In the previous episode Richard and Door met with the Angel Islington who promised to try and find out what happened to Door’s family in return for Door and Richard retrieving a key from The Black Friars.
So Door, Hunter and Richard set off to see The Black Friars. Once they arrive at the Black Friars bridge they are told that they must face three challenges. Hunter easily overcomes the guard on the bridge and clever Door solves the second challenge (a not tremendously hard riddle) which leaves poor Richard to face the third and final ordeal alone. While Hunter and Door fret over his fate (the ladies not having a great deal of faith in Richard’s capabilities) meanwhile the dreadful duo of Croup and Vandemar have killed the Marquis de Carabas. You have to admire the ghoulish glee with which they set about disposing of the body while Mr Croup laments the fact that they can’t show off their fine handiwork to the world at large. There’s a certain inappropriately childish excitement in Vandemar wishing he could put his hands inside the Marquis’ face and show him off to Door like the world’s most revolting hand puppet. Croup and Vandemar were always the most entertaining characters in the book for me (I know you can’t love a villain but I enjoy the sheer pride they take in just being as awful as humanly possible) and Tony Head and David Schofield are doing a superb job of bringing this truly gruesome duo to life.
The Marquis unceremoniously disposed of it is back to The Black Friars and Richard’s final ordeal. The kindly Abbot is played by George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt in the Harry Potter films and Victor Frankenstein’s father in Frankenstein at the NT with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller) and he wears the loss of all those who have attempted the ordeal before heavy on his shoulders. It’s a performance of immense kindness and sadness. He and his brothers have been entrusted with keeping the key safe but the loss of all those who have tried to claim it before weighs greatly on him. Brother Fuliginous (Don Gilet – probably best known as Donna’s duplicitous fiancee in Doctor Who:The Runaway Bride) is equally kindly to Richard serving him with tea and taking his picture with “the newest technology” (a Polaroid camera) for their memorial wall as it is important to the Friars that those who have gone before are not forgotten. James McAvoy is brilliant in this scene – polite, worried, nervy, resorting to bargaining with the Friar to try and just get him to give him the Key (“It’s for an Angel man..”) and in the end utterly resolved to go through with the trial and get it over with as soon as possible.
And then it is time for the Ordeal which for me was the most impressive sequence dramatised so far in the series. Richard finds himself on a crowded tube platform as phantom versions of his work colleague Gary and Jessica his fiancee try to convince him that he’s not in London Below facing an ordeal but very much in the London we know suffering from a complete nervous breakdown triggered by Jessica leaving him. While Richard believes that he is a hero valiantly undertaking a great ordeal to save a damsel in distress everyone from the phantom apparitions to the tube announcer try to convince Richard that he has instead simply lost his mind, that he is nothing but a filthy smelly tramp raving to himself on a tube station platform and that the only thing for a decent human in his position to do is to end it all.
It’s an extraordinarily suspenseful sequence. Richard is assailed by the discordant cacophony of the hustle and bustle of the commuters, the disembodied voices of Jessica and Gary whispering terrible terrible things in his ear, the tube announcer gleefully telling him in a booming amplified monotone to end it all, backed by a choir singing mournfully in the background as Richard moves closer and closer to the end of the platform as a dreadful screeching and rumbling announces the arrival of the latest tube. And the soundscape builds and builds and builds until you are filled with dread and the whole thing is so tense that you practically find yourself screaming “Come on Richard snap out of it” at your computer. And then it’s all punctured by the soft quiet voice of Anasthesia speaking gently to Richard and bringing him back to himself. When the Friars open the door to remove the body of the “poor creature” and a ragged but very much himself Richard bites out the words “I am not a poor creature” you rather feel like cheering. I was wondering how this sequence would play out as the pay off in the novel wouldn’t work on the radio (in the book when Anasthesia is taken on Knight’s Bridge all that remains is Amber beads from her necklace which Richard carries with him to remember her by. It is him feeling the bead in his pocket on the tube station during the ordeal that brings him back from the brink). It’s a masterful sequence with a superb soundscape designed by Dirk Maggs and centred by an incredibly strong performance from James McAvoy.
So Richard returns with the key to the sheer delight of Door and the clear astonishment of Hunter and off they head to meet the Marquis at the floating market in “Belfast” (having helpfully been provided that information by Lamia, a “Velvet” (Lucy Cohu all seductive sibilant breathy tones) But as they leave the Abbot rather worrying proclaims “we have lost the key. God help us all.”
Meanwhile the sewer folk have fished the Marquis’ body out of the water and are jubilant at having something decent to sell at market while Old Bailey is visited by a rat who instructs him to fetch said body. But can Old Bailey put the poor shattered Marquis back together again?
An extremely strong suspenseful episode of Neverwhere – and only two more to go.
Neverwhere continues on BBC Radio 4 Extra tomorrow at 6:00 p.m. with Market Afloat.