There are a number of curious leitmotifs in the long friendship between the late Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman – as to be expected with these two fantastical writers – and one was their shared, possibly excessive, passion for sushi.
The creator of hit after hit, from the Sandman comics early on to his recent international bestseller, Norse Mythology via American Gods, is reminiscing about the time Pratchett visited Minneapolis (more than 10 years after they first met and hit it off) as guest of honour at a convention.
Neil Gaiman in 2015: “We realised that we were pretty similar kinds of people.”Credit:James Brickwood
“There had been a period when I had moved to America where we just talked on the phone,” Gaiman says. “But when we got together, we suddenly realised it was as if no time had passed. We just sat and talked for hours upon hours at one of those all-you-can-eat sushi places where they put sushi on little boats.
“The chef really wanted to go home and eventually just brought over what looked like the Leaning Tower of Yellowtail to me and Terry, waved to us and went away.”
The two Englishmen met in January 1985 and “discovered almost immediately that we shared a sensibility and several senses of humour”. This is such a Pratchettian linguistic construct, with its expanded verbal precision, it slightly takes the breath away.
Terry Pratchett would leave wake-up calls on Gaiman’s voicemail: “Get up, you bastard.”
I had spent a few afternoons with the Discworld inventor in the chapel-cum-writing-studio on the grounds of his noble manor house and garden in Wiltshire, over a period of three or four years, so talking to his younger friend sometimes feels as though he is channelling his old mentor. Gaiman even squeaks like Pratchett when he gets excited, his voice shooting up several octaves. As he says,“we realised that we were pretty similar kinds of people”.
Pratchett started sending his new pal his novels as he’d write them, and then phone him: “A voice would say, ‘Hello, it’s me – which is funnier – a dwarf who thinks he’s a giant or a giant who thinks he’s a dwarf?’ I’d say, ‘Why not have both?’
“We’d start talking and bat ideas around so there was a lot of input from me on a number of Terry’s early books.”
When Gaiman started a novel of his own, with the amusing conceit that children's book character Just William is the spawn of Lucifer, it was a given that he would send the first 25 pages to his friend to have a look. Three years on, Gaiman’s Sandman comics “took off and became this mad thing of early success” – which is when, somewhere early in 1989, Pratchett called to find out what progress Gaiman had made on his book. The younger writer said he was consumed with “trying to ride the Sandman wave” to which Pratchett replied: [cue high-pitched squeak] “Well, I know what happens next – so either you can sell me what you’ve done and the idea or we can write it together.”
This was like an surprise dream apprenticeship to a master craftsman. Or as Gaiman is fond of repeating: “It was an awful lot like Michelangelo calling you up and saying, ‘If you’re not doing anything this weekend, do you want to do a ceiling?’”
The first draft of the book they worked on together was called William the Anti-Christ, the second was the book they sold in 1990, Good Omens – the full title has an additional line: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. It is a comedy about the birth of Satan (with a Shakespearean farcical element of mistaken parents), the countdown to the Apocalypse and at its heart: the delicious creations of the angel Aziraphale (the former guardian of the Eastern Gate of Eden) and the demon Crowley. These two manifestations of good and evil have taken a liking to life on Earth, as well as to one another, and collude to postpone its end.
Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and Crowley (David Tennant) have spent too long away from the moral absolutes of their ethereal homes, and developed a taste for the good life.Credit:Amazon Prime
The book is now a six-part television series, led by Gaiman as writer and showrunner, with a starry cast, including Michael Sheen as the angel and David Tennant as the demon, with Jon Hamm as the Angel Gabriel. The extra angels were from the sequel that the collaborators plotted but didn’t get round to writing. “Jon Hamm is a little comic genius,” Gaiman corrects himself. “He’s a great big comic genius. He nails it so perfectly as this good-looking, stylish boss that you want to punch in the face who plans on making your life miserable because he has absolutely no idea what anybody on the ground is actually doing.”
When I say Gaiman's own looks remind me of another Polish Jew, the actor Adrien Brody, he says: “I normally get Alan Rickman, who seems just as unlikely, or the irritating one in Friends. I take that as ‘a knobbly face with character’.”
Since the Sandman writer was rather ‘'nocturnal'’ in their collaboration days, Pratchett would apparently leave voice messages saying “Get up, you bastard!”. “True,” Gaiman admits, with a mild sense of indulgent affection for his young self. Was he, or is he, a little bit rock'n'roll ? He is, after all, married to an actual American rock'n'roll queen or “cult cabaret artist”, formerly with the Dresden Dolls, Amanda Palmer; his second wife, with whom he has a three-year-old son, Ash. They live, appropriately enough, in Woodstock, in New York state.
The couple were granted a “distinguished talent visa” by the Australian government for five years, in 2016, basing themselves in Melbourne. Both have appeared at MONA’s FOMA; Amanda with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Neil reading his story The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, accompanied by the string quartet, FourPlay, as he also did at the Sydney Opera House. Tasmania holds a particular appeal to Gaiman.
In the original 25 pages of Good Omens, he says, the Crowley was very like Aziraphale, “and one of the things that Terry did was take all the things about me – the me of 30 years ago when I was 28 – which he thought were hilarious, like my habit of wearing dark glasses inside even when I didn’t need them and occasionally bumping into things … ”
Were you a poseur? “I was – black leather jacket and everything, and Terry just thought that stuff was incredibly funny. So he took all the things about me that amused him and changed them to Crowley.”
David Tennant’s portrayal takes this schtick and exaggerates it further – resulting in an hilariously over-the-top performance – pimping it up with a preposterous swagger, shades, hennaed hair and lazy drawl – think Spinal Tap meets Bill Nighy’s ageing rock star in Love, Actually. Michael Sheen is heavenly (ba-boom), too, as an effete, slightly fussy innocent in vintage clothing, running an antiquarian bookshop.
I love the fact that he has had the same haircut for 6000 years.
Gaiman is having a gas seeing how the actors bring their own interpretations to their roles. “At the end of the day, it was Michael and David who chose their costumes and who really got into creating their characters. And there’s something particular about David’s way of playing Crowley as someone who thinks he’s cool but isn’t and who is also slightly unaware of human cues and styles. He thinks he’s cutting edge and hip but he can never get it quite right. Whereas with Aziraphale, I love the fact that he has the same haircut for 6000 years.”
So who is his favourite? “It’s funny but Richard Curtis – of Four Weddings and A Funeral going right back to Blackadder,” Gaiman explains the famous director’s CV, “last time I saw him, he sidled over and said ‘Come on, Neil, you can tell me – who was the better actor? Michael Sheen or David Tennant?’ And I had to say to him, ‘Richard, a) you are a very naughty, evil man and b) it doesn’t actually work like that in this because we are talking about Laurel and Hardy. The joy of them is this incredibly wonderful double act.’”
Coming back to, ah, your double act … did you and Terry have a fantasy cast in mind? His co-author’s view was that “‘What you really want to do is cast the late Peter Sellers as both Aziraphale and Crowley.’ It was such a lovely thing and it stuck in my head so when I went looking for them, I wanted two actors who were … similar is the wrong word, but I think it’s interesting that David Tennant and Michael Sheen had never been in anything together before because they always go up for the same roles.
“Both of them started joking that if there was ever a play of Good Omens, they would like to swap roles each night.”
Jon Hamm (right) as the Angel Gabriel.Credit:Amazon Prime
It’s a beautiful production, with great actors and writing, which looks as though no expense has been spared, even down to the opening credits, with their fanciful elegance inspired by the late American illustrator Edward Gorey. But what is particularly appealing is the sly humour. When Jon Hamm’s Angel Gabriel arrives for a visit to the bookshop to check up on Aziraphale, he complains that something smells evil. “Oh that would be the Jeffrey Archer books,” his angelic underling nods sagely. “What’s the Velvet Underground?” Aziraphale asks the Demon, wondering if it is be-bop, who assures him that it isn’t and he wouldn’t like it.
The two authors must have made an interesting writing team: Gaiman, with an embarrassment of religious riches (he was raised as a Jew, went to a Church of England school, while his family and former wife are all members of the church of Scientology); Pratchett burdened by none. Although Terry did tell me that he believed in the soul and that the universe has purpose and form and “possibly something behind it”.
In 2008, when he was 60, Terry was diagnosed with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s, posterior cortical atrophy, which he referred to as his “embuggerance”. The disease affected his visual sense, making it difficult to write, type and even get dressed.
In July 2014, Neil and Terry sat in the car of his driveway in Wiltshire and recorded the lines from Good Omens for Radio 4. Terry could no longer read at this point, so Neil read the lines and his friend would echo them. “And that,” his voice breaks, “was the last time we saw each other.” Terry died at home, at the age of 66, on March 12, 2015.
“When Terry asked me if I would write [the script] of Good Omens and make it for him, I imagined that I would probably have five years left. ‘OK my idea is that if I can, I’m going to make it while you will still understand everything … and failing that, I will at least make it while you’re still alive.’ And instead, we had this sudden precipitous drop in his health and then death – and all of a sudden, I am leaving Terry’s funeral and flying back to America and starting to write episode one.”
From left: Showrunner Neil Gaiman, Michael Sheen and David Tennant participate in the Amazon Good Omens panel at the Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour earlier this yearCredit:CHRIS PIZZELLO
Did he feel his friend present in any way while he was writing the script? It must have brought back those times, 30 years earlier, before either of them were properly famous when Terry was a recently retired PR for the Electricity Board living in a little cottage; Neil going down to stay with him near Bristol and Terry coming to stay with Neil in Nutley in Sussex, not far from where he was brought up.
“When I was writing it, it was upsetting because there were times when I would get stuck and I would want to ask Terry for advice and he wasn’t there. And there would be times when I would do something very, very clever and I would want to call Terry up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve fixed this sentence’ and he wasn’t there for that either.
“But making it, I did feel his presence,” he goes on. “Making it there was a little Terry Pratchett on my shoulder and when the producers would say, ‘You’re going to have to cut this sequence because we don’t have enough money’, I could hear a little Terry Pratchett on my shoulder saying, ‘Well, bugger them,’ [upward squeak] let’s figure out how we’re going to do that.’ And that was really kinda reassuring. There were places where nice, rational, easygoing Neil Gaiman would have easily gone and started looking for a middle ground whereas because Terry was on my shoulder, I was like, ‘That’s not going to happen. Figure it out!’”
I could hear a little Terry Pratchett on my shoulder saying, ‘Well, bugger them,’ [upward squeak].
It’s touching that you have Terry’s scarf and famous fedora hanging up in the bookshop – did you find that comforting? “It was lovely,"he says. “The only time I remember being really sad was the scene in the sushi restaurant. That scene was written because Terry had told me he wanted me to write the scene for us in the sushi restaurant and we would be extras and we would sit and eat sushi all day on the company’s dime. And I wrote the scene but then couldn’t face the idea of actually sitting and eating sushi in the background without Terry. So I gave up being an extra.”
The last time I saw Pratchett, he said, on what happens after death: the point is if there’s nothing, there’s nothing to worry about – and if there’s something, it’s bound to be interesting”. Let’s hope if it’s the latter, Sir Terry is tucking into many leaning towers of yellowtail sushi.
Good Omens is streaming on Amazon Prime.
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