So look I don’t hate the Good Omens adaptation. Like everyone else in the known universe I think Sheen plays an adorable Aziraphale, the chemistry is great, the show is very pretty etc.
I'm glad it exists for all the people who get such a lot out of it, and even for myself. I enjoyed watching it.
But ‘churlish’ is the main constituent of my personality and I just can’t stop myself reacting to the ‘this show is genius because, and you may not have noticed this, they put the demon in black and the angel in white and it’s just such amazing filmmaking??’ with some kind of snippy counter-argument.
I do actually have a central thesis to my kvetching, and it is this:
Good Omens, the book, is a comedy. The foundations are comedy foundations. Bathos, irony, satire, overt intertextuality, black humour, parody.
But for the adaptation not a single comedy professional was hired on in the key creative roles.
My contention is that the Good Omens series takes a comedy book, fails to understand or adapt its comedy-based storytelling and diminishes it into a Moffat-lite funny drama.
I’m honestly not trying to take anything away from those that love the series. But I’m sure I can’t be the only one with reservations or frustrations, and it’s possible I will be able to articulate the failings I perceive in the adaptation that others might find cathartic or helpful. This isn’t written with hate, but interest and frustration.
Fit the First: Comedy v. Drama
I’ve said Good Omens, the book, is a comedy. What I mean by that is not simply that Good Omens is a funny story with plenty of jokes in it. I mean it is a story built on comedy foundations, using a comedy toolkit: bathos, irony, satire, overt intertextuality, black humour, parody. Its central premise is an ironic joke (‘what if The Omen but nice kid”) and as I go on I will explore how the facets of storytelling – character, mise-en-scene, progression etc – were all executed on comedy principles.
So it’s an immediately arresting fact that for the adaptation not a single comedy professional was hired on in the key creative roles.
The head writer and produce of Good Omens is Neil Gaiman. The director is Douglas Mackinnon who is best known for work on episodes of Sherlock and Doctor Who, ditto William Oswald who makes up one half of the editing team. The other editor Emma Oxley has worked mostly on grim crime dramas like Happy Valley. The leading actors are best known for their straight (if often campy) performances.
And, unsurprisingly, they didn’t make a comedy; they made a drama with a funny tone.
One possibility that would account for this lack of comedy credentials is that the producers and distributors of the miniseries didn’t want to make a comedy.
Comedies are risky. They are of niche and unpredictable appeal, inherently particular in their charms, operating on specificity that can only ever communicate effectively with some. A comedy show alienates and worries at least as many people as it charms and amuses.
With the rise of streaming platforms, we have been seeing the resultant aversion to them in the listings for a while. Though matters have rallied a bit recently, we’ve gone through a period (in Britain at least) of very few new sitcoms or sketch shows being commissioned. The comedy that is being made tends to be in the category of dramedy or tragi-comic; comedy with the reassurance that it’s provably good; it’s got sad bits and nice cinematography and everything.
So if relatively low-budget undertakings like sketch show or sitcoms are a risk; it is likely that a big-budget special-effects-filled show like Good Omens just can’t afford to be a comedy at all.
Meanwhile drama is safer ground. Where comedy is trivial and hard-line in its potential to alienate, drama is accessible. It provides a platform we can all engage with.
Even where a person might not be keeping up with a drama’s surface – it’s dialogue, its plot – they might still be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. A comedy lives or dies on whether the person watching finds it funny.
Meanwhile, humour can soften the potentially alienating edges of drama. We have been seeing a lot of that, drama that never lets itself get too earnest of wacky without slapping a load of irony or self-reference all over it. The MCU has been frequently criticised for that. It can be used to paper over patchy logic or inconsistent character too. On this side of the Atlantic, Stephen Moffat writes a lot in that key.
(Not to get into too much of a tangent, but I think it’s significant that the biggest influences of this kind of writing are Joss Whedon and, on this side of the Atlantic, Stephen Moffat – both writers who started out in sitcoms. I’m not a fan of Moffat but I will acknowledge that he understands comedy storytelling and how and when to successfully import it into drama.)
So what’s the problem, if you can have your cake and eat it? If you can format the show in such a way that you maximise audience willingness to engage, but you can keep all the funny?
One could fairly point out that that while none of the key creatives have a background in comedy, they mostly have vast experience in straight works which contain strong elements of comedy. That is, y'know, humour.
I would argue that is, in fact, probably the worst of both worlds. These are people with no experience with comedy as story, as framework, as theme, but whose association with straight works containing comedy (often overseen by executives with actual comedy credentials) elements probably gives them an overconfidence in their ability to handle it.
Sherlock, Doctor Who, American Gods etc have moments or scenes of humour contextualised by their wider dramatic context. The jokes in them are very often seated in throwing something unexpected up against that overall serious tone. It’s funny in Sherlock when an apparently serious discussion between the main character and his brother turns out really to be game of Operation because it’s an unexpected turn in a serious show which might and has contained exactly the kind of scene it just sent up.
I am going to get into the deeper ways in which a failure to engage with the comedy toolkit of the book lets the show down, but I’d like to start by looking at the first thing that people think of when they hear the word comedy: the humour.
The book, being seated in comedy by genre, not by tone, is capable of maneuvering through a wide variety of tones and registers without ever departing from its core identity as a comedy. The show is a drama with a light and funny tone, and must thereby always stay within that latter narrow range.
Thus a lot of the actual humour of the text – not having been written, on the whole, with a broad sense of humour – falls right through the gaps. It's just being played in the wrong key.
I’m going to look at a short scene which I’ve picked because it’s one of those which springs, in the book, from the basic medic principles that define the story. It is a scene which plays off the other central joke, the odd-couple tension of protagonists Aziraphale and Crowley.
Crowley has just accidentally run Anathema Device down in his car, and he and Aziraphale – mostly Aziraphale – are trying to make good in a panic.
This is how it reads in the book,
“My bicycle. It’s bent all to –“
“Amazingly resilient, these old machines,” said the angel brightly, handing it to [Anathema]. The front wheel gleamed in the moonlight, as perfectly round as one of the Circles of Hell.
She stared at it.
“Well, since that’s all sorted out,” said Crowley, “perhaps it’d be best if we just got on our, er. Er. You wouldn’t happen to know the way to Lower Tadfield would you?”
Anathema was still staring at her bicycle. She was almost certain that it hadn’t had a little saddlebag with a puncture repair kit when she set out.
“It’s just down the hill,” she said. “This is my bike, isn’t it?”
“Oh, certainly,” said Aziraphale, wondering if he’d overdone things.
“Only I’m sure Phaeton never had a pump.”
The angel looked guilty.
“But there’s a place for one,” he said, helplessly, “Two little hooks.”
“Just down the hill you say?” said Crowley, nudging the angel.
“I think perhaps I must have knocked my head,” said the girl.
“We’d offer to give you a lift, of course,” said Crowley quickly, “but there’s nowhere for the bike.”
“Except for the luggage rack,” said Aziraphale.
“The Bentley hasn’t – Oh. Huh.”
The angel scrambled the spilled contents of the bike’s basket into the back seat and helped the stunned girl in after them.
It’s the sleight of hand that makes this passage amusing and involving, the little gaps where we’re not told explicitly what’s going on but keep having to make little leaps to get it, escalating slightly into surprising, funny absurdity when we find how overboard Aziraphale has really gone with the saddle bags and then the luggage rack.
It’s also the way the narrative uses subtly shifting subjectivity so we both sympathise with the confusion of Anathema and also feel included in the joke of what’s going on with the two strange men. The relationship we already understand creates a whole scene which plays out in the subtext without having to be alluded to directly at all: the silent argument going on between angel and demon.
It’s beautifully managed because it knows how hard to go on the humour. Pratchett could write it funnier than this. It’s not that kind of scene. He keeps the humour appropriate to the mood and characters. In fact, he chooses the appropriate kind and level of humour to tell the story.
Now it’s true that in a visual medium it’s in some ways harder to manage these kind of sleight of hand and shifts in subjectivity, but it’s nothing good sitcoms don’t do frequently. An experienced comedy directing/editing team would know how to frame and cut the scene to capture the same spirit. Moreover they would have understood the nature of the underlying humour in the first place. A good comedy director knows how to present the jokes in the script. A great one knows how to find jokes that the writer didn’t know were there.
But this team could often not seem to spot the jokes that were in front of them. They didn’t understand that this scene is amusing because we keep getting slightly surprised by the increasingly outlandish reveals (“repair kit – pump – saddle bags – luggage rack”), and because we are somewhat positioned as observers alongside Anathema. In their hands it yet another scene where our lens is with Aziraphale and Crowley, and they could only seek to make the scene funny by making it bigger. Sheen and Tenant furiously mug their way through the scene, overplaying every line.
Meanwhile, when it was time to go broad, the makers of the series didn’t seem to know when or how to do that either.
One of the series’ early disappointments for me is the failure to portray entertainingly or even very coherently the plot-catylising business of the baby mix-up.
It should have been ready to spring into glorious life on the screen. Farce is far more a trope of screen than page, and (in contrast to some parts of the book which would need updating for 2019) the trappings of this scene are as fresh and funny today as they were in 1990, because silliness doesn’t really age.
The idea of an order of Satanic nuns is funny. The idea of one who has taken a vow of eternal chattering is very funny. But the adaptation glances over these ideas as if they were something to be acknowledged for the fans with a quick nod so we could get on with the plot.
Speeding past the nuns leads one to wonder, just what exactly did the creative team think was the business of this series? I fear they may have got things upside down and thought that it was the plot rather than that plot being a way to connect the progression of escalating moments and scenes.
Because while the series treats the nuns, as a concept, like so much inconvenient ephemera, it is curiously insistent on some deeply irrelevant points. When Crowley revisits the (now ex)-convent in episode two, the show is at pains to remind us with flashbacks that the manager he meets is the very same woman as the nun he handed the baby over to eleven years ago. The minor extent to which that is important would be totally conveyed in their brief conversation anyway, but the show inexplicably leans hard into the mutual recognition of Crowley and the erstwhile Sister Mary. She will never come up in the series again.
One of the tricks the series misses here is playing off that current show we have about midwife nuns. The Satanic Nuns of The Chattering Order of St. Beryl would have made for a wonderful Call the Midwife parody in the right hands. Imagine the Mother Superior as a Jenny Agutter type (or even as Jenny Agutter herself, she’s often up for a bit of a televisual lark); Sister Mary as the Miranda Hart type etc.
And that leads me to the first of the specific points I wish to talk about, one that looms so large in Pratchett’s work and is missed to such various and deeply-felt effects I have split its address into several sub-sections: intertextuality.
Fit the Second: Intertextuality - reference, parody and pastiche
The founding idea of Good Omens, “what if the antichrist came, and he wasn’t Damien but actually a nice kid?”, was Neil Gaiman’s. And I am informed that it was also Gaiman who thought of the particular angle, “what if he were Just William”?
Which surprises me because Gaiman is not a writer who operates on that kind of comedic ground – but then, I suppose, there was a good reason Gaiman sought out Pratchett’s input on this particular idea at its inception. He knew that omething so foundationally intertextual and ironic in premise was the stomping ground of his friend and fellow author.
Pratchett writes complex, nuanced characters, worlds and ideas and where he needs to get those across succinctly, he uses intertextuality. Specifically here, metatextuality.
And indeed Pratchett wrote most of the Adam material:
At an educated guess, although neither of us ever counted, Terry probably wrote around 60,000 "raw" and I wrote 45,000 "raw" words of Good Omens, with, on the whole, Terry taking more of the plot with Adam and the Them in, and me doing more of the stuff that was slightly more tangential to the story…
(from Neil Gaiman’s blog, 4th May 2006)
So in Good Omens he writes Adam’s sections in the key of Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, and uses that aesthetic borrowing to do some heavy lifting.
We readers need to feel attached to the sense of childhood joy and fun in order for later events to make an impact. But Pratchett is aware of how hard it is to write genuinely likeable, innocent children in a way that at least half your audience won’t find twee.
So he borrows from texts long considered funny and charming rather than cloying. But it’s more than that. He is also very consciously going for something that is not naturalistic but is mannered and heightened. He wants us to notice the innocence, not just feel it
As with the magician that asks you to check his sleeves or intentionally lets you see part of the process, feeling included on the trick invites us as viewers or readers in.
Thus the gentle parody Pratchett employs to write Adam in the key of Just William disarms us. It lets us know the author gets it, that we’re all aware together that this is idealistic and stylised, and once we’re not worried about the writing manipulating, deceiving or patronising us, we’re free to wholeheartedly buy in.
Television is at least as well-equipped to engage in reference, parody and other forms of intertextuality as literature is, indeed it’s far more a device of the screen where aesthethic is an inextricable part of the medium.
It’s only fair to note that a direct translation of the Just William angle to screen might have been tricky. William has had many screen adaptations but probably none of them has left enough of a mark to provide us with a useful visual shorthand that could be used.
I probably wouldn’t have tried. The important thing is not staying 'faithful' to the reference points of the novel, but making sure your adaptation is finding something to do the same job. There are more visually-oriented reference-points that might serve.
Give Adam the red and black striped jersey of Dennis The Menace’s and make Dog a little like Gnasher. Employ Paddington’s Wes-Anderson-esque stylings and palette. Even the earlier Harry Potter films might have provided an interesting text to play off.
It wouldn’t be the first time a text had a little slightly-dark fun with the idea of playing the Harry Potter story as an antichrist one.
The point is that they didn’t really do much of anything in the show. The sections don’t feel heightened or naturalistic in the context of the show. They don’t remind us of anything I particular. If there was an attempt to make these scenes eel stylised in their idyilic-ness, which maybe, there was a lot of plinky music on them, it doesn’t come off because the whole show is already filmed and styled like that: a in a pretty-pretty Moffat-esque colour-graded look. In a show where your Azirapahle is dressed a hobbit, the world of Adam and The Them feels in line with the general twee aesthetic.
And without any framing heightening of the referential or any other kind, where we are only able to read these scenes as being as naturalistic as anything else, it all feels unbearably awkward. The kids keep the Just William-style dialogue but without that framing it just sits awkwardly in their too-old-to-be-talking-like-this mouths. The plinky guitar music desperately trying to sprinkle charm over it all really doesn’t help either.
Fit the Third: Intertextuality - mood
I am going through the different major types of intertextual tools in rough order from most overt to most subtle. I have mentioned how overt parody might have been used with the Chattering Nuns; then how gentle pastiche was in the book used to position our attitude to, and understanding of, Adam the Antichritst.
Next is the ways in which reference and aesthetic was used in the book to create varied tones and moods.
The book – much more than the show – is an ensemble piece of different characters operating in discrete storylines. There’s a huge variety of tones, and moods across those different threads.
In the book, Adam and The Them feel wryly innocent, Shadwell’s world feels grotty and small; the Horsemen segments feel dangerous and hard-edged. Some scenes feel lit by sunlight, others by flickering strip-lights, others by hell’s own fire.
Meanwhile the adaptation feels like it stays within narrow parameters of tone and mood throughout. It never gets properly scary, tense, hilarious, sad or weird.
This brings us back to the distinction between making a comedy using comedy and making a drama with a funny tone. With the former you are picking a type of storytelling and it can encompass any tone, mood or emotion. With the latter you are choosing a tone you must stick to throughout for the sake of consistency.
Comedy allows for range. Fleabag is a Comedy. Inside No. 9 is a comedy. Year of The Rabbit is a comedy. They don’t stop being comedies when Fleabag cries or Stephanie Cole seems to slit her own throat on live TV. They are all part of the deeper comedy framework.
Operating without that comedy scaffolding means you don’t have that maneuverability. You are relying on the tone to keep things consistent. The range of possible emotions, mood and tone is therefore limited. In Good Omens the miniseries these aspects hardly vary between segments, and it doesn’t vary along character and story arcs.
For example, let’s look at the choices around how Aziraphale and Crowley are presented, specifically how their St. James’ Park scenes are framed in book and series.
In the book, the choice to have them frequent that particular park to feed the ducks is a riff on the idea of this being how/where Cold War secret agents meet. It’s a long-standing bit of pop cultural common knowledge/urban myth/humour, at its height during the 80s, of course, that secret agents met or meet in St. James’ Park. Presumably it is because of the park’s convenience for the headquarters of MI5 and MI6 and especially, and because GCHQ was based very near there (supposedly secretly) until this year.
The author of the first scene set there – one must presume Pratchett by the style of idea and writing – has fun amping up the idea of clandestine meetings between agents to ridiculousness while introducing our heroes by drawing explicit parallels with the former:
Currently, what Aziraphale was doing was standing with Crowley by the duck pond in St James’s Park. They were feeding the ducks.
The ducks in St. James’s Park are so used to being fed bread by secret agents meeting clandestinely that they have developed their own Pavlovian response. Put a St James’s Park duck in a laboratory cage and show it a picture of two men – one usually wearing a coat with a fur collar, the other something sombre with a scarf – and it’ll look up expectantly.
In contrast to the Adam segments, this isn’t part of an overt pastiche. For Aziraphale and Crowley Pratchett uses intertextual, but not metatextual reference.
Aziraphale and Crowley are the protagonists of the book, the emotional through-line, the characters with whom we are meant to engage most earnestly and most particularly.
And so the distancing and shorthand of pastiche, so useful in positioning Adam, would be inappropariate here.
Rather the Cold War stuff is a reference point, helpful in clueing us in to the status quo of the characters and their relationship as we find it, for filling us in on a world of history and culture that surrounds this.
Notably, unlike the Adam example there is no one identifiable reference point here. One might call it Le-Carre-esque on the basis that he’s the best known of this kind of thing but it’s not really very like his stuff. The reference is to a broad but specific culture of fictional, real and folkloric ideas around Cold War intelligence and espionage. What it picks out is the mood of paranoid suspicion, isolation and loneliness, and grubbied idealism.
In our first main-timeline introduction to the characters, we are encouraged to see them in the context of slightly weary and jaded, but clever, men who long ago tacitly realised they have more in common with their opposite number than their own management, who have an alliance and a kind of friendship based on that shared ground, but for whom trust and loyalty are tacit subjects.
And all of that is done with jokey references to suspicious looking cultural attaches in fur collars.
To give the series its due, it did at least notice and acknowledge the 'spies' idea. One of my favourite background gags is that in the establishing shot of Aziraphale and Crowley in St. James’ Park, all of the other benches in the background are occupied by equally suspicious looking pairs.
(I actually take a daily walk through this park and I dearly wish it was ever this sedate and quiet. If there really are secret agents meeting on those benches they are very cunningly disguised as hundreds of tourists).
But this was as much acknowledgement as the whole 'secret agents' thing got.
This is exactly the kind of scene-setting a good director should be engaging with.
Look at Captain America: The Winter Soldier using the shots and palette and even actors of conspiracy thrillers to root its superhero story in a layer of contextualising theme, mood and character that the script never has to include in the text.
It’s probably not irrelevant that The Winter Soldier is directed by comedy alumni.
So here, rather than full-on Tinker, Tailor pastiche, the director might have simply used wide isolating framing, a cool palette, a tense soundtrack, the sense of secret current of meaning between seemingly anonymous men. All to clue us into the early sense of the particular tone of this relationship and the wider conflict.
Consider the above shot:Robert Redford in a cool-blue palette overlooking (in the full wide shot) the Watergat eHotel, and consider how it helps tell the story at the heart of The Winter Soldier.
Compare it to this shot. Instead of anything that might help tell the story with his visual choices, Mackinnon chooses a very pretty, very pointless shot: he puts the pair in front of Buckingham Palace.
The scene actually uses Buck House as its establishing shot, sweeping down from a from a focus on the building to find our characters in the park.
I cannot think of a single way in which that’s a story/atmosphere/character-informing choice. This story has nothing to do with monarchy, or even power really; it’s not aesthetically connected with the Georgian period. Geographically the proximity of St. James’ Park to Buck House will never come into play. I don’t believe the palace is even mentioned in the book.
The shot is worse than pointless, really, in that it actively saps any atmosphere the scene might have had of anonymous hidden arrangements and makes it all feel exposed, legitimate and pretty.
This is the kind of thing I mean when I say the series, and it must be mostly attributed to the director, doesn’t have much capacity for playing with tone and mood via intertextual/cultural cues and reference points effectively. The director has only noticed that the scene is set in St. James’ Park and faithfully gone there to film. He has not, it seems, noticed why.
Or perhaps he’s scared of moving away from this kind of breezy, over-saturated aesthetic because a fun/funny tone is the only thing holding the show together in the absence of the book’s comedy framework.
Meanwhile, where the series does use aesthehic reference, it mostly uses it badly.
Newton Pulcifer’s introduction is filmed hand-held like The Office. Because it happens in an office. It literally serves no other purpose. It doesn’t clue us into any subtext or mood or character note. It places weight on a point which is of absolutely no significance.
It’s a particularly aggravating waste of time because it’s part of Newton’s storyline which could have really done with some intertextuality doing some work.
Newton, Shadwell and Madame Tracy’s world is the part of the book that feels the most distanced from any kind of relateable reality by the passage of time. The latter two were meant to be throw-backs even at the time of writing, while Newton played off then-modern, but since dated, topics of technology and nerd-dom.
A dip into a dingy, pre-90s sitcom feel would have done a huge amount to contextualise us that the world and the characters aren’t mean to feel like something out of the real world, but grounding it in a kind of reality. Newton probably needs updating in his writing whichever way you slice it. But you could have got away with Shadwell’s world if you’d nodded at Rising Damp or Steptoe and Son.
MacKinnon isn’t a bad director. I mean, he is partly responsible for the abysmally directed Jekyll. But he also directed Flatline, one of the most visually memorable episodes of modern Doctor Who. On Sherlock, working with a writer/showrunner team with a very clear and particular vision, he turned in a job that told the story and mood effectively in The Abominable Bride and even managed some nifty transitions of mood and setting.
He’s just a light dramatist out of his depth dealing with the apparatus of comedic storytelling, working with a flawed script, and not even really noticing where he’s going wrong because it’s just not his area of expertise.
(And I find it hard to forgive him the gag of the camera aiming to zoom through a window and instead thumping against it. It’s Good Omens not flipping Deadpool where are you getting this sudden fourth-wall-gag archness from?)
Fit the Fourth: Terry Pratchett’s Voice
Death is said to be the one character who appears in all (but one) of the Discworld books. I would say he is out-represented by a single other character: Terry Pratchett’s narrator.
Because like all the best novellists, Pratchett understands that the narrator is not neutral, not a mere observer, but a particular lens and philosophy on what we see in a story. And with Pratchett, the voice is more than a distinctive part of the mix. It is the currency of the books. The soul.
The stories can’t exist separately from the tone of their presentation. Their narration is part of the story.
You might as well adapt Hamilton without the musical numbers or Sandman without the pictures. Of course there would be plenty remaining to form something good out of, but it wouldn’t be the same text with the same soul any more.
And just as with Death, in Good Omens the narrator-character is somewhat like the Discworld version but also unique to this book. Pratchett’s voice is central to any book he worked on.
And it presents a challenge that everyone who has adapted Pratchett to screen has had to grapple with: what do you do about the source text’s soul living in a form – narrative voice – that is quite alien to visual media?
In Good Omens, the solution is to keep in whole chunks of Pratchett’s narration, and put them in the mouth of God, played by Frances McDormand.
Unfortunately, this decision has been the most common target of criticism, even from those who overall rather liked the show.
McDormand, a great actor in most circumstances, is hamstrung by the literally prosaic narration. Much of what she says is taken almost directly from the novel, and it’s clearly written for the cadences of an English voice, not an American one.
(Isaac Butler, The Slate https://slate.com/culture/2019/05/good-omens-neil-gaiman-amazon-review.html)
I not only agree that the God narrator was over-deployed and badly cast, I would say there are flaws so fundamental to this piece of writing they highlight the deepest flaws in the approach of the adaptation.
To look at why the McDormand-God device fails in what it attempts, I would like to look at an example or two of narrative voice working well for audiovisual media. Because involving an authoritative but eccentric narrator is one’s television SF/fantasy adventure is an idea with a solid lineage.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and the form of narration
I spent a lot of time with Douglas and wrote in a style which was clean, funny, classic English humour. By the time I got to the end I said, this is really fun to write, I should do more of this. So I wrote 5,000 words and sent it to friends to read.
(Neil Gaiman (referring to Good Omens), https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/04/neil-gaiman-douglas-adams-writer-genius.)
Terry Pratchett is the author of a book that ought to appeal to most Space Voyager readers. It's called The Colour of Magic and it's an attempt to do for the fantasy field what Hitchhiker did to science fiction - send up all the conventions, and generally have a fun time doing so.
(Neil Gaiman, introduction to his interview with Terry Pratchett in 1985, https://www.lspace.org/about-terry/interviews/voyager.html)
I was so impressed by Hitchhiker that I've got the world's only talking door.
(Terry Pratchett, same interview)
Good Omens is, to put it mildly, influenced by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy is an episodic, quixotic story led by the central inclusion of the titular Guide as the narrative voice. Like Pratchett’s narrator, though even more overtly, the Guide is concerned in constructing a particular lens, showing us the galaxy through its own particular view on it.
And the Good Omens series wears that influence on its sleeve. The opening sequence of Good Omens in which McDormand’s God quotes Pratchett’s book-opening spiel about the age of the universe is also quoting Hitchhiker’s, in its visual and audio styling. It’s very clear that the creators of the series were looking to Adams for tips on how to do this right.
(Though as a snippy little aside I must note that the magnificently precise Adams never would have allowed for writing as sloppy as the line “It was created at 9.13 in the morning which was correct.”. And neither would Pratchett. This grammatically inept construction was not in his original prose but snuck in with the adaptation for screen.)
So with all these overt and exploited similarities of tone and approach, why does Adams’s voice work in radio and television versions of Hitchhiker’s and Pratchett’s not work as employed in the miniseries of Good Omens?
It comes down to how the narration serves to characterise itself and the story world in form and function.
In Hitchhiker’s, the Guide is artfully devised to be the only authoritative voice in a galaxy of loonies – with the interesting caveat that the Guide is also barking mad. It’s Lewis Carroll: the sense that the grown-ups are all mad too. The Guide is thus an appropriate, tone-setting chaperone to the world and the story. It’s an absurdist lens on an absurdist universe.
In the Hitchhiker’s books (which, it should be noted were created after the initial incarnation of the stories in radio form) Douglas Adams conveys this with his writing alone, of course.
And in the radio and television iterations, the additional choices necessary in an audiovisual medium are perfectly managed to complement what he does with that writing. Most importantly, the role is perfectly cast: The Guide is authoritative, intelligent, discursive and mad as a bag of hammers, so of course speaks with the voice of Radio 4; it speaks like Peter Jones.
Whether in book, radio series or television show version, all the choices are carefully made to work together in telling the same story: the universe is mad and you are not in safe hands.
(In the Hitchhiker’s movie they cast Stephen Fry as the Guide. The same lines that sound disconcerting in Jones’ dry, baffled delivery, sound like intentional jokes in Fry’s plummy one and so it doesn’t quite work in selling the basic joke/tension of the Guide and the story.)
By contrast, in the Good Omens miniseries we have a confused and conflicting sense of what any of the choices around the narration are trying to tell us.
Firstly we have Pratchett’s words: cynical, humane, British, parochial, with a capacity for honest profundity; wise.
Then there is the kind of character to whom they have decided to give these lines: God. The Judaeo-Christian one. Giving Pratchett’s lines to God is not a wholly bad idea in isolation. If there is a God I think I would be very pleased to find out he thought like Pratchett’s narrator.
But it is a bad choice for this story. Because central to Good Omens’ philosophy and operation as a story is the sense that the universe it takes place in is one where God is real but absent; possibly uninterested, definitely uninvolved, in His Creation these days.
So introducing the voice of God and lending that figure Pratchett’s interested, humanist, comical words is a choice that is very much counter to what God needs to be in this story world if one is to maintain the basic tenets and tensions of the novel.
Then there is the casting. The choice of Frances McDormand feels like it’s trying to signal something, a kind of 90s hipster look-at-us-making-god-a-woman-aren’t-we-quirky-and-challenging schtick that last felt fresh maybe when Kevin Smith’s Dogma was doing it in 1999.
So while in Hitchhiker’s all the choices around the Guide worked together to create a tone that embodied the story’s philosophy and most basic mechanics, in Good Omens all the choices pull in different directions, building nothing. And as both narration and the concept of the universe’s God are rather prominent matters to muddle, undermining the wider series.
A Series of Unfortunate Events and the function of narration
If the form of the narration is flawed, so is the function. That is, the narration is functionally redundant in most occurrences in the show.
The oft-cited worst offender on this front is the scene in which a Hellhound is transformed into a small, friendly dog via Adam the Antichrist’s unwitting shaping of reality.
It’s exactly the kind of scene that should be a doddle to translate to screen. The stakes are clearly set up in dialogue in two preceding scenes, the mechanics easy to convey through film language. If anything it should be funner to watch this play out that to read it.
And yet McDormand is there, explaining what we are looking at.
In Hitchhiker’s, Adams’ Guide also often interrupts the most juicy bits of narrative drama. So why does it work there and not here? Well, perhaps it’s a cheat to lean on Hitchhiker’s alone for comparison as it was after all written first for radio.
So lets also look at another recent book-to-small-screen adaptation with a narrator. In A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Lemony Snicket narrator also has the habit of interrupting the narrative when we most want to see what happens.
I can see two reasons that in Hitchhiker’s and Unfortunate Events this works as a welcome and consistent part of the humour and philosophy of the works, whereas McDormand so often feels like an unwelcome intrusion in Good Omens.
Firstly, with both comparative texts we understand that this story is founded in a tone of playful, meta-textural archness. The central theme and joke of both stories (“everything is absurd”/”everything is dreadful” respectively) is something that the narrator can come in and provide a satisfying punchline to, not only in what they say, but in the very fact of their distancing us from the action.
Secondly, and relatedly, the narrators of these texts operate out of framing narratives. Both Hitchhiker’s and Unfortunate Events are framed as stories being recounted by an interested party later down the line. We are not frustrated by the interruptions because we have been set-up to understand that the point and interest of this story lies partly in seeing what the framing narrator makes of it.
It’s the same reason we don’t mind when the little boy interrupts the kissing scenes in The Princess Bride, or when the beginning of Moulin Rouge crashes back and forth between the present and the extended flashback that makes up the bulk of the story. They are well chosen framing narratives with a point, and we have been primed to understand that.
But in Good Omens McDormand’s God had no such framing story or joke to convey. As I have mentioned, what she is conveying at all is in fact rather confusing and in various ways at odds with the foundational themes and tension of the book. Thus her God-narrator can only be a jarring presence against a story it doesn’t chime with.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that Pratchett’s voice would in any case be a poor fit for the kind of framing device we see in Hitchhiker’s Guide, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Princess Bride, or Moulin Rouge. Because all of these rely on a metatextual archness. And neither Pratchett nor Good Omens is arch.
In Good Omens the funny, distinctive narration is always in service of a story the authors want to tell in such a way as their audience will be earnestly, unironically invested.
In short, the choices that make up the narrating God in the Good Omens miniseries are all thoroughly at odds with each other and the wider show.
So that is how the narration fails in itself. But it also creates the circumstances for wider problems in the series.
The narration is a crutch which allows the show to tell its story rather than show it, meaning it is able to stick to the letter of the book rather than be challenged to really investigate anything below the surface and come up with ways to translate the spirit.
Fit the Fifth: Aziraphale and Crowley
If most people agree that Frances-McDormand-God was at least a tad overused, absolutely everybody agrees that the best bit of the series is Aziraphale and Crowley.
Michael Sheen does a wonderful turn as the angel. It’s never quite the Aziraphale of the page, who is less spluttery reactions and more worldly intelligence and affable snobbery, but it's supremely entertaining.
David Tenant is, for me, rather less watchable, ending up in that knock-off-Nighy-mockney-aaooohhh-it’s-a-sanctuary-base place Tennant tends to when baggy writing and direction lets him: all hammy mugging without the starey gravitas which balanced it out in his turn as the Tenth Doctor. But, very occasionally, he makes book-Crowley come to sudden, exact life.
Moreover, there’s a lot of chemistry between the actors, and it’s British and luvvie-ish, and thereby fills in a lot of gaps in the writing to do with status and class and eccentricity.
And it is just as well that the Azriraphale and Crowley scenes are so watchable, because the series swaps out the very ensemble/patchwork form of the books to focus heavily on angel and demon as main characters.
That was a wise choice. On a practical note, this show only had the budget for six episodes which leaves little space for a multi-threaded storytelling.
It is also the series’ saving grace for some of the reasons I have got into already: Aziraphale and Crowley’s are the sections that rely least on the merits particular to the book form (the narrative voice etc).
But that is not to say that Aziraphale and Crowley don’t also suffer for the bungling of these aspects.
I have looked at how the loss of intertextual reference diminishes the characters, and later I will get into how the series erased the book’s class-coding to its considerable detriment. Those are both criticisms founded in the overall failure of the series to understand or engage with the comedy toolkit the book was built with.
Here I’m going to talk about more general deficits in the characters' storytelling.
I would like to look at a couple of key scenes to illustrate what I am talking about.
Aziraphale and Crowley’s first conversation: stripping out the tension
Firstly, the opening scene. In the book, and serving as a rare literary pre-credit cold open, this is a conversation between Aziraphale and Crowley (still called ‘Crawly’ at this point) following the latter’s temptation as the serpent in the garden of Eden. It ends with Crowley saying,
“Funny if we both got it wrong, eh? Funny if I did the good thing and you did the bad one, eh?”
“Not really,” said Aziraphale.
Crawly looked at the rain.
“No,” he said, sobering up. “I suppose not.”
Slate-black curtains tumbled over Eden. Thunder growled among the hills. The animals, freshly named, cowered from the storm.
Far away, in the dripping woods, something bright and fiery flickered among the trees.
It was going to be a dark and stormy night.
It’s a great story opener. It sets up the themes, tone and tension of the book and ties our main characters and their relationship to each other into them. Crowley has been the serpent in the Garden, Aziraphale has provided humans in their newly-minted free will the means to thrive and destroy by handing over his flaming sword; they have both behaved in ways ironic to their positions – an obedient demon and a disobedient angel.
This opening has the angel and demon show their potential for sympathy with each other, while alluding to the fundamental opposition of their respective sides.
That opposition is the tension that will define their relationship throughout the rest of the book. And they follow this conversation by gazing out over the beginnings of the human race, reinforcing the link between this tension and the theme of humanity/humanisity, and foreshadowing how these threads will answer each other.
The adaptation includes this scene and on the surface doesn’t change much of the text, but the changes add up to a totally different heft and feel.
Firstly, it adjusts the dialogue slightly and who says what, so rather than a mutual tension and ambivalence over their respective positions, we instead see Crowley confident and not showing much sign of inner conflict -and Aziraphale simply flustered by him and events. These will be essentially the same positions they occupy in all subsequent conversations.
And the scene ends on screen with the series’ most giffable shot: Aziraphale raising his wing to provide shelter for Crawly/Crowley against the rain. My heart isn't made of stone, it’s a very sweet shot. But it's one which completely resolves the tension and establishes a status quo instead. Aziraphale and Crowley, at the end of this scene, are already friends.
Aziraphale and Crowley’s history: adding nothing new
There’s quite a lot of padding needed in Azirpahale and Crowley’s story by an adaptation. In the book the characters disappear from the page for the entirety of Act II. That’s a perfectly respectable thing to do in a three-act novel, the second act often being for exploring b-plots before coming back to the main narrative. But the miniseries does not have a three-act structure and needs its protagonists present throughout.
Perhaps this is why the creative team of the series chose to place in episode three an extended sequence in which the show takes half an episode to depict Aziraphale and Crowley throughout history as the two negotiate their relationship, witness events of historical significance and establish a few plot points.
Whatever their reasoning, it’s a very strange place in the series to put such a sequence.
This would have been a rather good series opener. In series three where we already understand these characters and their context, the pacing of this sequence feels needlessly and disorientatingly slow. You lose track of any through line/s of the overall sequence because each scene is so baggy. But as a series opener, a slow pace would have been perfect for giving the viewer time and space to keep up and get engaged in the characters.
Placed at the beginning of the series, right after the aforementioned opening conversation, it might even have worked to pull back in some of the tension and mystery that the opening scene squandered. Because as we watched these characters meet again and again, we would be wondering where this is all going, how all the history we are seeing is going to manifest in our main timeframe and storyline. Unlike that conversation, the sequence ends on tension: Crowley more or less asking Aziraphale out and Aziraphale demurring. That would have been a great tension to go into our main story with.
Or, alternatively, the series might – in an edited-down form – have worked at the beginning of episode 5.
Episode 4 ends with Aziraphale being discorporated. Episode 5 currently begins with Crowley discovering that fact. It would amp up the emotion to follow this in the next episode not with that immediate pay-off but eking out the tension and emotion by delving into the history of the characters’ relationship.
Imagine, again, going straight from the closing sense of quasi-romantic tension straight to Crowley finding Aziraphale ‘dead’.
Placed as it actually is bang in the middle of the series it does nothing. It re-establishes a relationship we have already had established in the immediately preceding two episodes (and, incidentally, from the rather overlong title sequence which tells exactly the same story).
It’s a frankly bizarre choice. I mentioned that Good Omens is not quite the strict three-act beast that the novel is. But it does seem odd to double down quite so much on the Aziraphale/Crowley focus here when they have nothing to actually do in the middle of this story.
I’m not sure that there’s any placement of the sequence that wouldn’t need a very thorough re-editing. Again I have to wonder if a dramatic directing/editing team’s lack of comedic rhythm is to blame for the sequence’s draggy, repetitive feel.
Every scene follows the pattern of one character (usually Aziraphale) being surprised to run into the other. That might even have been intended as (and a comedy director might have found a rhythm in) an intentional pattern, a gag. But here it just ends up needlessly extending the sequence and sapping it of its energy.
A better story could have been told by having Aziraphale and Crowley meet unexpectedly in the first, maybe the second of these instances, and afterwords we find them mid-conversation or situation. That editing would have told a story, a progression of relationship: these characters found themselves running into each other as opposite numbers in an ongoing conflict; that familiarity led to tolerance; tolerance to a tacit friendship etc.
Cutting the little awkward dance would tell the story that the characters are increasingly cutting the enmity and awkwardness..
It’s a pretty established bit of montage storytelling. Look at how Spaced, for instance, quickly tells the story of two characters who keep meeting and get to be friends
(From about 1.35 – 3.55 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6T8AERZfYQs).
In this example, we have a fully detailed first scene of their first meeting, then we see a second (still stilted) meeting, and then move into montage of their getting comfortable and friendly with each other and pausing only for a gag which happens to establish a new character status quo.
Aziraphale is dead: losing the impact
The final particular example I would like to go into is the scene which forms (in the book) the break into Act III, the all-is-lost moment where Crowley rushes into Aziraphale’s burning bookshop to find the angel decorporialised.
The adaptation is doing pretty well for the first minute of this scene where it follows the book very closely. It goes wrong at the moment the water of the fire-hose hits Crowley.
In the book this is a beat with a point. It is part of the destruction of Crowley’s more superficial aspects, the parts of his personality that have held him back from committing fully to the cause and to his friend, and the revelation of what lies underneath.
I am going to get into status- and class-coding below, but suffice to say for the moment Crowley is coded as high-status and cool, and the crumbling of these attitudes and aesthetics under the mounting pressures of the plot to reveal what’s underneath is a big part of his character growth.
Crowley’s spiralling character de/reconstruction starts with the fire-hose blast, the sunglasses being knocked off his face and his being knocked arse over tit. He’s physically dissembled and emotionally exposed, not only realising that Aziraphale is gone but that he has deeply uncool and vulnerable feelings of actual affection and attachment towards the deeply uncool angel.
It’s kind of a big moment.
Meanwhile the adaptation doesn’t change gears here. It doesn’t take a moment, it doesn’t alter the overwrought music, it doesn’t have a wide/high camera angle that makes Crowley look small and isolated.
Emotionally and practically it feels like we are missing a beat. Crowley goes from shouting crossly for Aziraphale to having processed that the angel is gone, without the scene giving us a moment where he realises that. We also have no idea how he has suddenly arrived at the conclusion that Aziraphale is dead. He hasn’t clocked any new information, he hasn’t taken a moment in which his brain has caught up or the truth washed over him.
So his sudden grief over Aziraphale’s death feels unfounded in story or character, because it hasn’t done the immediate groundwork to earn that moment. This isn’t a character we have watched get to grief, the story just goes there.
But the failure to found this moment in character or emotional story is wider than just a lack of rhythm to one scene. You can see how badly the makers of the show wanted this to be a moment. They allow Tennant to go Full Ham with a wail of “someone killed my best friend”, and the music busily agrees that this is very, very heart-wrending.
It’s not. It could only be a heart-wrending moment if there had been any tension or mystery around how Crowley regarded Aziraphale and this was answering it. But every scene between the two has made it very clear that Crowley feels unabashed friendship or more towards Aziraphale. The series has indulged its shippy little heart at every turn and has nowhere to go in this moment.
(In fact in a series that leans into the romantic subtext, ‘someone killed my best friend!’ feels almost comically underwhelming. The series spends four episodes flirting with are-they-aren’t-they as the only real relationship tension only to steer away from that at the moment it might have actually provided some emotional punch.)
Coming back to that opening scene, in the book it leaves the relationship somewhere to go after its establishment, and the early Aziraphale/Crowley sections of the book back it up, describing a relationship which is established, even the closest thing either party has to a real friend, but still not particularly enthusiastic or trusting:
On the whole, neither [Aziraphale] nor Crowley would have chosen each other’s company, but they were both men, or at least men-shaped creatures, of the world, and the Arrangement had worked to their advantage all this time. Besides, you grew accustomed to the only other face that had been around more or less consistently for six millennia.
When it comes to the bookshop scene, though Crowley’s book reaction is much less ‘then I defy you stars’, it makes a much bigger impact than the series version because this is an actual peak to the relationship we have seen so far.
There are certainly other ways to play an arc between these two characters. Perhaps a version of the book’s arc would have been too subtle and lukewarm on screen. In the book we get to spend time with them at a reasonably leisurely pace, see their thoughts a bit etc, a luxury we don't have on screen.
The series does seem to play for other arcs but is pretty vague and inconsistent about them.
For example, It has Aziraphale and Crowley fall out, a classic and solid break-into-act-III beat. That theoretically gives some momentum to their middle-section bickering. But again the lack of tension undermines it. The writers never seem quite sure exactly what Aziraphale and Crowley are in conflict over in any given scene and it’s because they resolved the most basic thing that the characters should be in conflict over in that opening scene. They are already comfortably friends and are not terribly at war with themselves about that.
The conflict feels random and unmotivated, not the result of escalating fundamental differences, and its stakes unclear and not really felt in emotional or practical consequences (Aziraphale ‘dies’ not long after but in the meantime they speak briefly and unacrimoniously on the phone so there’s not real oh-no-they-parted-on-bad-terms heart-wrench there).
And if, as I have discussed, Aziraphale’s ‘death’ fails to land in the moment, it is also undermined as emotional drama by how its aftermath is handled on screen. In the book it’s the kind of late-act-II body blow that splits up the good guy team and sends individual members off on their own missions where they have to prove their individual mettle, and signals the increasing seriousness of threat and stakes. It creates a tension and momentum to both Crowley and Aziraphale’s race to the climax.
In the book, both characters take the open wound of Aziraphale’s ‘death’ into the final battle. There is no catharsis ahead of that battle. Even when the two do reunite there’s no moment, no pause in the pace. That’s a deliberate choice. That tension, the reader’s longing for an answer to these pressing open emotional questions, carries us through the plot’s climax to the thematic resolution of the piece, where Aziraphale and Crowley are finally prompted to step up from being witnesses to events and make a moral and emotionally-honest choice. Then we finally get this:
In the jeep, Crowley was cursing. Aziraphale laid a hand on his shoulder.
“There are humans here,” he said.
“Yes,” said Crowley. “And me.”
“I mean we shouldn’t let this happen to them.”
“Well, what –“ Crowley began, and stopped.
“I mean, when you think about it, we’ve got them into this enough trouble as it is. You and me. Over the years. What with one thing and another.”
“We were only doing our jobs,” muttered Crowley.
“Yes. So what? Lots of people in history have only done their jobs and look at the trouble they caused.”
“You don’t mean we should actually try to stop Him?”
“What have you got to lose?”
Crowley started to argue, and realised that he hadn’t. They couldn’t do anything worse to him than he had coming to him already. He felt free at last.
He also felt under the seat and found a tyre iron.
The coats of Aziraphale and Crowley split along the seams. If you were going to go, you might as well go in your own true shape. Feathers unfolded towards the sky.
Finally, for me, the final note of catharsis and resolution on their character/relationship arcs comes in the very last page or so on the section:
[The van] parked on the tarmac of the empty airstrip, near where two men sat, sharing a bottle of wine.
Then he approached the couple with the bottle.
Given Pratchett’s tradition of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it romantic resolutions, I don’t believe its wishful shippiness to consider book-Azriaphale and -Crowley as romantically involved based on that choice of words. It is subtle but in scale to the preceding tone of the relationship. In the book the characters start their arc with much more tension and dislike, and in the more ensemble form - not to mention the not-directly-emotional type of British writing – that is a genuine peak in what the book tells the reader regarding their status and feeling about each other.
The longer conversation around queerbaiting is one for another time. But I personally find the show disingenuous in its playing of the relationship as romantic because it uses the emotional aesthetic of romance without actually ever committing itself. The show’s equivalent of the book’s ‘the couple with the bottle’ line might be the shot of Aziraphale and Crowley getting on a bus and – we think, maybe – holding hands as they sit down. It’s so obscured that even the strip-mining of the show by Tumblr’s shippers didn’t spot it for weeks and weeks.
To me that’s not m/m-love representation or depiction. You can’t plead the case that as angelic beings Aziraphale and Crowley’s love might be romantic but is completely asexual/a-physical if you’re including physical stuff, just hidden. Either include the hand-holding openly or don’t include it. The book can be subtle about its romantic resolution because it’s been subtle all along.
Tumblr shippers will argue that, different to the book, in this adaptation Aziraphale and Crowley are already in love in the main timeline. But it’s noticeable no one can establish firmly what the respective moments of falling in love supposedly were: when every scene is written with the same ooooh-maybe-more-than-friendship?? vibe there’s no arc.But it seems the show was only interested in coding this stuff in when it remained unspoken or deniable, not showing unmistakeable gay romance. Sherlock did better than that. At least its characters vocally addressed the romance/friendship question. The TV Good Omens feels cowardly to me.
Fit the Sixth: Class
I think if I could pick one word to identify what was missed in translation, it would be this, class. I don’t really mean that the adaptation didn’t feel as classy as the book, though… actually yeah.
I’m well aware I’m the minority voice on these issues, but I dislike Tennant’s mugging and drunk-Nighy-esque read, and I don’t think Aziraphale and Crowley’s relationship was bettered by churning it into genero-slash between a Snarky One an Adorkable One, and what I think was missing in these points that the book had was classiness.
I think what I find missing in all of this is a real specificity in, and faithfulness to, character. And one of the major ways in which the book creates these characters, in the finest tradition of British comedy writing, is their coding of social class and status.
It’s not a particularly mind-blowing statement to point out that British comedy is preoccupied with class. Class-related status-tension has been at the heart of most of our popular and beloved sitcoms. Dad’s Army, Porridge, The Office, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Phoenix Nights, Hancock’s Half Hour, Keeping Up Appearances, Only Fools and Horses…
It’s still there in our supernatural- or SF-themed comedies. Red Dwarf has class embedded into its very foundational gag: there is only one man left of the human race – and he’s an uncultured working-class Scouser. The world-building of the show facilitates a central class tensions we recognise – the aforementioned blue-collar slob paired with a chippy try-hard from a Good Family.
In Hitchhiker’s Guide, despite the fact that the Earth is shortly to be destroyed along with all its social classes, Douglas Adams takes time to very clearly and carefully class-code his hero by bouncing him off other class-coded types so we understand our hero quickly and thoroughly.
Even Ford Prefect gets the class-coding treatment and he’s an alien.
Harry Potter and The Philosophers Stone, not a comedy but drawing strongly on British comedy writing traditions, does something very similar in its opening act. Indeed the very opening line of the series is a bit of social class coding:
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
As with Hitchhiker's despite the fact this particular society is to shortly disappear from the page in favour of a more fantastical one, coding the social class of the hero within the society we know is a swift and accurate way to establish who they are and how we should feel about them by tying them into a social ‘type’ and bouncing that off other social types.
In the book Good Omens, Class is used in different ways across the different plot threads of the book. In the Adam and the Them sections it is used to undercut the innocent Just William pastiche with enough reality to assure us the writer knows what he is doing: the comments and actions of R. P. Taylor are the voice of the real Little England.
The world of Shadwell and Madame Tracy uses class cues heavily to characterise and relate a world and characters to us that don’t have a lot of page-time, and to make them larger-than-life foils for the ‘normal’ (i.e. nice middle-class boy) protagonist of those sections).
But where it really leans into class coding as a character-building tool is with its protagonists. Especially with Aziraphale.
It makes sense that Aziraphale is more subject to this technique than Crowley. In the book he is slightly the lesser of the protagonists, a little more positioned as a supporting character to Crowley’s main character.
Coding is a shorthand, and therefore slightly distancing. It encourages us to see a character as a ‘type’ and fill in the blanks rather than build them from the ground up. It is an extrinsic observational attitude to take to a character, not one that encourages us to relate directly.
With Aziraphale, the blanks his class coding mostly fills in are around his flaws.
Aziraphale is lovely; calm, kind, concerned about others, everything an angel ought to be. He is also coded as upper-class and a few light touches clue us into the exact type of upper class man he is (or is like) and the inferred flaws and depths that come with that.
The angel is in fact the kind of person you meet a lot in the book industry. Not wearing his posh-ness that much on his sleeve but carrying an unmistakable air of the comfortable assumption that everything will be lovely for him. Unquestionably intelligent and good at what he does but without the edge of neuroses most of us have around the consequences of not being good. He is conscientiously worried about those less privileged – which is to say, in this case, all of humanity – but assumes traffic wardens are a creation of hell because they are personally inconvenient to him. His attitude to running a business is to indulge a personal passion and regard the customers as an inconvenience. He, after all, considers the rules for other people.
In short, when Crowley remarks to him, 'deep down inside, you were just enough of a bastard to be worth liking' I think it is this he is talking about. And Crowley might have seen it come out over the centuries as seldom as we do in the first half of the book.
If we infer the ways in which Aziraphale is kind of a dick via his social coding in the first two thirds of the novel, it is confirmed as the stakes and pressures mount.
He is after all not above the idea of child murder when it comes to the crunch. He doesn’t like to say it outright, and he’ll feed terrible about it, but he thinks his people have a right to off the trouble-causing member of humanity if it comes to it.
‘I’ve got great news! I’ve located the Antichrist! I can give you his address and everything!”
There was a pause. The blue light flickered.
‘Well?’ it said again.
‘But d’you see, you can ki – can stop it all from happening! In the nick of time! You’ve only got a few hours! You can stop it all and there needn’t be a war and everyone will be saved!'
After he has been discorporated and Armegeddon is really impending, a capacity for a line in nasty put-downs comes out that makes it clear that Aziraphale doesn’t not think this stuff, he just knows he shouldn’t:
‘Is that you, Ron?’ asked Mrs Omerod. The reply, when it came, was rather testy.
‘No. Definitely not. However, a question so manifestly dim can only have been put in one country on this benighted planet – most of which, incidentally, I have seen during the last few hours. Dear lady, this is not Ron.’
Like many a posh person, the high-handedness and superiority are there just beneath the surface, only normally there’s no need to be so gauche as everything goes their way anyway.
These moments only emerge towards the climax, but it is the class coding clues us into these depths and darker aspects from the start, and thereby establishes the starting point of the character arc by which Aziraphale will grow.
Crowley isn’t quite as heavily tied into class, but he is certainly coded as a social type, part of which has to do with class. A little of that type has lost its immediacy since the writing, but we still get it: he is the well-spoken city boy with a good education but unabashed to be materialistic and self-serving in Thatcher’s Britain, a cool yuppie, his money newer than Aziraphale’s but having the edge in the new kind of late-20th century status – cool.
And like Aziraphale, his character arc is shown through his moving away from the trappings and traps of this ‘type’.
Aziraphale loses his bookshop. Crowley loses his Bentley. Aziraphale gets cross and snarky and superior; Crowley gets frazzled and emotionally exposed.
Allying Aziraphale and Crowley with two social groups helps us associate their respective Head Offices – Heaven and Hell – with the bodies with which those types are associated. Heaven is the bourgeoisie; Hell is the established firm slightly behind the times and easily dazzled with cool and innovation.
And the series doesn’t really do any of that.
It’s hard to describe the absence of something but let’s look at the aesthetic choices made.
Accent and dialect is often the most obvious marker of class. The actors have certainly both made specific choices with their accents. David Tennant exchanges his native West Lothian accent for an posh-ish Estury accent. Michael Sheen swaps out his native Monmouthshire for RP. Theoretically the latter is a class marker but it’s too broad and mannered to associate with any kind of reality; no one actually speaks like this.
Similarly Aziraphale’s costuming is too fantastical to associate him with any types we may know. He is dressed as a hobbit, essentially. . Crowley’s outfit is a little more tied to reality. You might just about see that guy in London. An old luvvie or musician, the Zeppelin type – the rock star with enough upper-middle-class sense never to go too far.
And then there's the sets and props. Again, the characters operate in spaces divorced from reality. Even when they hang out in St. James Park the cinematography plays up the fairy-tale glamour of Buckingham Palace.
(Incidentally, the choice to make London a kind of Moffat-like oversaturated postcard means the ending shot loses its poignant sweetness somewhat. This London looks like exactly the kind of place a Nightingale would happily nest in, so the sense of something pure and fantastic amid the grubby, cynical world is lost).
As for their home bases, Aziraphale’s bookshop is like no bookshop in London, let alone Soho, and Crowley’s flat is too wacky to help place him.
With Crowley, there’s just a case of the character notes not adding up. His flat looks cold and rich-professional-ish; his looks more seen-it-all Bohemian and his
acting is 10th-Doctor-ish, broad and child-friendly.
With Aziraphale the choices are more in line with each other but the characterisation of ‘posh bookshop owner’ heightened beyond being in line with any sense of reality. No one in the world looks, speaks or lives like Aziraphale.
This is all epitomised for me in a single prop. Aziraphale makes himself cocoa in a mug with angel wings for a handle. That is an object the Azirpahale of the book wouldn’t go near with a barge-pole. It is high-end kitsch. You can probably buy it on Not On The High Street alongside your Live Love Laugh sign. Even the broader, sweeter, less class-bound Aziraphale of the show seems desperately unmotivated in owning such an object, but it’s hard to tell because, well, we are left trying to infer character from a series of disconnected choices made not on the basis of constructing a consistent character but, like the mug, on the basis of whether the show makers thought something was cute or not.
I really hate that mug.
And mug-hatred seems like a good place to draw this dissertation-with-gifs to a close. I don’t really have a closing statement that isn’t already summed up in the intro: I thought this show was basically fine but rather inept and arrogant in its approach to comedy, to its considerable detriment.
And that that is a terrible mug.