Radio 4 Extra, Sunday-Friday

Radio review: Neverwhere - Let me introduce you to the Earl of Earl's Court

4.00

 

In the world of fantasy sci-fi, Neil Gaiman is a big shot. His Sandman graphic novel series is, by all accounts, a classic of the genre. (Disclaimer: the last fantasy I read was set in Narnia, so I'm no expert.)

He wrote Neverwhere for television in 1996 (having devised it with Lenny Henry), and it acquired a cult following. But judging by the bits of it shown on YouTube, his story of a grand quest 200ft below London is better served by the funny but haunting adaptation on Radio 4 and 4 Extra. On the radio, the only limits to how good it looks are inside one's own head.

James McAvoy plays Richard Mayhew (possibly a nod to Henry Mayhew, who explored the metaphorical underworld of London's poor), a decent type who finds himself roaming London Below with Lady Door (Natalie Dormer), who's seeking answers about her father's murder. Christopher Lee plays the Earl of Earl's Court, Benedict Cumberbatch the Angel Islington and Bernard Cribbins the Old Bailey, which gives an idea of the playfulness involved.

My favourite characters were the Shakespearean lowlife psychopaths Mr Croup and Vandemar – Anthony Head and David Schofield – a pair of hitmen ("no body too rotted, no murder too foul"), who on first meeting Lady Door wonder aloud: "Should we butcher the bitch?" Though fantasy isn't my thing, the black humour and deft characterisations were good enough to keep me going.

Dr David Hendy was doing a lot of creeping about underground in the first of his whopping great 30-part Noise: A Human History (Radio 4, Monday-Friday ****), in that habitually terrific 1.45pm slot on Radio 4. He was in a cave system in Burgundy, exploring prehistoric sound systems, accompanied by the musicologist Iégor Resnikoff, who wandered round testing the acoustics. (I was reminded of one of Stockhausen's choral pieces.)

In a pattern seen in caves across the world, the most resonant areas were marked, thousands of years ago, with red ochre, and stalagmites bear signs of use as primitive drum kits. Hendy's intention, he said, was "to turn up the volume of the past" – and from lithophones in Togo to ringing rocks in southern India, he did just that.

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