Not long ago, I was lucky enough to go on a tour of the BBC headquarters at Broadcasting House in London. At the tail end, we visited the Radio Theatre, where the BBC’s quiz and comedy shows (like I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue) are taped; I even got to take part in a mock radio play in another room.
As much as I love the UK for still producing great audio dramas, I had to ask one of the tour guides, “Why do they still make it?”
“Because,” he responded matter-of-factly, “it’s popular and because it’s cheap.”
That sort of brusque frankness also explains why Good Omens, the 1990 apocalyptic comedy novel by Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, which was recently adapted and broadcast as a six-part drama by BBC Radio 4 over Christmas, is still popular nearly 25 years later. Although Pratchett and Gaiman became enormously successful after its release—Pratchett is, of course, “Exalted Father of Discworld,” while Gaiman has joined Stephen King and Truman Capote in the rarefied “author-as-celebrity” pantheon—Good Omens still appeals to so many. In her final column as the Chicago Tribune’s literary critic, author Julia Keller called it the funniest book she’d ever read.
I actually reread the book during the drama’s broadcast and its enduring appeal is obvious. The unique synthesis of Pratchett’s pointed wit and Gaiman’s flair for the darkly morbid blend and bounce off each other to create something that reads like the best of both worlds and yet something wholly original that still remains true to the spirit of Classic English Humor (see Douglas Adams for the definition of this term). The reader senses the two men are just freewheeling and having fun; given that they were writing at a time when, as the book’s afterward puts it, “Neil Gaiman was barely Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett was only just Terry Pratchett,” the whole work reads free of expectation. It’s the literary equivalent of Charlie Parker & Dizzy GIllespie joining forces.
The radio series, scripted by Dirk Maggs and Heather Lamour (who also produces), faithfully captures this book’s tone, while standing out on its own. The plot involves suave demon Crowley (Peter Serafinowicz) and fussy angel-turned-rare-book-dealer Aziraphale (Mark Heap), who have been tasked by their respective sides to keep the status quo on Earth. Over the centuries, these two have formed a mutual “Arrangement”; they don’t interfere with the other’s work, other than the bare minimum that will impress superiors, and continue to enjoy the benefits of Earthly existence.
That’s all threatened when Crowley is handed the newborn Antichrist and told to switch him with the baby of the American cultural attaché to England. The switch is pulled off and, attempting to thwart Armageddon, Crowley and Aziraphale spend eleven years instructing the child, named Warlock by one of the Satanic nuns who actually pull off the swap, in both good and evil, in the hopes that he’ll stay neutral.
Their plan fails when, on Warlock’s eleventh birthday, the hellhound the Antichrist is supposed to receive doesn’t show up and the two realize they’ve been looking after the wrong kid. The real Antichrist, it turns out, is living in the rural village of Lower Tadfield. Raised by ordinary parents, the boy, called Adam (Adam Thomas Wright), is an ordinary kid with a gang of friends known around town simply as “Them.” When his hellhound shows up, he turns it from a ferocious beast into a small little thing and calls it Dog.
As Crowley and Aziraphale race against time and their respective sides to find the true Antichrist and prevent the End of Days, other forces are gathering, like the Witchfinder Army—consisting of Sgt. Shadwell (Clive Russell) and Pvt. Newton Pulsifer (Colin Morgan)—and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, War (Rachael Stirling), Famine (Paterson Joseph), Pollution (Harry Lloyd), and Death (Jim Norton). Meanwhile, young witch Anathema Device (Charlotte Ritchie) busily studies the prophetic writings of her ancestor, Agnes Nutter (Josie Lawrence), and tries to figure out what it all means….
Despite a packed setup, the plot’s fairly straightforward, as Maggs and Lamour capture wonderfully. On the whole, their work here is actually more cohesive than their 2013 adaptation of Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere. Furthermore, the book’s prose and dialogue is intact, except for the narrator’s lengthy digressions that really could only be conveyed by narrator; those—like the reveal that Crowley shaped England’s infamous M25 highway after an ancient demonic sigil to keep discretely pumping out low-grade evil—are either scrapped or twisted into dialogue, which works well. That said, some jokes are missed, notably the great running gag of how “all tapes left in a car for more than about a fortnight metamorphose into Best of Queen albums.”
The book is smartly updated to the present day with really no stretching done whatsoever. Similarly natural is Maggs’ sound design work; it’s really clever and imaginative and paints the picture very well in the listener’s mind. But the drama’s greatest triumph is in its casting. Every part is perfectly cast. After hearing this, it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Serafinowicz (Shaun of the Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy) in the role. He nails every bit of what makes Crowley so appealing; his voice oozes cool. Similarly, Mark Heap (best known to Americans as repressed artist Brian on Spaced, a show Serafinowicz and fellow cast member Julia Deakin also appeared in) is perfect as the blustery, fidgety Aziraphale with his delightfully clipped, slightly pompous voice.
As goofball Newt, Morgan (star of Merlin) is nerdy and sweet. Ritchie—very funny and charming in the BBC Three sitcom Siblings—brings those quantities to Anathema, enlivening a part that’s basically an exposition machine. Speaking of, Lawrence’s unique burr and obvious relish as Agnes is a delight.
Of the Four Horsemen, Stirling shines as the sardonic War while Joseph gives Famine a wonderfully pompous American accent. As Adam, Wright’s not only relaxed and natural, but quite good at portraying a kid who dreams about the world and gets angry when finding reality doesn’t live up to the imagination.
No one was better suited to bring this book to life than Maggs. A radio icon, his work adapting Superman and Batman is first-rate, capturing the timeless appeal of those characters (I hope one day to find a CD copy of his acclaimed Spider-Man radio series). He knows what buttons to push to keep listeners’ minds engaged and it works. Even the bits that aren’t as appealing—a rather clumsy jab at American military lingo and a slightly anticlimactic ending (the same as the original, but less somehow)—are still enjoyable.
This is a fun, well made, and exceptionally acted audio drama that makes one of the most unique works of fantasy by two of its icons come alive. Check it out; you won’t be disappointed.
Tom Speelman blogs at tomtificate and is a staff writer and reviewer for Another Castle and a contributor to Sequart. He’s currently writing a book on Star Trek and rants about that, comics, anime, cartoons, Transformers, and such like @tomtificate on Twitter.
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