Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories, Episodes 3 and 4: Comforting Lies and True Horror

There’s a moment early on in “Closing Time”, the third episode of Likely Stories, that is a perfect summation of the show. Daniel, played with crumpled aplomb by the incomparable Johnny Vegas, is in a taxi on his way out. On the screen in the back, is of course, Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s presence as a kind of Banquo’s Ghost in his own stories is one of the most successful elements of the show and this scene in particular is great. He talks, at length, about how being a storyteller is an act of trust and how your job is to tell readers they will go to dark places but reassure them they won’t be alone.

Then run away.

This is said just as Daniel steps out of the cab and Gaiman leaves us, and him, to step through a door. That’s the show in a nutshell: leading us down familiar streets and then leaving us just before we realize we’ve never been here before.

It’s especially true of this episode given that, if I read it right, that door is marked “Diogenes Club.” Favoured club of Mycroft Holmes, who co-founded it, the Diogenes is traditionally viewed as a place for London’s best and brightest and least social to go and read newspapers in peace. There are strict rules discouraging conversation and, while the place became an unofficial home of British Intelligence in the Holmes mythos, it started off as a retreat of sorts. And that’s exactly what Daniel is doing.

Inside, he’s met by old friends including landlady Miranda and Helena, her splendidly grumpy barmaid, played by Monica Dolan and Montserrat Lombard, respectively. Paul and Martyn round out the uneasy, tetchy group of regulars. Paul is an actor, resting between jobs and Martyn is a small, precise man who is frequently the butt of the jokes.

Together, this group of people do the one thing the Diogenes was founded to prevent: talk. They tell each other scary stories, almost all of which are familiar and almost all of which are lies. Helena tells a variation of the dead hitchhiker, Martyn talks about the ghost that killed anyone who saw it at his school. They’re all endearingly rubbish, and the stories and reactions are balanced on the knife edge between affectionate mockery and brutally cruel sarcasm that powers so much of British culture. None of them are true, all of them are empty, well-meaning noise. You can hear Mycroft Holmes starting to spin his grave.

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Then Daniel tells a story. A story that starts with him stealing a painting he made at school and finishes with him watching something impossible drive away in a cab. The others all tell lies. Daniel may have told too much of the truth.

This is a far more subdued pair of episodes, compared to last week, and structurally they’re very similar. “Closing Time” in particular is a monologue with occasional interruptions, and it gives Vegas a chance to shine. One of the UK’s best, darkest, and oddest comedians, he’s started to show a real aptitude for dramatic work in recent years. This is the best performance I’ve ever seen from him, shifting from slightly cruel humor to honesty to something approaching that clear, empty space that sits just beyond terror. Daniel saw something impossible and it marked him, not in a life-changing way but just enough to shift his perceptions. The others are telling stories, Daniel’s telling the truth. Or at least, giving the truth greater scope.

This entire episode is a puzzle box that folds back into itself. Gaiman leaves us alone with Daniel. Daniel goes into a club renowned for silence and proceeds to not shut up. The storyteller who was shown the limits of the normal world at a very early age spends his life recoiling from that vision, but never quite ignoring it. Finally, he prods it, tells the truth, and in doing so, gets a glimpse of something much larger and infinitely more terrifying. His story IS true. And as the episode ends it’s that truth that haunts him far more than what he saw in the woods. Especially as we, and Daniel, see the one detail he doesn’t tell his audience…

“Closing Time” is easily the best episode of the show, thanks to a note-perfect script, an amazing central performance, and excellent direction from Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. It’s also, perhaps, the first episode to directly connect to the one that follows it.

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That connection is ambiguous and may be nothing more than the fact that the porno magazine fragment Daniel finds looks a lot like one of the clippings Dean Smith has in “Looking for the Girl.” The fourth installment of the series, “Girl” is another monologue, this time starring Kenneth Cranham as Dean Smith. A legendary photographer who has spent thirty years shooting images of the most beautiful women in the world, Smith is a charming, eloquent old raconteur. Like Daniel, he’s a storyteller. Unlike Daniel, he’s had a full and apparently happy life.

But he’s never found Charlotte.

The 19-year-old model whose work inspired him at the start of the career, Charlotte is a muse that’s haunted Dean for three decades. Recounting the story to old friend and TV producer Nora (the always excellent Monica Dolan), he gradually reveals a similar story to Daniel’s—a life touched by something impossible. But in this case, Dean is driven towards it, even as it endlessly moves away. Cranham is one of the all-time greats, and Forsyth and Pollard sensibly keep the camera trained on him for most of the runtime. In fact, the flashbacks we see are from Dean’s point of view, so we get a sense not just of the immediacy but of what he’s not picking up on. An early scene with a fellow photographer played by Johann Myers hints at what’s really going on, but Dean doesn’t see it. All he sees is Charlotte.

If “Closing Time” is the best episode of the series, this is the best paced; Forsyth and Pollard adapted “Looking for the Girl” for the screen, and their instinctive understanding of narrative flow helps every scene. In both stories, they gradually crank the ambient noise down as the tension increases and, in both stories, they do their best work with the briefest glimpse of something impossible. Dean gets what he wants. Daniel sees something unimaginable. Both men are tested. Both men pass. But as the episode finishes it becomes clear that at least one of them must live with bitter regrets. “Looking for the Girl” is a deceptively gentle story with a tender central performance from Cranham, but when it reaches its pivot, the horror is unbearably strong: Impossible things moving not under the surface of the world but in plain sight. Horrible truths standing side by side with humanity’s best liars, and sometimes making eye contact with them just for fun. Likely stories all. But the best stories here, like the best stories everywhere, are true.

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Note: Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories airs on Sky Arts in the UK; “Foreign Parts” and “Feeders and Eaters” premiered on May 26th, while “Closing Time” and “Looking for the Girl” aired on June 2nd.

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

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