“Time is running out”: Neil Gaiman on why Radio 4’s Good Omens is really for Terry Pratchett

In his only interview about the show, author Neil Gaiman tells Stephen Kelly why now was the time to adapt his and ailing friend Terry Pratchett's apocalyptic comedy. “I want Terry to be able to enjoy this while he's still able to enjoy it”

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The apocalypse has been a long time coming.

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Last year, Neil Gaiman saw Radio 4 finally do justice to Neverwhere: the urban fantasy that began as a low-budget TV show, prospered as a novel, languished in film development hell and was then rescued as a star-studded radio epic. Now it’s the turn of Good Omens, Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s apocalyptic black comedy that – also  was once going to be a film directed by Terry Gilliam and, years later, a TV series by Terry Jones. As Gaiman says himself: “it wasn’t a case of ‘why do it next?’, but ‘why had it never been done in any way before?’”

TV and cinema have had 25 years to adapt Good Omens, a cult hit co-written well before Gaiman would be known for novels like Stardust or find new fame with Doctor Who, and a few years before Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels would see him become the biggest selling UK author of the 1990s. The pair, friends since Gaiman interviewed Pratchett as a journalist five years prior, would collaborate after the latter offered to expand on an idea Gaiman had about the birth of the Antichrist. In between their respective work on the Sandman comic book series and Discworld (then merely a modest four novels in), they would navigate the dark days before email by working together via phone and posting a floppy disk back and forth – a process which, today, sounds like something out of Downton Abbey.

The idea would eventually stretch to the story of angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley, representatives of good and evil, who have decided that the upcoming apocalypse is a bad idea – not only for humanity, but their own comfy lives on Earth. To stop it, they need to find the Antichrist, an 11 year-old boy called Adam, who, of course, they have misplaced at birth. A loose parody of The Omen, it is executed in the grand tradition of dry British humour, of Douglas Adams and Monty Python, of where Manchester is Hell’s finest achievement and all tapes left in a car for more than about a fortnight turn into Best of Queen albums.

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“When Terry and I wrote it, we wrote it very nervously,” Gaiman remembers. “You’re writing a book with the Antichrist as the hero. You’re writing a book where we were vaguely worried if we were going to have to track down Salman Rushdie and ask to sleep in his back room. Instead the book came out and people read it and re-read it and re-read it. We’d seen copies of Good Omens at signings, and they were books where it was impossible to have read it more than they had read it. They would be swollen, the pages would be dirtied. One lady turned up with a cover of loose pages in a plastic bag. So, just from that, it was one of these slightly bizarre phenomenons that it hadn’t ever been successfully turned into anything.”

Neither Gaiman or Pratchett have hardly ever been optimistic about seeing their projects hit the screen, with the latter once saying that, “the difference between me and Neil in our attitude to movie projects is that he doesn’t believe they’re going to happen until he’s sitting in his seat eating popcorn, and I don’t believe they’re going to happen.”

Gaiman has had more fortune in this area, with films like Coraline and Stardust already having been made, and those of Sandman and most recent book The Ocean at the End of the Lane in the pipeline. Still, you can see why the long, arduous slog of trying to get Good Omens on screen would leave them disillusioned. For the most notable attempt of adapting Good Omens goes back to before the book was even published, with Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, fresh from making dystopian satire Brazil, setting out to make a film after falling in love with a preview. Over ten years later, he would still be trying.

“I think he tried to make it into a film about five times,” explains Gaiman. “The saddest time was seeing him in January 2002 when he had Robin Williams on board to play Aziraphale and Johnny Depp was signed up for Crowley. He had about 50 million dollars committed from around the world, and he needed a Hollywood studio and a bit more money to go into production, and he was completely certain it would be easy. But he went off to America, post 9/11, and watched people telling him, because this was before Pirates of the Caribbean, ‘nobody wants to see movies with Johnny Depp.’ It all came crashing down around him and it was all very tragic. It’s not that people hadn’t tried, but the stars just never aligned.”

Enter Radio 4  or, more specifically, audio director Dirk Maggs, whose adaptation of Neverwhere, which starred the likes of James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch, opened the door for Good Omens to follow. Its line-up of British comedy stars is led by Shaun of the Dead’s Peter Serafinowicz as Crowley and Mark Heap, known for Spaced, Green Wing and Friday Night Dinner, as Aziraphale. Both of whom, on paper and on radio, are wonderfully cast.

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“There are some glorious performances. Peter sort of had it from the word, ‘go’, he sat down, took a deep breath, and he was Crowley. I think Mark took about two scripts to find Aziraphale, and then he found him: very English, a little bit awkward, a little bit fussy, this rare book dealer  and angel. And they just played off each other so well.”

There are other players in the End Times; those who range from the Four Horsemen to Elvis Presley to humans caught up in divine plans. These include young witch-hunter Newton Pulsifer, played by Merlin’s Colin Morgan, and Fresh Meat’s Charlotte Richie as Anathema Device, witch and descendent of Agnes Nutter, whose prophecies play a huge part in locating the Antichrist. (Don’t worry, it’ll make more sense when you listen to it.) 

For any fan who ever turned up to a signing with their book in a bag, the radio play itself is a joy, with hardly any of the prose’s tone or tongue-bursting-through-cheek humour lost in the transition. It is also, miraculously, the “most complete adaptation possible.” Even the book’s array of wry footnotes survive. It is, in short, bloody ace.

“What Dirk has made is magical. There were moments where it just came to life… There is such an enormous freedom to radio. Even in a modern world where you have the magical power of unlimited special effects, it is so much easier to set fire to a 1926 Bentley and send it shooting through the air on radio. We got to do some rather remarkable things. I would just be amazed. I’d be sitting there, going, ‘oh my gosh.’”

“I mean, sometimes I would go, ‘I wrote this line!’ and sometimes I’d go, ‘Terry will be pleased with this!’ and then sometimes, ‘I have no idea who wrote this bit, but it’s great.’ There were definitely moments in there, where suddenly this thing you’d had in your head for 25 years would stretch, and you’d be listening, and it would be alive.”

Gaiman is, understandably, thrilled about Good Omens, and says he “mostly suggested” Radio 4 tackle the novel next as “I knew that all over the world people would be happy.” There is, however, another reason; the, as Gaiman describes it, “giant turtle in the room” when it comes to the timing of Good Omens: Terry Pratchett’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. 

“’It’s very true that after Neverwhere, [Radio 4] would happily have done any Neil Gaiman book, but,” he says, trailing off for a pause, “I do feel that time’s running out. I want Terry to be able to enjoy this while he’s still able to enjoy it.”

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Pratchett (above with Gaiman and Maggs) was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease called posterior cortical atrophy (PCA) in 2007, a condition where the symptoms root themselves more in the physical rather than cognitive.

In typical Pratchett fashion, he described the diagnosis at the time as an “embuggerance” and asked fans to “keep things cheerful.” He has since expressed that he wants to die by assisted suicide before the disease reaches its critical point, a subject he poignantly explored in 2011’s BBC documentary Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. And yet while he can’t physically write, and reading is difficult, he still perseveres with new books by dictation. As Gaiman wrote of his friend in the Guardian earlier this year, “Terry Pratchett is not one to go gentle into any night, good or otherwise.”

As for Good Omens, Pratchett himself, who has never entertained the notion of a Good Omens adaptation ever happening, is said to be “thrilled” that the pair’s labour of love has finally found a home, and has even recorded a cameo alongside Gaiman in which they play two policemen. An experience that Gaiman describes as, “a really strange moment for me.”

“Terry still has all of his faculties. He’s fighting Alzheimer’s, but he has a rare kind of Alzheimer’s which means physical objects no longer make sense to him, but he still has memory, and he still has a mind, and he’s still very much the sharpest knife in the drawer. But he couldn’t read the script, so I had to give him his lines.” 

He sighs – that pause again. “And it was this very strange, sad, sweet, funny, odd moment, as the two of us sat in the car with Dirk’s lines inspired by a line that one of us had written 26 years earlier. With me saying my line first and then Terry’s line. And then Terry echoing his lines. It was a little moment for me and Terry. I don’t know if we’re acting terribly well, but it’s a moment that made me extra happy.”

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The six-part adventure, Good Omens, begins on BBC Radio 4 tonight (Monday 22nd December) at 11:00pm