, and more than once. I took it with me on a plane flight when it first came out, thought it meandered a bit too much, was overlong, go rid of it, bought it back many years later in the Author’s Preferred Text edition, which is actually much longer and thought it much much better. I know what’s going on. Someone who doesn’t has more than enough to be curious about. If they can keep up this quality over the next seven weeks, Twin Peaks season 3 might not be the television event of 2017 after all.

Let me hear you say, OMFG Wow!

Uncollected Thoughts: Neil Gaiman’s ‘Norse Mythology’

For the first time, I’m rather disappointed by a new Neil Gaiman book, especially when the subject seems to be so close to his heart and his skills.

We ought to be in sync on this one: it may not have been the same book, but I too encountered the Norse Myths in the mid-Sixties, though without the prior mediation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby via The Mighty Thor, and I’ve always felt a greater affinity with them than the rather more famous, and studied, Greek Myths.

And, as far as my memory of the book I was bought (probably from Shudehill Bookstalls, like so many others of my childhood) is concerned, Gaiman has retold all the tales I remember.

So I ought to like this book, but the truth is that I found it disappointing for the most fundamental reason that if I hadn’t known Neil Gaiman had written this, I would never have guessed it.

All good writers have a ‘voice’. This has been true of all of Neil Gaiman’s work to date, however diverse the subject or medium. It’s a slightly formal tone, a slightly archaic tone, a way of expressing things, but it isn’t anywhere present in this book. It could be any author, except that it’s an author reading to children, and reading aloud. It lacks personality, it lacks individuality. The tales are left to fend for themselves, with no authorial input to characterise them.

Without Gaiman’s voice, this could be anyone writing this version of the myths, and that’s precisely why this book doesn’t work for me.

Spies, Sleuths and Sorcerors – An Inadequate Defence

That from whence it came… for me

The BBC are currently in the middle of a short series, written, presented and conceived by Andrew Marr, about genre fiction: espionage, crime and fantasy. It’s a potentially interesting subject, since genre fiction is usually derided critically by all who don’t share an interest in it, and serious attention to books that don’t constitute ‘literature’  is rare.

The series is pretty obviously Marr’s baby, and he’s looking at genres with which he’s clearly familiar, and which he enjoys, not to mention that he’s an intelligent man. But that didn’t stop the episode on Fantasy fiction this week from being a condescending and superficial review that undermined any attempts at serious treatment by its arch manner, and its format, supposedly condensing Fantasy into eleven Rules, or should we say formulas?

That was the episode’s single biggest failing. Some of the ‘Rules’ were key characteristics, such as Rule No. 1 – Build a World. The overall effect, however, since some of the later ‘Rules’ were far from universally applicable, was to construct a limited and rigid structure, whereas true fantasy, the best there can be, is inherently variable, springing from its own sources and creating its own shape.

Marr began by pointing out that this once more or less reviled genre has in recent years become overwhelmingly popular, citing the obvious leader, Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire and Ice and George R R Martin. He pointed out that series’ roots in British history, and its exploration of power and brutality.

Next, he turned to, equally obviously, Tolkien (who appeared in some archive footage), and shortly thereafter, C. S. Lewis. It was interesting to note that Marr focused on the deep and specific Christian underpinning of the latter’s Narnia books (what else is there to focus on?) but ignored the fact that Tolkien’s work was just as fundamentally religious in aspect, in fac,t in many ways, more so.

Instead, Marr emphasised the current critical thinking about The Lord of the Rings, centring upon it as a response to Tolkien’s experiences in the Great War, and upon it being written, to a large extent, during World War Two. The English at war, with the hobbits standing in for the English, was his overriding analysis, after which he could then humourously boggle over the take-up of Tolkien by the American counter-culture in the Sixties, in which the Ring becomes the Bomb.

This allowed him to turn next to Ursula Le Guin, who he openly stated he loved, but only in terms of the Earthsea books. These were defined as the anti-Tolkien, the deliberate subversion of his world. On one level, they are, but reading Le Guin’s work on one level only is a fatal mistake, and to key her approach into Californian counter-culture, with its air of cheesecloth, was seriously limiting. And to talk of Ged’s going to Wizard school being Harry Potter-like when J.K. Rowling was over thirty years later set me growling.

Incidentally, Rowling, though clearly central to the current fantasy boom, got rather short shrift. We twice saw the same clip of people in Hogwarts costumes lugging racks of books around at a publication party, we got one line about the books and that was it. Clearly, Joanna Rowling had declined the chance to appear and her work got side-lined as a consequence when, despite its manifest flaws, its massive influence demanded similar attention to that given Game of Thrones (which was generous with the clips).

The episode did improve once it got to writers who’d agreed to be interviewed talking about their approach to Fantasy, its themes and importance. Alan Garner got short shrift, a few gnomic lines about folk-lore and myth being “high-octane fuel” and a cover shot of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen with Marr pronouncing the last word in a way I’ve never heard before.

Neil Gaiman didn’t fare much better, though he is a practiced speaker and got more substance into his few seconds (American Gods got slightly more time than Gaiman himself) whilst Frances Hardinge, of whom I’d never heard before, who writes for and about children (the area on which Marr quizzed her) got more time than both.

I mean no insult to Hardinge, who affected a black hat the way Terry Pratchett did for fedora’s, and who has a good reputation. I found it interesting that this review of Fantasy fiction almost exclusively focused upon writers with whom I was familiar: in my twenties and thirties I read little but Fantasy/SF, but have gotten completely out of touch with the field since, yet the episode included only Hardinge, and Joe Abercrombie, with whom I wasn’t familiar.

Of course, the Blessed Pratchett was the last heavyweight to be featured. He isn’t here to speak for himself now, but his long-term assistant Rob Wilkins featured, and he and Marr made one point that resonated directly with my thinking, that it was Mort where Discworld really started to become Discworld, to become the mirror to us and ourselves that Discworld was so successfully for so many (but still not enough) years.

Overall, and granted that an hour is hardly long enough to give anything remotely like a broad picture, the episode was welcome but still unforgivably superficial. Marr may well know and love Fantasy fiction, but he didn’t show much of that. Overall, he presented the show with an air of defensive humourness, secretly reassuring the audience that it’s all rather a bit silly, and I know it as much as you, and you can’t really take Dungeons, Wizards and Dragons seriously, the way these people do.

That was encapsulated in one of the later Rules, that Fantasy was always, always, about the Dying of the Light, that it always used to be better, that the good stuff – the magic, you know – is always going and it’ll never be as good as it was, sigh.

No, in the end, despite its purported attempt to define and, in some way, dignify Fantasy fiction as worth reading, the episode lacked the courage of its convictions and undercut itself at every turn. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Fantasy may be in, now, and its popularity sufficiently high to keep it from sinking back into mere specialist genre, but it is far from earning respect (and a bloody great chunk of it doesn’t and never will deserve it).

We can but hope that the next one will be a bit more confident in its aims and can reject the urge to treat its subject with disdain.

Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories

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.

The Mid-Season Replacements: Lucifer

No, he doesn’t look like that all the time


Most of the disappointment is of my own making. Like the unsuccessful Constantine, what makes the character really work is pretty much impossible to put on television. It’s too dark for the audience, it’s too dangerous in its ideas, it’s too strong for the powers that be that run television who, ultimately, only want something pretty to go in between the commercials and sell those. On those terms, Lucifer was never going to work.

What, then, gets onto the screen? Perhaps, if I set up the character’s history on the screen, the story that attracted the attention of the Goggle-Box, you can then see by how much it’s had to be watered-down, diminished, to fit the plasma.

Lucifer Morningstar, Angel, Son of God, the first Rebel, Ruler of Hell, the Devil, was introduced in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, in issue 4. Dream, seeking to recover his lost accoutrements of office, had to retrieve one from a Demon of Hell. Having succeeded, he humiliated Lucifer by walking out, untouched, leaving the Ruler of Hell swearing to destroy him.

Subsequently, in the ‘Season of Mists’ storyline, Dream’s honour compelled him to go to Hell to free a prisoner he had unjustly condemned. Lucifer’s response was to close Hell, driving out the dead, the damned and the demons, closing all gates and handing the key to Dream, who would then have the responsibility of deciding Hell’s fate. That was one hell (excuse me) of an act of revenge.

But Lucifer had grown tired of his role, had for too long seen himself as no more than a puppet to the divine plan, his every independent move merely fulfilling God’s wishes. Demanding free will, he abdicated. He would go on to open a nightclub in LA, called Lux, where he would play cocktail piano when the mood took him.

Thereafter, Mike Carey took up Lucifer in his own series, a long, complex story about Lucifer’s compulsion to escape, utterly, the imprisonment of God’s designs for him. To finally free himself from the entanglement of his father. His travails involved primarily other supernatural beings, including the Host of Angels, and included the creation of a new Universe, and Lucifer’s own ultimate escape into a void that would finally see him achieve freedom on the only terms possible.

It was a complex interplay of moral and ethical questions as to predestination, free will and the burdens of divinity. You can see how that couldn’t possibly play on telly.

I started watching the pilot with lowered expectations, but hadn’t really lowered them enough. Lucifer’s internal struggle with his fate, and omnipotence, was reduced to his decision to take ‘a vacation’ to run the nightclub. The course of the episode sets up the terms of the series. A popular singer (named Delilah but clearly meant to be a relatively early career Madonna) is shot to death in Lucifer’s company. He helped start her on her musical career, so Lucifer decides to use his powers to find the killer and ensure their hellish punishment. To do so, he teams up, unwillingly on her part, with Detective Chloe Dancer, a pariah amongst her colleagues (which includes her ex-husband). He will go on to be her unofficial colleague.

It’s not much, really, is it?

To that extent, I was prepared for a massive dumbing down, but hoped that the writers might be able to capture Lucifer’s voice, especially from Carey’s series: bored, superior, supercilious, grave, detached, in complete command, and gloriously funny in its utter disdain for virtually everybody else he encounters. And no, they can’t.

They make a very half-hearted attempt to bring some of that in, but it’s lost amongst what they’ve chosen to emphasise instead. The TV Lucifer is basically a decadent seducer, hot on sex, a tease and a small-time tempter, even as he denies any responsibility for the sins you humans enjoy to commit. He giggles nervously when he talks, as if concerned about the response of the people he meets, he’s far too upfront about who and what he is, as opposed to Carey’s Lucifer, who made no secret of what he was but who sat at a distance from humans who, for the most part, were far below his attention and concern.

And the idea of Lucifer as an unofficial police adviser, a sort of supercharged Castle, not to mention all those other crime of the week where gifted amateur shows Police how to do it series, is just beneath the Prince of Hell.

What I want to see is, I know, beyond any possibility of occurring. What I’d live with instead is way beyond this sneery, cheap-sex-drenched, pathetic display.

So. Like I said, I gave Constantine three weeks, I’ll do the same for Lucifer. But I’m not confident. Not one bit.

Sandman Overture # 6

By chance, a couple of days ago, I came across my review of Sandman Overture 1, which I read with a grim smile at its optimistic cheeriness and enthusiasm. In particular, I couldn’t help but seize on the assertion that Neil Gaiman had written this preface to the Sandman series of twenty-five years previously, which is certainly what we were all led to believe: six issues, published bi-monthly, starting in November 2013, ending in September 2014.

Today, I paid a fleeting visit to the centre of Manchester to purchase issue 6, which appears exactly twelve months behind schedule, having scraped in just under the wire to do so.

And though artist J.H.Williams is notorious as a slow artist, it is not he who has to take responsibility for this fiasco. As early as the interminable delay between issues 1 and 2, Gaiman accepted responsibility for failing to provide his artistic collaborator with scripted pages to be drawn. I have heard nothing since that suggests that the ongoing difficulty in producing this book was down to anyone else.

Now, should he choose to exercise it, Gaiman has a ready-made excuse for these delays, in the form of his previous defence of George R. R. Martin. I’d like to say that I agree with every word Gaiman says at the other end of that link. Wearing the hat I wear as a reader of comics for fifty years, bearing in mind that throughout that period, and even now, comics is a serial form of fiction that is heavily dependant on the even rhythm of its schedule, I don’t regard such an explanation as adequate.

I have already said, as much as a year ago, that had I known what would happen, I wouldn’t have even started the story. I would have waited for the Graphic Novel collection, and I don’t mean the hardback volume that is already treading on the heels of this comic with a haste that is indecent in the circumstances. The paperback is at least twelve more months away.

But what, we dare ask, is my impression of the Distinguished Thing now that it is present in its entirety? I have carried the comic home without opening its pages, have written the first half of this blog whilst it remains in the Forbidden Planet bag, and I shall now read the story in its entirety, and only then offer my opinion.


And it is good.

It’s so very good, and so very wide, and it seeps into every part of a story begun twenty-seven years ago, and ended nineteen years ago, as if in every part of it it was in Gaiman’s head during the nights that followed the Great Storm, when the shape and the idea came about.

And Williams draws or paints or does both and neither as if he is shaping the stuff of dream instead of using pencil, paper, ink, or even pixels.

And it will need many more readings for me to appreciate the immensity of this story, including those readings that will be necessary to eradicate the thoughts and feelings that form the first part of this revue.

For it is very good indeed. But it carries within it a sense of completion that makes it very hard to imagine that Gaiman will ever return to The Dreaming again.