A 1990 collab by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman Good Omens has been described as un-filmable and had resisted previous efforts to do so. Apparently due to a dying wish from Pratchett, Gaiman himself wrote this miniseries adaptation which first appeared last May on Amazon, was then released to buy and is now showing on BBC2. If, like me, you never read the book, then it is an unexpected delight for the most part. Fronted by two superb performances and packed with quirky takes on familiar imagery plus sparkling dialogue it is a dense but enjoyable story.
Spoilers past this point
Some may be offended by the way the story seems to parody religious iconography playfully especially by the opening set in the garden of Eden and also the montage that opens episode 4 in which we find the two main characters influencing key events in an amusing manner. Plus the whole thing has a narration from God, voiced by Frances McDormand. If you want to know the tone take this; “They met often to spoon – and once to fork”. It is clever and subversive yet with a truth marbled through it. The story seems to be influenced especially by Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy with which both writers would have been familiar, some of the narration parts are reminiscent of that style. Its one of those stories that uses already established scenarios and puts a fresh spin on them. In this case no less than the apocalypse.
Good Omens is not necessarily intent on criticising faith more ribbing the mechanics and choreography of organised religion. As the plot progresses we see some secretive collusion between heaven and hell portraying them as similar to rival corporations and also differences within each. There’s a lot of parallels you could also draw with political parties in various countries and their definitive rights and wrongs which are later softly pushed to one side replaced by others. The story draws similarities in the way both sides do their business and by treating everything with darker humour. We even see them in the same building, heaven at the top in gleaming Microsoft white offices, hell in a dingy concrete walled basement.
That there is to be a war is acknowledged in off the record chats between both sides, its inevitability more or less than a likely business decision driven by the gains they might make. The story suggests that there is good and evil in everyone and sets out to contradict our expectations of various figures. Rank, duty, even destiny are not set in stone and can be altered by the person themselves. This comes through particularly in the case of the AntiChrist in reality a child who is supposed to set off the end of the world when he turns 12. Yet when he reaches that moment it is after living as a human and experiencing a childhood to which he is now too attached.
Our main characters are an angel called Aziraphale and a demon Crowley. He was called Crawley perhaps because he first appears as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but decides to change it. They’ve been around forever and have become friends of a sort having met up at crucial historical moments. Aziraphale now owns a Soho bookshop, and likes the finer things. Crowley drives a 1926 Bentley with Queen as the soundtrack. Both have grown so accustomed to life on Earth that they have been covertly arranging to maintain the status quo. As Crowley says; “Our respective head offices don’t actually care how things get done, they just want to know they can cross it off the list”,. So the duo cooperate on the toss of a coin to fulfil obligations before getting back to the more important job of living the good life! Now the oncoming apocalypse threatens not just the world but most importantly their cosy existence.
So they set about preventing it, amusingly they take jobs in the household where the juvenile AntiChrist resides- Crowley becomes the child’s nanny (you have to see that!) while Aziraphale is the gardener. However the child they’re guarding is not the right child and was swapped with another baby by the amusingly named Chattering Order Of St. Beryl, a set of nasty nuns! So things are going a bit awry. The series riffs on the levels of good and bad with Aziraphale willing to do some things that might be considered wrong for expediency’s sake whereas Crowley is willing to countenance anything. Perhaps surprisingly the story leads in favour of good acts, of redemption rather than chaos. If you were expecting a dark satire the story has its moments but ultimately is a benign one. We’re on the side of humanity rather than either heaven or hell.
David Tennant and Michael Sheen have enormous fun in their respective guises. Tennant’s Crowley brings in aspects of his time as the Doctor as well as a casual air of a dandy rock star (with shades) like a younger Bill Nighy trying his best to take the easiest route through history. Sheen’s Aziraphale is fussier, nervier and more liable to panic as he seems to constantly chase the action. Sheen also provides little looks that suggest a self centredness you might not expect from an angel. Eminently watchable and relishing the wordy scripts these two are worth watching even if you’re having difficulty with the wider plot. So much so that when Sheen is off screen for much of part 5- having been accidentally `dis-corparated`- things seem a little flat. In both performances you see the characters developing a mutual respect, a bromance if you will (and in Aziraphale’s case maybe more) that neither would acknowledge. At times they are like squabbling brothers, falling out and then co-operating again as well as pushing each other beyond the boundaries of what they might be expected to do.
Into their orbit a number of characters circle before coming together including the last witchfinder, a clairvoyant, an occultist and a computer engineer. These are performances to enjoy especially Jon Hamm as a wry, corporate speaking Angel Gabriel, Miranda Richardson as the eccentric (what else) Madame Tracy and Michael McKean as committed witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell. The latter two have an interesting story arc. There are some fun cameos too from the likes of the League of Gentlemen and Derek Jacobi.
The story does lean heavily on the writings of a Middle Ages witch called Agnes Nutter who amusingly predicts the future with alarming detail albeit in archaic language. This could be an easy plot device were it not for the cryptic nature of these notes she left which take some interpreting. Matters do tend to coalesce around less rounded characters like the oddly named Anathema Device and Adam Young, the Anti Christ who isn’t given an interesting enough background to make the latter part of the story work quite as well as it should.
Some devoted readers of the novel say it has been adapted rather too literally with the narration guiding us a little too strongly. Even for those unfamiliar with the text there are times when Good Omens can seem drawn out. It would probably be punchier in five parts but the reward is the rich interaction and dialogue which will definitely withstand more than one viewing. The plot is stretched thinly across the running time with a number of seemingly separate storyline slowly edging together and its driven mostly by word rather than incident. If you like big performances then you’re in for a treat, its wordier than the epic scale suggests.
Memorable visuals including Crowley driving a burning car, the appearance of some of the demons, a chase inside an answering machine, the historical interludes and the arrival of the big D. Best of all is arresting opening title sequence which mixes up quirky puppetry and FX in a fascinating manner. Its one of the handful of title sequences I’ve felt worth watching before every episode, usually after a couple I fast forward them. For a show about the end of the world you do need to make it look big but the most effective bits don’t always rely on big budgets. The four horseman for example are motorbike riding creatures who meet in a tea room! The final episode is the most curious one as the immediate threat is extinguished with surprising ease and the rest of the time seems like an extended coda. Anyone expecting some huge battle may feel let down though the way it ends is quite optimistic suggesting that the human way of life is not all that bad after all.