Divine comedy

Divine comedy

By Gabriel Tate
July 19, 2023


DQ heads to Scotland to meet stars David Tennant and Michael Sheen, and co-showrunners Douglas Mackinnon and Neil Gaiman – sort of – during filming for the second season of heavenly adaptation Good Omens.

“Don’t do it, Neil.” Acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman is thinking back to what he should have said to himself on September 16, 2020, when he and Douglas Mackinnon received a call from Amazon Studios.

“They told us, ‘We have good news and interesting news. The good news is that we are greenlighting both Good Omens season two and Anansi Boys. The interesting news is that you’re going to have to do them both at the same time.’”

While DQ is in Bathgate Studios, west of Edinburgh, having a nose around the set of Good Omens S2 during the simultaneous shoot with Anansi Boys (Gaiman’s adaptation of his own fantasy novel) over in Leith, Gaiman is talking to us from New Zealand owing to visa issues. “The amount of sleep I’m not getting is monumental and monstrous,” he says.

Neil Gaiman

Director Mackinnon, who is showrunning Good Omens alongside Gaiman, also looks pretty tired on day 74 of the 80-day shoot. Happily, they have found a way to make it all work across continents and time zones. “Neil watches on QTake, which is a new system where you can watch live as I’m directing. He texts me notes as we travel and I take them on to the set for Michael and David,” says Mackinnon, referring to the show’s leading duo, Michael Sheen and David Tennant.” Round about midday, he goes to bed and then we can do what we like. But up till then we’re very much collaborating.”

The other bromance central to the show’s success is that of Tennant and Sheen. “There’s not much argument that David is the best Scottish actor of his generation and Michael’s the best Welsh actor of his,” says Mackinnon. “We knew they’d know the words, but they’ve got that extra bit of magic you hope for but can’t predict. Michael’s methodology is this compartmentalised form of acting that is extraordinary to watch. David’s is a much more instinctive, seeing-how-it-feels kind of acting. They’re both jealous of the other’s style.”

That clash struck sparks for the first season of Good Omens, as uptight angel Aziraphale (Sheen) and swaggering demon Crowley (Tennant) thwarted the Armageddon for which their bosses in heaven and hell had been manoeuvring. Season two finds them settled in London’s Soho, happily estranged from their head offices and living among the human race of which they’ve become so fond. Aziraphale is running his antiquarian bookshop, while Crowley is looking for mischief and living in his car.

David Tennant as demon Crowley opposite Michael Sheen’s angel Aziraphale

This relative calm is shattered by the arrival on Aziraphale’s doorstep of the archangel Gabriel (Jon Hamm), missing his memory, clothes and annoying sense of superiority. Beelzebub (Shelley Conn, replacing Anna Maxwell Martin) and archangel Michael (Doon Mackichan) ready their minions in a mystery that also incorporates the unrequited attraction between the owners of a coffee shop and a record shop (Nina Sosanya and Maggie Service, among several S1 cast members returning in different roles), and Buddy Holly classic Everyday.

Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, who wrote the source novel together, had discussed the possibility of a sequel way back in 1989, late at night at Seattle’s World Fantasy Con as jet lag took full effect, and revisited it in 2010 when the idea of a television adaptation was first mooted. This, however, is not the story they came up with.

“The story we had plotted is huge and apocalyptic,” explains Gaiman. “The first one was also huge and apocalyptic. This is the smaller, not terribly apocalyptic filling: quite an intimate story, and a more human one that doesn’t have giant consequences for the universe, even if it does have consequences for Aziraphale and Crowley.”

This time, Gaiman has also called in a little outside help with the comedic fantasy drama, which is produced by Amazon Studios, BBC Studios Productions, The Blank Corporation and Narrativia. “This series, we have three ‘minisodes’ – 25-minute episodes within the episode. We learn Aziraphale and Crowley’s part in the story of Job in a beautiful story written by John Finnemore [That Michell and Webb Look]; Cat Clarke [Ten Percent] takes us to Edinburgh in the 1820s for a tale of body snatching, attempted murder and skulduggery; and Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman reunite the League of Gentlemen in a period story involving Nazi zombies, a bullet catch and blackmarket whiskey.”

In Good Omens S2, Gabriel (John Hamm) shows up on Aziraphale’s doorstep with no memory

Tennant and Sheen join DQ in the Dirty Donkey, a painstaking recreation of a Soho pub with wood panelling, stained glass (reclaimed from local buildings) and a portrait of the late Pratchett glaring down from above the fireplace. The surrounding streets invoke a dreamy kind of Soho, before the developers rolled in.

“If it was a real pub, it would be the best one in Soho,” says Tennant, while Sheen sings the praises of Service’s record shop round the corner, its walls plastered with bespoke flyers, tickets and posters for made-up bands. “I could spend all day in there – I genuinely feel like I’m a massive fan of Oslo Revival.”

“We were thrilled to make more episodes, because we’d had a very nice time [on season one],” says Tennant. “I didn’t know Michael that well before season one, but it was always a very easy and exciting working relationship. It’s well oiled now, for sure, but it’s certainly it’s fun to bounce off each other and has only got richer. It’s embarrassing to say that in front of him!”

Sheen chuckles affectionately. “People had hoped the relationship between these characters would work, but I’m not sure anyone anticipated it would work quite so well. They’ve always been the only two beings who could understand each other’s position, but now they’re pushed even closer together. It is very Eric and Ernie.”

The new season features three ‘minisodes’ – 25-minute instalments within the actual episodes

The pub is just one example of the remarkable set. Nearby are a French restaurant and Aziraphale’s emporium, a Chinese pharmacy and an extraordinary magic shop (the precinct for the Nazi-themed sequence) spilling over with capes, wands, crystal balls and tricks. The immersiveness is the work of production designer Michael Ralph and set decorator Bronwyn Franklin (Beecham House, Dickensian). For a series with so many ardent fans, detail is everything, and fortunately for this married couple, it has been a labour of love making Good Omens, which returns to Prime Video on July 28.

“I don’t think we’ve ever worked on a project together where we’ve never hired anything,” says Ralph. “Everything you see is purchased, nothing is wasted. Take the pub: if you’d designed that bespoke, you could never afford to build it. If you’d hired it, you couldn’t afford it either. So we create a period that, in profile, looks Victorian, but it’s like nothing we’ve seen in Victorian period. People still walk into Aziraphale’s bookshop and say, ‘All we want to do is drink wine and read books all day.’ If all the interiors have that depth of warmth and love, that brings massive amounts of production value.”

Franklin lovingly cradles a distinctly creepy ventriloquist’s dummy called Jimmy Joseph that, like almost everything else on this vast set, has a story. “This guy started life as a marionette who must have got so old that he got sold and ended up in a ghost train. They cut his fingers off to make him more scary and I found him in the market. His face has been renovated, but we left his scrubby clothes on because they suit him.”

Green screens sit at the end of the some of the streets, and Gaiman is excited at the prospect of the VFX teams being let loose – a fringe benefit of the lamented decision to film simultaneously allows Anansi Boys to shoot on some of the Good Omens set, while Good Omens can make use of Anansi Boys’ cutting-edge technical equipment.

“Both productions win!” he smiles. “It’s going to be astonishing. Although I will say that some of the responses to the visuals on Good Omens made me very grumpy – the same people who would say to me, ‘Your VFX are kind of lumpy and obvious,’ were the same people who would ask me, ‘Where exactly were you shooting in Soho?’ Well, we were in a car park at Bovingdon airfield…”

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