Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys: witness man’s native wit doing battle with the supernatural

This BBC Radio 4 adaptation zig-zags between feeling tones in a woozy, chameleonic way. 

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“In the beginning there were words, and they came with a tune. That’s how the world was made. How the lands and the stars and the little gods and the animals and the cliffs that bind existence came to be…” Christmas radio dramas are tricky. Too fast, too slow, too ravenous, too humble? Do we want to listen or submit to a companionable burble? A five-day adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2005 novel Anansi Boys (BBC Radio 4, 11.30pm, 25-29 December) zig-zags between feeling tones in a woozy, chameleonic way. It’s the acme of seasonal radio – whether you concentrate on it or not.

Anansi Boys is a tale about an ancient West African trickster “spider-God” and his sons (one of whom works in a theatrical agency off Drury Lane), and during any five minute stretch it can sound like: Rudyard Kipling (“All the animals owned the stories, especially the tiger”), Nigella (“Curried goat and sweet potato pudding – just a snack”), Jeffrey Bernard (“We don’t mourn a father’s passing with a house red”), Kay Mellor (“Are we going into Ronnie Scotts? I need a wee”), Fleetwood Mac (“Blood calls to blood like sirens in the night”) and Hamlet (especially when someone mournfully digs a grave in the rain).

It is also that very Gaimanesque (and very British – see Alan Moore and China Miéville) mix of science fiction, Gothic and fantasy, dickying with rhymes and resonances, and playing with formal structure. But, more than anything, it’s a fun story, about man’s native wit doing battle with the supernatural, which might just be a shadow-self. From its opening seconds it captures the feeling of something stretching out, as though in a hammock – a one-hour World Service adaptation in 2007 infuriated Gaiman, so this time there is markedly no rush. Each phrase and sound effect contains a teasingly gleeful amount of information.

High points: Lenny Henry (appearing in multiple roles) singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” on stage in a bar. He sounds like Dionysus. And the bar-crawl scenes with two young brothers, which culminate in the aghast sipping of soluble aspirin while enduring a vomitous hangover akin to Withnail claiming a pig had shat in his head: “What is this? ARSENIC?” Too true! 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special