Interview - Neil Gaiman, Likely Stories

Likely Stories

Ahead of the new series of Likely Stories, Sky Arts have issued an interview with writer Neil Gaiman...

Likely Stories, a new four-part adaptation for Sky Arts produced by Sid Gentle Films Ltd., is a collection of extraordinary short stories from the pen of Neil Gaiman. The series is directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, the duo responsible for the multi award winning critically acclaimed Nick Cave film 20,000 Days on Earth.

Directors Iain and Jane attracted iconic Pulp frontman and solo artist Jarvis Cocker to create the score for the four stories, bringing his unique sound to the series. Starring Tom Hughes (The Game), George MacKay (Pride), Johnny Vegas (Moone Boy), Kenneth Cranham (Maleficent) and Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago) with an ensemble cast including Monica Dolan (W1A), Paul Ritter (No Offence), Simon Manyonda (Doctor Who), Johann Myers (Good Cop) and Montserrat Lombard (Ashes to Ashes) playing across all four of the films.

Neil Gaiman said: “Short stories traditionally do not get a lot of love from television. I'm really excited to see what the team are going to do and make with Likely Stories -they've given it real thought and it feels like it's going to be something very, very special.”

Set in London, these four 30-minute short stories will be characteristically dark and strange whilst also drawing on the deftly crafted characters’ human warmth and wit. Centring on the act of storytelling, viewers will be drawn into Neil’s intricately crafted world that moves seamlessly between reality and fantasy. Neil himself will appear in each film in an unusual way, with subtle nods to his wider work that Gaiman super-fans will be able to spot.

Neil Gaiman gave an interview to Sky Arts about the new series:


"How would you describe the four stories that make up the series?

They have an oddness to them in that, in a peculiar kind of way, they’re all likely stories. Often my stories go off, they can travel a long way from home. And each of these stories, in their own way, is small and close to home. Each of them began with something small and odd and prosaic – I thought, I wonder if I could tell that as a story? Wouldn’t that be interesting? There is definitely a theme of consumption. People being consumed by things; becoming other things; resisting or embracing a fate that is going in some way to change them. The nature of that consumption fascinates me. In Feeders & Eaters, the consumption is very literal. Foreign Parts is based on the idea of somebody essentially being consumed by themselves. In Closing Time, there’s the theme, I think, that the past, a dangerous place filled with secrets that haven’t gone away, can consume you. In Looking for the Girl, you have somebody being consumed by an image of somebody who isn’t there. The idea of somebody feeling their life being marked out in beats and everything ageing but one thing. They definitely feel like a weird little set.

Do the stories inhabit the same world?

That’s a tricky question. I think all of my stories happen in different places, but they share a car park. They all join up out the back. You can definitely get to one from the other.

What made you want to become a storyteller? What do stories mean to you?

I don’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t driven by stories; when they weren’t the most interesting and exciting things there were. We, as human beings, are designed to find stories, to listen to them, to remember them and then to repeat them. We use stories to explain the world and because they satisfy us on a deep level, because they are the lies that we need to make sense of our world. There’s also a joy in all stories. Whether it’s in film or radio, whether somebody tells you, whether you read it… you experience emotions, you do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do, you look out through eyes you normally wouldn’t look out through, you even die. And then you look up and are unhurt, you close the page and walk away. And that’s fabulous, that’s power. Never think that just because something didn’t happen it doesn’t matter. And never think that just because it’s not true, it didn’t change you. Stories change us.

What’s your approach to storytelling?

The biggest difference between writing and telling a story is that when you are writing a story you are doing it in a quiet place and nobody cares. Even if you’re doing it in a Starbucks, nobody cares. You can write the funniest thing in the world, nobody’s gonna laugh. You can write the scariest thing in the world, nobody’s gonna shiver. You can write the saddest thing in the world, nobody’s gonna cry. Whereas the action of storytelling is something that immediately presumes an audience, and presumes an audience who care and are interested and are fascinated. And you want to grab them and pull them in and say, listen I have this thing I want to tell you. You’re saying come with me. I’m trustworthy. Hold my hand. We will walk together, you and I, into dark places and it’s gonna be OK, because I’m holding your hand. And they look at you and they trust you and they listen to you. And you take them by the hand and you walk into dark places with them, then you let go of their hand and you run away. That’s storytelling.

Where do your ideas come from?

It’s two things coming together. Something that you know, something that you’ve thought or seen a hundred times, and then something that could be. Suddenly you have something that’s the beginning of a story, you have something that’s the beginning of an idea and you watch it grow and you watch it twine, interconnect and build.


What’s your attitude to short stories?

I love short stories and have done since I was a kid. It frustrates and fascinates me that the short story is less popular, less read and less loved than the novel. I wish it was the other way around, because there’s something magic about a story that can take you all the way across the universe and bring you back by teatime. I also like the idea of compression, the fact that every word in a short story should be doing something. It should be creating character; it should be moving the plot along. It should be creating atmosphere.

You’ve never been frightened of dealing with the darker aspects of humanity. Is it important to venture into those areas?

You don’t need parameters to the imagination. The idea of how far is too far is something that you normally find by going beyond. I would so much rather go out there and say the things I shouldn’t say, think the things I shouldn’t think, than stop before. I think we make progress by going too far. As writers, we sometimes make progress by shocking ourselves. I’ve written scenes that made me feel sick. I’ve written scenes that astonished me. I’ve written scenes that I didn’t know I was going survive. But I knew they had to be there and I knew those tales had to be told. And when people say, well did you write that to shock? No, you don’t write that to shock. You write that because that’s where the story goes.

Although there’s also usually a blackly comic edge as well?

Life is fascinating. It doesn’t follow any kind of genre rules, it is an absolute mess. You can get slapstick, you can get tragedy, you can get comedy. You will probably get pornography. You will get scatological material that you could not actually show. All of this stuff is what it means to be human. We cross genre all the time. We push boundaries all the time and we don’t think about that. You don’t think about the fact that you can go from tender romance to tragedy. And then you don’t have to stay in tragedy, because strange high comedy can happen with a friend’s body in the next room, after they’ve passed away. Life has no respect for genre boundaries.

There’s also a fairy-tale quality to these stories. Do you enjoy blurring the lines of normal, everyday reality?

I’ve always liked kids’ fiction, where things are beyond reality. That always seemed far more interesting than the idea that reality was what you got."

Here's some more information on each of the episodes:

Foreign parts

Foreign Parts

There’s a sense that time is running out. Our narrator, Simon, is like a man sinking in quicksand. He’s a man of routine. Rising, dressing, travelling to work on the DLR. Every day is the same. His sense of self is slipping away as he becomes (perhaps literally) someone else. It’s a similar story for Dr Benham, stuck in his STD clinic watching a parade of patients come and go. In his parallel story of metamorphosis he’s being spat out by his own life. He too is becoming a different person, from the feet up.

George MacKay - Simon Powers
Paul Ritter - Dr Jeremy Benham
Montserrat Lombard -  Nurse Bronwyn
Monica Dolan - Dr Marshall
Denise Gough - Celia Benham

NEIL SAYS “When I wrote it this story was unsellable. The men’s magazines didn’t like it because it wasn’t exactly sex positive and the sci-fi magazines didn’t like it because there was all this weird sex in it. Then AIDS began cutting this huge and terrifying swathe through the world and I was losing friends. I had to take it out of circulation until things settled down.”

Feeders & Eaters

Feeders and Eaters

We’re caught in the nocturnal world of the all-night cafe. Joyce, a very pregnant young waitress, is our way in. A man from her past, Eddie Barrow, appears as if from nowhere with a pressing urgency to tell his story. Joyce wants us to hear it. Eddie tells us a love story – a strange, Gothic, warped and weird love story. He tells us about Effie, the old lady who lives in a room opposite his in a boarding house. Effie is a remarkable, magical woman. However, she needs raw meat to survive.

Tom Hughes - Eddie Barrow
Rita Tushingham - Effie Corvier
Montserrat Lombard - Joyce

NEIL SAYS “There are very few things over the years that I’ve actually taken from dreams, but every now and again you will find a treasure. Feeders & Eaters mostly for me was a dream. I remember waking up with the beats of the story in my head, knowing what it felt like and thinking I have to tell that story.”

Closing time

Closing Time

 Our narrator is a raconteur, a writer and late-night barfly engaging in the tradition of weaving club stories for his fellow drinkers. Feeling the warmth of company and loosened by drink, he expertly draws people in as he spins his tale. He’s also suppressing a painful memory. Guilt-ridden thoughts have haunted him since childhood and they manifest themselves as a ghost story, his past consumed by the human instinct to mythologise memories when they hurt too much.

Johnny Vegas - Daniel
Montserrat Lombard - Helena
Monica Dolan - Nora
Paul Ritter - Martyn
Johann Myers - Paul

NEIL SAYS “I started thinking about the 1980s in London and the fact that for a very small period of time I had wound up belonging to a now defunct late-night drinking den. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do a club story but at the same time subvert all of the tropes of a club story?’ I had much too much fun writing it.”

Looking for the girl

Looking for the Girl

Dean Smith is an ageing photographer. He’s almost 70, but there’s still a glint in his eye. TV’s ‘face of culture’, Miranda Walker, is interviewing him for television and asks about his muse. Once the cameras are off the question unlocks a story about Charlotte, aged 19, a Penthouse model. As old magazines and photographs are pulled from shelves it emerges that he’s a man consumed by an untouchable fantasy. A two-dimensional image sparked a moment of sexual awakening that he’s spent a lifetime trying to recapture.

Kenneth Cranham - Dean Smith
Monica Dolan - Miranda Walker
Chloe Hayward - Charlotte

NEIL SAYS “I remember asking one of the Penthouse girls if she felt exploited. She said it was better than working the night shift in a biscuit factory and that, for her, the people being exploited were the men buying those magazines. I thought there was something weird and odd and beautiful about that. A sort of emptiness, the idea of people becoming pictures.”

Images & Info - Sky Arts
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