Neverwhere launch: “Benedict Cumberbatch was always the Angel Islington”

Cumberbatch's co-star James McAvoy was in producers' minds from the start, too, as they planned to bring Neil Gaiman's fantasy to Radio 4

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Neverwhere’s producers pictured Benedict Cumberbatch as an angel from the moment work began on adapting Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel for Radio 4, while James McAvoy was also at the forefront of their thinking to star as central character Richard Mayhew.

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“This was the dream cast,” said producer/director Heather Larmour, speaking at the launch of the upcoming series. “James McAvoy was always Richard in my head, Benedict Cumberbatch was always Islington.

“When they ‘yes’ I was like a small child in a candy shop – and then Christopher Lee said ‘yes’ and we all nearly fainted. It was just wonderful.”

Cumberbatch, McAvoy and Lee are just three of the huge names that feature in a star-studded cast brought together for Gaiman’s tale of London Below, a magical parallel realm beneath the capital in which famous landmarks become characters in themselves.

Cumberbatch plays the Angel Islington, a real angel – formerly responsible for the mythical land of Atlantis – who now watches over this subterranean world, while McAvoy is Richard Mayhew, a young businessman who finds himself cast down among the denizens of London Below following a chance encounter with one of them.

Christopher Lee, meanwhile, is the Earl of Earl’s Court, part of a cast that also boasts Sophie Okonedo, David Harewood, Natalie Dormer, Anthony Head, Johnny Vegas, Bernard Cribbins and Romola Garai.

But how did Radio 4 and its sister station 4 Extra manage to assemble such an incredible line-up? Dormer says it was Neil Gaiman’s name that first drew her to the project: “Neil was totally the reason I said yes, I was a massive fan of his writing” said the Game of Thrones star.

But she agrees with Cribbins that the involvement of director and dramatist Dirk Maggs – known for his work on the original Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy radio series – was also essential: “The pedigree that Dirk brought [made it] a no-brainer,” said Dormer. 

Producer Larmour credits the entire team with making Neverwhere such an attractive proposition, saying “It was [Neil Gaiman’s] material and the project and Dirk adapting, and knowing that Dirk would be involved in creating the sounds – we just had an amazing team of people that everybody wanted to come and work with.”

Neverwhere begins with an hour-long episode at 2:30pm on Saturday 16 March on Radio 4 and continues with five 30-minute instalments at 6pm, Monday to Friday, on Radio 4 Extra from 18 March.

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Visit the official Neverwhere site for clips, a guide to the characters and more