'Good Omens' - Being a Television Series about the Birth of the Antichrist Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Good Omens' - Being a Television Series about the Birth of the Antichrist

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Terry Pratchett's Television Adaptations
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Good Omens is a television series based on the popular 1990 novel co-written by Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman as a BBC and Amazon co-production. Good Omens first attracted the attentions of the film industry in 1991, with both Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones keen to adapt the 400-page novel for the screen, before the story, about Heaven and Hell planning the end of the world, gained a reputation for being 'unfilmable'.

The series was finally adapted following Terry Pratchett's death in 2015, as this was one of his last wishes. Six × one-hour episodes were made; it was available online in 2019 and first broadcast in January 2020.

Plot

The story is set over 6,000 years but most of the action takes place in the week running up to the end of the world. Eleven years before Armageddon a demon named Crowley is tasked with swapping the Antichrist with the son of the American ambassador to the UK. However, due to the incompetence of the Satanic nuns at the convent where he is born, the Antichrist is swapped with the wrong family and raised as a normal child in a small rural English village. Meanwhile the baby raised as the ambassador's son is not the Antichrist, he's a very naughty boy. It is predicted that following the Antichrist's 11th birthday will come the start of Armageddon, the final war between the forces of Heaven and Hell which will inevitably lead to the complete destruction of Earth.

Neither Crowley nor his best friend, an angel named Aziraphale, want the Earth to be destroyed, having spent 6,000 years living there and becoming rather fond of humanity. They seek to prevent the end of the world while not upsetting their superiors in Heaven and Hell. The events of the last days had been foretold in 1656 by Agnes Nutter, who wrote what would happen in The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, only one copy of which is known to have survived. Her descendent Anathema Device hopes to prevent the end of the world using Agnes' book, which she loses. Also trying to prevent Armageddon are the last two remaining witchfinders, Sergeant Shadwell and Newton Pulsifer, a man for whom no other career has worked out.

Can an angel, demon, witchfinders and witch unite to find the Antichrist and prevent him from launching Armageddon?

Dramatis Personæ

There are 240 characters listed in the script – here are just some of them:

Creatures of the Last DaysCharacterActor
Angels & DemonsCrowleyDavid Tennant
AziraphaleMichael Sheen
GodVoice: Frances McDormand
GabrielJon Hamm
SandalphonPaul Chahidi
Hastur, Duke of Hell Ned Dennehy
Archangel MichaelDoon Mackichan
UrielGloria Obianyo
Ligur, Duke of Hell Ariyon Bakare
BeelzebubAnna Maxwell Martin
Dagon, Lord of the FilesNicholas Parsons & Elizabeth Berrington
MetatronDerek Jacobi
SatanVoice: Benedict Cumberbatch
Horsemen of the ApocalypseWarMireille Enos
DeathVoice: Brian Cox1, Body: Jamie Hill
FamineYusuf Gatewood
PollutionLourdes Faberes
HumansAdam Young, secretly the AntichristSam Taylor Buck
Arthur Young, Adam's fatherDaniel Mays
Deirdre Young, Adam's motherSian Brooke
Anathema Device, witch and Agnes' descendentAdria Arjona
Newton Pulsifer, Apprentice WitchfinderJack Whitehall
Sergeant Shadwell, WitchfinderMichael McKean
Madame Tracy, landlady, sex-worker and clairvoyantMiranda Richardson
Pepper, one of Adam's gang, the ThemAmma Ris
Wensleydale, one of the ThemAlfie Taylor
Brian, one of the ThemIlan Galkoff
International Express ManSimon Merrells
RP Tyler, Tadfield Neighbourhood WatchBill Paterson
Sleeping Cinema PatronNeil Gaiman
Captain VincentDavid Morrissey
William ShakespeareReece Shearsmith
Freddie MercuryBen Crowe
Agnes Nutter, 17th-Century WitchJosie Lawrence2
Television NewsreaderKirsty Wark
Mr GlozierSteve Pemberton3
Mr HarmonyMark Gatiss

As a highly-prestigious production this series attracted a veritable – and vast - A-list cast. Gaiman has said that when writing the script he had both David Tennant and Michael Sheen in mind.

The Book

Neil Gaiman was the first journalist to interview Terry Pratchett back in 1985, shortly after Gaiman had finished writing Don't Panic: A Guide to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The two bonded immediately and became friends at a time when Gaiman was inspired to try and combine Adams' style of writing with Richmal Crompton's Just William books about a schoolboy and the horror film The Omen (1976). After writing 5,000 words beginning a story initially titled William the Antichrist, in which the son of the devil's baby-swap goes wrong, Gaiman put the story on hold in order to write graphic novel The Sandman. A year later Pratchett called Gaiman wanting to know what was happening with the story as he felt it had potential, and the two agreed to collaborate. They both re-wrote each other's sections so that the novel was a true collaboration between the two all the way through.

The witches in the story were named after the real Pendle Witches, which included a woman named Alice Nutter who had been put to death and members of the Device family. In 1991 when the book was published in America, interest in a film adaptation began, and Pratchett and Gaiman began working on a script as well as discussing potential sequel ideas. It was then that greater roles were given to the angels in the story, which is the major difference between the novel and this adaptation. When interest in the film lapsed and both concentrated on other projects, these ideas were long left abandoned.

Making Of

If it hadn't been for Terry actually asking me to adapt the novel then I wouldn't have done it.
- Neil Gaiman

After finally deciding that a television adaptation would be truer to the spirit of the novel than a film, and be able to include far more4, the BBC acquired the television rights in 2012. In 2014 Terry Pratchett, having made his Alzheimer's diagnosis public, contacted Gaiman saying:

I want you to write the script for 'Good Omens'. You are the only human being on this planet who has the passion, love and understanding for the old girl that I do. You have to do this for me.

So Gaiman agreed, having had some television experience from writing an episode of Babylon 5 and two episodes of Doctor Who. Yet before he had got far, Pratchett died in March 2015. This spurred Gaiman to continue, and after he finished the script the BBC were delighted with it. The ambition involved made the BBC realise they would need a partner to provide additional finance, and Amazon Prime decided to invest. The director chosen was Douglas Mackinnon, who had experience of adapting fantasy stories for the BBC, for example Jekyll (2007), and also had directed episodes of Doctor Who.

Filming took place between September 2017 and March 2018, with locations in the UK and near Cape Town in South Africa. Scenes were filmed in iconic locations such as London's St James's Park, the Ritz, Shakespeare's reconstructed Globe Theatre and Berkeley Square. The idealised village of Tadfield where Adam lives was filmed at Hambleden, the neighbouring airfield was RAF Upper Heyford, while the Them's favourite haunt Hogback Wood was filmed at Painshill Park in Surrey. The Weald and Downland Living Museum was used as the location for Agnes Nutter's 17th-Century village.

The Atlantis Dunes doubled for the desert outside the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Eden itself was filmed at the Cascade Country Manor in Paarl. St Beryl's Convent, home to the Chattering Order of Satanic Nuns, was filmed at Bulstrode Park, Buckinghamshire, while the entrance from Earth to both Heaven and Hell was filmed in the lobby of London's Broadgate Tower. The rest of Heaven was filmed in a vacant office building in Weybridge, Surrey. The room's 132 windows were altered with CGI so that iconic buildings from all around the world are visible just outside, including the Eiffel Tower and the Giza Pyramids to imply that the angels working there can see the whole world. A former abattoir in Cape Town was used as the crowded basement that represents Hell.

What may well have been the world's first hand-cranked HD digital camera was created to record a scene in which Aziraphale dances the gavotte, in order to capture the Edwardian atmosphere. The Soho set was built on Bovingdon Airfield with 300 extras hired to make it look like a busy London street. As filming took place in December, helium balloons were used to float floodlights above the set to simulate daylight during the lengthy nights. A real 1926 Bentley valued at over £250,000 was used as Crowley's car – this was not actually set on fire as the script required, so a CGI Bentley, and replica Bentley shell and model were all created. A sequence in which the M25 motorway was on fire was filmed at the Fire Service College at Moreton-in-Marsh. This is used as a training area for the emergency services on a replica four-lane motorway.

No animals were harmed in the making of Good Omens, but a Time Lord was; Ollie the dog who plays the Antichrist's hellhound bit David Tennant, much to the delight of some newspapers which magnified the story out of all proportion.

Legacy

David Tennant and Michael Sheen so enjoyed working together on this series – sharing most of their scenes together - that during the UK's lockdown5 they made a lockdown short, Good Omens: Lockdown (May 2020), written by Neil Gaiman. This led to Tennant and Sheen launching their own television series, Staged, (beginning June 2020 with a second series made in January 2021), which focused on the videoconference interplay between them during the pandemic.

As there was a running joke in the novel that any cassette left in Crowley's car would turn into a copy of Queen's Greatest Hits, the Good Omens soundtrack heavily features appropriate music by Queen, particularly scenes in which Crowley drives his car. So when Crowley has been ordered by the forces of darkness to deliver the Antichrist we hear the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' line 'Beelzebub has a devil set aside for me', and 'Bicycle Race' plays as he knocks Anathema Device off her bike. Queen's Greatest Hits album, despite being originally released in 1981, ended up being the 8th best-selling album of the year 2020 – coincidence?

Amusingly, 20,000 followers of the US Foundation for a Christian Civilisation, who were unlikely to know what Good Omens was about, signed a petition asking Netflix not to make a second series of Good Omens because they felt it 'made Satanism appear normal' and because God was voiced by a woman. It apparently did not occur to them that it was made by the BBC and Amazon Prime, not Netflix, and there had never been any intention of making a second series. This, it should be noted, is fewer than the number of people who petitioned for Death to give us Terry Pratchett back.

A wide variety of merchandising was released. This included a making-of book naturally titled The Nice and Accurate Good Omens TV Companion: Your guide to Armageddon and the series based on the bestselling novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, as well as a book of the script called The Quite Nice and Fairly Accurate Good Omens Script Book, in addition to a DVD rated 12, numerous colouring books, posters and mugs.

Review

The first episode in particular has similarities with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with the role of God in Good Omens reminiscent of that of the Book, providing an overview as an omniscient narrator. The third episode takes half an hour before reaching the opening credits with a lengthy prologue dedicated purely to the eternal relationship of Crowley and Aziraphale from Biblical times and Noah's ark to the present day via key points in history, as otherwise these two key characters would not have had a part to play in the midpoint of the story. This is reminiscent of episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus, which is reinforced in a scene in which an Arthurian Aziraphale encounters Crowley as the Black Knight.

The series also has a unique and humorous opening sequence which works well. A unique blend of live action and stylised animation, intricate details in the background rewards repeat viewings. Many of the characters in the series appear briefly as the credits reveal the march through time and the events of the end days before all the characters meet their demise at the world's end, either ascending to Heaven or descending to Hell.

The attention to detail throughout is spectacular, with little hints such as the nuns' wimples being shaped like the cloak of the Ku Klux Klan to imply they are secretly satanic and evil. The DVD features an extra showing the level of detail of Aziraphale's bookshop, AZ Fell and Co, the set of which included the Soho street outside and the incredible detail of the bookshop inside. This includes one of Terry Pratchett's own hats on a hat stand as a tribute to the author.

Good Omens may not contain every scene in the original novel, but by capturing the spirit of the original story and adding extra surprising details, it is clear throughout that it was made to the highest quality and standard, and with affection and warmth that shines through every scene.

1The actor, not the scientist.2Josie Lawrence had previously played her in the 2014 BBC radio adaptation.3Drumknott in Going Postal.4Even this cut out a tremendous amount from the novel, as the audiobook adaptation is over 12 hours long.5During 2020's Covid lockdown mixing socially was forbidden to control the spread of the deadly disease and everyone was encouraged to stay home and communicate online and through telephones.

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