Warning: Spoilers Ahead
There's something about British fantasy writers that leads them to see the end of the world as a source of comedy.
Good Omens was the sole literary collaboration between two the UK's most popular fantasy authors. Published in 1990, it was written by Terry Pratchett in between several novels of his best selling Discworld series, and Neil Gaiman while he was beginning his Sandman comics masterpiece with Vertigo. A sustained parody of 1976 classic The Omen, the novel charts the final days before the Apocalypse and the final war between the forces of Heaven and Hell, beginning with a mix-up at a maternity hospital which sees the wrong family take home the Antichrist.
The novel was a bestseller, winning the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1991. An adaptation for either the big or small screen seemed inevitable, but after years in development hell, plans for a cinematic version fell apart. A radio adaptation was broadcast by the BBC in late 2014, reigniting interest in the project. Pratchett's daughter Rhianna had begun her own production company, Narrativia, in 2012, and a televisual adaptation of Good Omens had been a priority project since the beginning. In 2015, Terry Pratchett sadly passed away, but not before writing to Gaiman requesting his co-author work on adapting the novel for television himself. Left with what was essentially a deathbed promise, Gaiman worked with Narrativia, Amazon and the BBC to produce a six-part TV miniseries of the novel.
While the basic storyline of the novel remains intact, the miniseries takes a few diversions along the way, and it's not as if it took a particularly direct route in the first place. This is only natural; a TV series has a very different shape to a novel, and Gaiman is experienced in writing for both formats. Notably, though, one element of the novel, already one of its most important aspects, is pushed very much to the fore of the TV version, and that is the friendship between the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley. Aziraphale is, as you might expect from an angel, a terribly nice chap, but just a bit of a bastard when it comes to it, while Crowley (nee Crawley) though once the serpent in the garden, isn't such a bad chap when you get to know him. Good Omens, then, is the story of their six-thousand-year friendship, from the beginnings on mankind to the final days before Armageddon, as they grow from adversaries to uneasy allies to best friends and maybe more.
Michael Sheen plays Aziraphale, in a note-perfect take on the character. He absolutely embodies the terribly proper, jolly sporting, almost weaponised niceness and good manners of the angel, so much so that the programme's greatest punch-the-air moment is when he finally gets to drop an F-bomb. Crowley, on the other hand, is played by David Tennant, who portrays the demon with the louche confidence and swagger of an ageing rockstar. In fact, his performance and delivery is essentially the same his take on Doctor Who, if his Doctor had never regenerated, and had simply marched towards early middle age with gradually diminishing self-respect. (Except when he's briefly posing as a nanny, where he plays Missy.) Their friendship, always essential to the story but the beating heart of the adaptation, is brought to life with sublime chemistry between the two actors (so much so that Tennant has joked that he may have married the wrong co-star in Georgia Moffett). One of the more significant additions to the original narrative is an extended look at their budding friendship and their adventures through earthly history, which takes up much of the third episode and is an absolute highlight of the series.
After six millennia performing of great acts of goodness and evil (and occasionally covering for each other), Aziraphale and Crowley have gone native and find they rather enjoy life on Earth, and are none too happy when they are instructed to begin preparations for the End of Days. They spend the following eleven years trying to keep the Antichrist on the straight and narrow, by influencing him equally in the ways of sainthood and sin, only to realise in the final fortnight of history that there's been an almighty cock-up and they have the wrong boy. The Son of Satan has not, in fact, been raised by the American ambassador to the UK thus placed to affect world events and bring in nuclear war, but has been living in a small English village running riot with his three best friends and his dog (technically a Hellbeast).
Sam Taylor Buck shoulders a lot of the climactic events as Adam Young, the reluctant Prince of Darkness. He moves easily from being an endearingly naughty little boy to being genuinely unnerving as his power manifests and he begins to bend the world to his will. Naturally, he comes good, but not before events are driven to the very edge of destruction by the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Introduced gradually through the course of the series, these are distinctly modern iterations of the Four: Death, War, Famine and Pollution, biking their way to the end of the world. Brian Cox provides the haunting voice of Death, but it's Mireille Enos as the distressingly sexy War and Lourdes Fabreres as the alien and androgynous Pollution who have the most presence.
The story is framed by the narration of the Almighty (Frances McDormand, in a voiceover role). Any hardline religious types who managed to make it through the horror of a woman playing God were sent into apoplexy by a black Adam and Eve (even though this is about as scientifically feasible as you could make the idea of Adam and Eve). Then again, what's the point in making a comedy of errors about fundamental Christian mythology if you're not going to upset the Far Right? (Hilariously, a group of American Christian fundamentalists petitioned Netflix to remove the series. It is made and streamed by Amazon Prime.) As well as the Holiest of narrators guiding the story, helpful asides are provided by Agnes Nutter, a seventeenth century witch (Josie Lawrence, reprising her role from the radio serial), through her book of “Nice and Accurate Prophecies.”
The prophecies guide Agnes's distant descendent Anathema Device as she attempts to avert the Apocalypse. It's always tricky judging the casting of a literary adaptation, since every reader will have their own vision of the characters, but Adria Arjona is too beautiful and too American to really fit as Anathema. She's charming in the role though, although she lacks chemistry with Jack Whitehall as her predestined lover, Newt Pulsifer, wannabe witch finder. Many of the characters are cast against expectation, but often to great effect. Daniel Mays is exceedingly fuddy-duddy as Adam's (non-Satanic) father, and Michael McKean is wonderful as the scruffy, Scottish Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (army of one). The various demons and angels are entertainingly cast, against gender and race expectation. The Archangel Michael is played by Doon Mackichan at her most officious, while John Hamm makes a gloriously Gabriel (a character almost absent from the book, but here made the leader of the Angelic Host). Beelzebub, Chief of Hell, is a putrid and bug-ridden cockney played by Anna Maxwell Martin, but her diabolical thunder is stolen by Ned Dennehy, who gives a waspish and gleefully evil performance as Crowley's nemesis, the unspeakable Hastur.
The series is occasionally paced rather oddly, perhaps owing to Gaiman's decision to incorporate extra material from his and Pratchett's planned sequel book (provisionally titled 668: The Neighbour of the Beast). Following the climactic events of the final episode, a lengthy epilogue follows the fates of Aziraphale and Crowley, in a pleasing but ultimately overlong sequence. While Gaiman has worked at updating some of the more outdated references and jokes, certain elements still noticeably date the material. (Adam's friend Pepper being the daughter of Woodstock-ish hippies was hard to credit in 1990, outright unfeasible in 2019.) During the most eventful parts, though, the story zips along, with a brilliantly judged balance of the exciting, the chilling and the absurd.
It's clear that everyone involved had a lot of fun creating this. It's full of cheeky references to some of Gaiman's favourite properties; about 90% are Doctor Who references (some of them wonderfully obscure), but the prominence of a full run of Richmal Crompton's Just William books is the best (the original idea for Good Omens being “William the Antichrist”). There are some delicious cameos for fans of BBC productions (the entire League of Gentlemen appear in the third episode). David Arnold provides a glorious score, but the lashings of Queen are what really make the soundtrack. Plus, there's a beautiful rendition of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” by Tori Amos in the last episode (she is best mates with Gaiman, after all). And while no fan of a novel is ever going to be 100% satisfied with a screen adaptation, Gaiman's reworking of his masterful collaboration with the late, great Pratchett is about as close to dead right as we could hope.
About the Writer of this article, Daniel Tessier
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.'
Dan's web page can be found is called Immaterial
Published on October 8th, 2019. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.