Good Omens: All the signs are pointing to a great TV series
Neil Gaiman has adapted his and Terry Pratchett’s beloved joint novel for an Amazon Prime series starring Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Will the gods smile on this one?
David Tennant and Michael Sheen in Good Omens
Twenty-nine years since the Carnegie-winning author Neil Gaiman and legendary author Terry Pratchett’s joint work Good Omens was published – and five million purchased copies later – it’s finally found a home on our television screens. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it took so long; neither author is known for forsaking artistry in favour of a quick buck. Unable to find the right pair of hands to bring the book to life faithfully, it took the great loss of Pratchett in 2015 to prompt Gaiman to roll up his sleeves and do it himself.
So began four years that he dedicated to the reimagining of Good Omens as a six-part television series, telling the humorous story of an angel and a demon, neither of whom are shining examples of their respective roles, teaming up to sabotage the impending Armageddon in favour of an easy life. They do this by targeting the Antichrist who, due to a mix-up at the hospital of the Chattering Order of St Beryl, turns out to be growing up with a normal existence in rural England.
Michael Sheen (The Deal, Masters of Sex) and former Doctor Who David Tennant take the leads as the risk-averse Aziraphale and Crowley, a rock star of a demon, respectively.
“I’m one of the people who read the book when it came out,” begins Sheen, in a chipper mood as we meet ahead of its long-awaited TV release. “For years, I really looked forward to some version of it being on television. So there’s a part of me that’s anticipating it as a fan.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into, because I didn’t read the book and wasn’t part of that existing fandom before I was involved,” says Tennant, representing the other part of their audience. “I have people come up to me saying it’s their favourite book and they have three copies in their house. You’re terrified that you’re carrying people’s dreams, that you can really ruin their day. But I’ve caught up with it since, and now I’ve seen it I’m back to just feeling excited. There’s nothing about this that precludes you if you don’t know Neil and Terry’s work, and I might regret saying this, but I’m currently quite confident that fans will be pleased.”
For sure, loyal fans who hold the book close to their hearts can rest easy. Between its small homages to Pratchett – parts of the book are included word-for-word, but with the authenticity only its creator could deliver – other aspects are vastly changed to fit the format. The fact its essence has been faithfully preserved is a remarkable feat given the visuals required a careful balance between the fantastical and the real-life.
We seem to be living in a world that’s becoming more and more tribal. People are sticking to their own camp and taking pride in their ideological purity
“Having Neil at the centre of it was incredibly important and made us feel comfortable with what we were doing,” says Sheen. “Inevitably, certain things had to change from the book in order for it to work on the screen. It is hard to argue against choices when they’ve been made by Neil Gaiman. You can’t argue you know better than the person who wrote it in the first place. But I’m sure there will be people who do.”
Though it was originally published in 1990, the book holds resonance today, when apocalyptic stories have come to the fore of pop culture through films such as A Quiet Place, TV series such as The Handmaid’s Tale, and books such as Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive – arguably because it feels a little like we’re nearing the end of days in real life.
“Apocalyptic storylines have a certain relevance these days. It doesn’t feel like the end of the world is receding anytime soon,” says Tennant.
“We seem to be living in a world that’s becoming more and more tribal these days,” adds Sheen. “People are sticking to their own camp and seem to be taking pride in their ideological purity and political leanings. Whereas this is a story about two characters who are probably ideologically opposed as it’s possible to be on paper, but the reality is that the more time they spend together, the more they start to understand their similarities rather than differences. The fact that they come together, really connect with each other and work as a team, even if they’re answerable to their head office, is a timely message.”
Last year, when Good Omens was officially launched at a celebrity-heavy event in London as part of Amazon Prime Video’s new season, the two actors were on hand along with Gaiman himself, director Douglas Mackinnon, Miranda Richardson, who appears as Madame Tracy, and Mad Men’s John Hamm, who plays the new character of the Archangel Gabriel, concocted by Gaiman and Pratchett while mooting ideas for a Good Omens sequel.
“In order for Gabriel to be Gabriel, he needed to be the best-looking, coolest, most irritating angel that you could possibly imagine,” said Gaiman at the launch. “I needed someone who could do humour. Obviously the good-looking bit is going to be a stretch for Jon, but he can do the other bits.”
For Hamm’s part, it didn’t take much convincing to accept a role in this coveted series.
“I read the book some time ago, and had gotten the good fortune to meet Neil several times in various social situations, and he said, ‘I’ve written this character that doesn’t exist in the book, would you consider doing it?’ It was very easy, yes. I knew that whatever version it was going to take, it would be excellent. And then I saw who else was in it . . . It was a no-brainer for me.”
We got to dress up a bit, wearing ancient Greek togas, then a full suit of armour, and then we’re in Victorian era, so that was great fun to do
The cast list is a veritable litany of “is that . . ?” Frances McDormand narrates as God, Josie Lawrence reprises her radio role of Agnes Nutter, and there’s Jack Whitehall who plays Witchfinder Newt. Look closer to spot Nina Sosanya, Konnie Huq, Paul Gambaccini, The League of Gentleman’s Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nick Offerman, Sîan Brooke and David Morrissey.
These names reflect a weighty production. Altogether, the first series involved 117 days of filming, 1,200 CGI shots, 200 speaking parts in all, and was set in 40 different periods, from the Garden of Eden to contemporary Soho.
A disproportionate amount of these periods are presented in a glorious 28-minute intro to the third episode, in which the friendship of Aziraphale and Crowley is documented throughout the ages.
“We got to dress up a bit, wearing ancient Greek togas, then a full suit of armour, and then we’re in Victorian era, so that was great fun to do,” recalls Sheen. “The filming was spread out through the shoot, so every now and then, we got to go, ‘oooh good, we get to do another one of those. French Revolution tomorrow!’”
Being able to throw out the rulebook of the standard TV structure is one benefit of having an ad-free broadcaster, as Gaiman well knows – his other current TV adaptation, American Gods, is also on Amazon, and he’s since officially partnered with the broadcaster. So, looking to the future for more Gaiman goodness, while he’s ruled out working on a follow-up to Good Omens, the deal means that there’s certainly more where that came from.
Good Omens will launch on Amazon Prime Video on Friday May 31st.