Neil Gaiman: The man who turns fantasy into reality

Once Neil Gaiman merely reviewed films; now he makes them. The writer behind 'Stardust' tells Ian Burrell of his plans for television and radio
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The Independent Online

Neil Gaiman has travelled a long way since the days when he referred to himself as a film critic for Penthouse. Since then he has become, to use his own expression, "a leather-jacketed Pied Piper", drawing an ever-growing procession of followers to his magical world of fantasy and the supernatural.

There is no lack of glitter to Gaiman's real life existence. He is sitting in a deep armchair in a huge suite in Claridge's hotel ahead of the Leicester Square premiere of his film Stardust, which is directed by Matthew Vaughn and has a cast that includes Robert de Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Ricky Gervais. Gaiman co-produced the movie and, crucially, wrote the book on which it is based. Beowulf, another Hollywood film project that Gaiman has co-written, based on the Anglo-Saxon epic, will reach cinemas next month, starring Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie.

Both of these are tales of ancient Britain, drawing on the mythology and story-telling traditions of these islands but propelling them into something more visually compelling by virtue of the special effects wizardries that are starting to capture distant lands long-occupied by the human imagination.

The recent recognition of the appeal of fantasy stories, from the television series Lost to the works of JK Rowling, has changed Gaiman's place in the world from cult comic writer to respected author and highly sought-after creator of film, television and radio content.

BBC Television, which flirted with Gaiman a decade ago when it made a disappointing small-screen version of his London-based novel Neverwhere, has been courting him with renewed vigour. "Things have changed so much. The BBC, bless their little cotton socks, now like fantasy and now like me a lot and I would love to do something more for them," he says. "I've been in talks with the BBC for about two years about doing an original fantasy series for them, which I keep putting off because my plate is so full. I think it's time to clear some plate for them. My agents would rather that I didn't take eight months and do something for the BBC – writing a Hollywood movie is infinitely more remunerative. But there's something so special for me about doing English television and assembling a great cast."

Though mistakes were made with the 1996 adaptation of Neverwhere, Gaiman is convinced that they were not in the script itself. "They had one model at that point for television fantasy from the BBC, which was the previous model of Dr Who. That meant, 'it has to be video, it has to be 28 minute episodes, and here is a very good light entertainment director straight from The Vicar of Dibley, a very nice man with no experience of special effects and no real understanding of fantasy'."

He is much happier about another recently-recorded BBC project, a one-hour version of his novel Anansi Boys, a British story based on African-Caribbean lore which will be broadcast on the World Service, featuring the voices of Lenny Henry, Matt Lucas, Rudolph Walker and Jocelyn Jee Esien. Gaiman thinks the project also has great television potential. "I thought this would be so cool if we could do it as four 42-minute episodes for the BBC or even ITV. I don't think anybody has actually done a drama, the cast of which was almost completely black, in which the point of it was not that the cast was completely black."

On the morning of this interview he had been a guest on BBC Radio 3. "On one side of me is an Oxford professor of English and on the other is Bernard Malamud's biographer. I'm being taken seriously on a level that would have been inconceivable for someone who wrote comics, children's stories and fantasies to have been taken seriously 15 years ago. It simply wouldn't have happened. Not only am I there but they are perfectly accepting of all of those hats that I wear; the comic thing is cool and exciting and hip and the graphic novels are in and they're great. They have been in and great long enough that now people are regarding them as part of the literary landscape and not as a novelty."

Although some are only now appreciating the role of fantasy in British culture, Gaiman, who has the voice of a born story-teller, points out that it has always been there. "Fantasy and the tradition of literature in England are pretty much exactly the same. You are looking at a literary tradition that begins with Beowulf and includes Le Morte d'Arthur, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream, which may be set in Greece but is obviously all about rural England."

Gaiman was born on the south coast close to the Roman fort at Portchester, near Portsmouth, and grew up in rural Sussex. Though he has lived in America for the past 15 years, his English upbringing is the inspiration for much of his work. "Stardust was, in a lot of ways, me writing the countryside of my childhood, its bits of old castles in there, and the fields."

Gaiman was a freelance journalist, writing about the arts for Time Out and other, less salubrious, publications and authoring a biography of Duran Duran, before producing the cult Sandman series for DC Comics, which prompted Norman Mailer to describe his work as "a comic strip for intellectuals".

Stardust, a novel in four parts, made its debut in DC Comics as long ago as 1997. In contrast to the darker elements of some of his other work, Stardust, (particularly in its film incarnation, which Gaiman wrote with Jonathan Ross's wife, Jane Goldman), has a simple intention. "It's like an ice cream – it's to make you feel happier at the end than you did at the beginning."

Gaiman was an early blogger, "back in 2001, back at the dawn of the time when it was just me and a couple of pterodactyls and a tyrannosaurus", and his website, which attracts more than a million unique visitors each month, helped drive Anansi Boys to the top of the New York Times list of bestsellers.

Yet even now he meets critics who say that such material is only of interest to nerds. "Sixteen out of the top 20 biggest grossing films in human history are fantasies. So either we are all nerds, which I don't think is impossible, or some [critics] are just not getting it on some huge and cosmic level," he says.

Gaiman knows that his time has come. "The problem Dr Who always used to have was never a failure of imagination or a failure of script. It was a failure of obviously being a man in an unconvincing costume hiding behind some wobbly scenery. I love the fact that we are now in a world where the storytelling technology has caught up with the human imagination."

'Stardust' is on general release. 'The Anansi Boys' will be broadcast on the BBC World Service on 17 November