Michael Sheen and David Tennant appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row to discuss Good Omens. The presenter is Samira Ahmed.
They discuss how Neil Gaiman decided David was his Crowley, performing the scene at The Globe Theatre, the crucifixion scene, Michael’s favourite moments including the bandstand scene, and wanting his own bookshop. You’ll have to excuse the presenter’s pronunciation of Aziraphale…
Samira Ahmed: Good Omens, the new BBC and Amazon comedy drama about the end of the world arrives with much fanfare and interesting timing in global politics.
Neil Gaiman, who’s written the screenplay co-wrote the cult novel with Terry Pratchett, who died four years ago, in the late 1980s, when, as Gaiman has recently said, Armageddon seemed quite far away. With an impressive all-star cast and distinctive comic tone and lavish special effects, to conjure up the battle between good and evil, Michael Sheen plays the angel Aziraphale, and David Tennant is the demon Crowley, who despite being on opposite sides, find themselves teaming up to try to stop the Antichrist destroying earth because over the millennia they’ve become rather fond of it. When I met them earlier today, I asked how they’d first come across the book.
Michael Sheen: Someone who was in my year at drama school gave me Watchmen and Swamp Thing and Hellblazer and Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, so I’d read Sandman and I’d love it, so then when the book came out I think literally a few weeks later I saw Neil Gaiman’s name on it and so I bought the book and read it, and that was my introduction to Terry’s work as well. So then after that I read Terry’s stuff, and then all of Neil’s stuff, and became a huge superfan. So I brought that into it with me, I mean it helped in some ways but it also made me feel huge pressure, you know the responsibility of bringing this, partly you know being part of the team bringing it to the screen. But you felt a sort of pressure in a different way…
David Tennant: Yes, well I just got this wonderful script, I mean my first experience of it was the script, and then I said yes I’m very keen to be involved in this, and then went back and read the book, so came about it… and was unaware probably initially just how much this book meant to people, how enthusiastic and how passionate the fans of this book are. So I, it was maybe after, I was already on-board, before I realised quite the weight of expectation and the responsibility.
Samira: Well also Neil Gaiman said he wrote the script of the book with you both in mind, and there’s a particular scene in episode three when you’re in a church, David, and I gather, sort of trying to deal with consecrated ground, where that’s where Neil Gaiman realised in writing he’d fixed on you, as Crowley…
David: So I believe, yes, I mean again I was blissfully unaware of all of this, I mean Michael has been part of the script development process for many years, it was all beautifully fully formed by the time I came on board, it was er, but yeah that’s what Neil says, that there was a scene in episode three where he kind of figured that I was his first choice.
Crowley: “ahh ahh sorry consecrated ground, aw it’s like being on a beach in bare feet!”
Aziraphale: “what are you doing here?”
Crowley: “stopping you getting into trouble”
Aziraphale: “I should have known, of course, these people are working for you!”
Michael: And David will be too humble to say this, but what Neil says is that he wrote the scene and it was supposed to be the demon coming into consecrated ground in a church, and it’s like walking on the beach when the sand is too hot and you got bare feet, and he had in his head how that should look, and having the ability to play the physical comedy of it but to be totally believable and be in the character of Crowley, he suddenly realised there was only one person he thought could do it, and that was David. And from that moment that was, David was his Crowley.
Samira: Tell me how each of you approach the characters you play then.
Michael: particularly in this case, more than anything else I’ve done, it was, my character was very much defined by what David was doing. So it was in reaction to him, the relationship, the dynamic between these two characters has been massively influential in the forming of the characters themselves I think, so it wasn’t until we were there saying the lines together and opposite each other and kind of reacting off each other and playing off each other, that the characters started to really really come into sharp focus
David: They absolutely define each other, the characters, and I think we feel that our performances defined each other in that as well, just because we spent so much time on set, sitting on park benches and debating the end of the world.
Samira: Travelling through the history of the world
Samira: Michael, I can’t help saying, because you’re best known for playing characters with a lot of steel like Tony Blair and Brian Clough, you know Aziraphale is an angel, but there is a sense of steel in him about what he thinks is the right thing.
Michael: Well I think there’s a misunderstanding, or bad PR about what goodness is, that goodness is often seen as being some sort of weakness, or you know a bit mimsy. And there’s more steel in goodness than there is in anything else, you could say that evil or badness is a lack of something whereas goodness is about, you have to show up, you have to, you know, there has to be steel in it. So it was an opportunity to explore that, for a start, but also he’s not very good at doing his job, he’s sort of, he’s been around for a long time now, both of them have been on earth, they’ve gone a bit soft, they’ve gone a bit native, and the trappings of humanity and the world have really appealed to Aziraphale, and that’s why he looks the way he looks as well!
Samira: There’s a lovely scene where the two of you are watching a production of Hamlet at Shakespeare’s Globe and offering feedback, and of course you both played acclaimed Hamlets around the same time in your own careers, I wonder how much you bonded as demon and angels through moments like that?
Michael: That was a special scene wasn’t it?
David: It was
Michael: Because we did it at the Globe, and there was a young actor playing Hamlet on the stage, and Reece Shearsmith plays Shakespeare, and there we are, trying to, well certainly Aziraphale is trying to boost Hamlet’s confidence because it’s a bit of a flop, no-one’s coming to see it, and that was a fantastic scene to do, I really enjoyed it.
Hamlet: “To be or not to be, that is the question”
Aziraphale: “To be! I mean, not to be! Come on Hamlet! Buck up!”
Michael: And it wasn’t lost on us that we had both played Hamlet, and I don’t think it was lost on the young lad who was playing Hamlet on stage!
David: No, although he did a fine, fine, excellent job
Michael: He was brilliant!
David: Yeah, no no no, it was a great scene!
Samira: Well, you mention humour, the story is about the coming of Armageddon, and I wonder how you found that tone, the combination of darkness and humour, because there is some real darkness in it
David: Oh yes, that’s what’s quite unusual about it, it’s high comedy but it’s also high drama, and the two don’t often sit side by side in quite such a comfortable way, I think that’s part of what Neil and Terry do in their writing, they sort of combine the comic with the dramatic and the domestic with the cosmic and it the way that all those, it’s where all those threads meet that creates this very unique voice that they both have as writers, I think.
Samira: I have to mention this, a scene in episode three when you’re at the crucifixion of Jesus, which I genuinely found quite shocking, he’s screaming in agony, I wondered how that was to shoot?
Michael: Telling a story that has you know extraordinary absurdity and high comedy like David says, and then suddenly you’re watching the crucifixion and it’s not done as funny at all, it’s done very real-ly, a crucifixion was partly chosen as a punishment because it was the most painful way to die I believe, and Douglas was very clear that he wanted it to be, didn’t want it to be a pretty crucifixion, you know, but it is extraordinary, you suddenly find yourselves playing scenes where it’s absolutely played for real, and not funny at all, and I think the piece itself, you know that was what informed in a way the way that we approached things, that it’s not, these characters are to be taken seriously and they’re absolutely real and the emotions and the psychology is absolutely real, it just so happens that they’re in absurd situations a lot of the time isn’t it.
Samira: There’s something about the timing as well, when it was written in the late eighties, and Neil Gaiman has said Armageddon seemed a lot futher away than it does now and certainly the Berlin Wall came down and the world seemed different. How does it seem playing it with audiences in the world we’re in?
David: I think we’re all, we all feel like Armageddon is frighteningly close, every day we wake up at the moment, you feel you can smell it, so a drama about the onset of the end times does feel horribly prescient perhaps, in a way that yes maybe it didn’t when they wrote the novel.
Samira: There’s also a lot of parodying of kind of old horror ideas, so there’s, if people have seen The Omen, there’s the whole idea of the Antichrist, and who’s he’s supposed to be brought up by, how far did it draw on things that you’d grown up with, and were you conscious of all those references?
David: Yes you’re right, it does draw on things that are very recognisable, there’s the whole sort of, you know there is a kind of Sunday school tradition…
Samira: The Witchfinder General is playing in the background on one of the TV screens in the pub
Michael: yeah, so there’s that Hammer kind of thing of Witchfinder General, you got that kind of Peter Lorre, second world war thriller thing going on…
David: I think you can see a lot of the influences that Terry and Neil have drawn on and they’re drawing on things that you do find recognisable, partly to sort of satirise it and partly to kind of give you kind of hooks into this story, because it’s like a sort of grown up modern fairy tale.
Samira: Do either of you have a favourite scene or moment in Good Omens?
David: I think we’re both quite fond of that sequence at the start of episode three which is a kind of potted history of the world as seen through Aziraphale and Crowley’s existence upon it, and we…
Samira: Oh you keep meeting up in different ages, the French Revolution
David: Exactly, we start at the, in the garden of Eden, we got to Noah’s Ark, we go to the crucifixion, we go to the French Revolution, you sort of, it jump cuts through history, and you see their relationship developing over the millennia.
Samira: They’re helping each other out! Rescuing each other!
David: Yes! Absolutely.
Michael: And also, the other favourite moments for me were the moments where the sort of subtext of their relationship comes as close to the surface as it was allowed to get, so the subtext of whatever kind of love there might be between them, or whatever bond there is between them that is sort of unspoken, and both of them would deny, but there are moments where it comes sort of thrillingly close the surface, and being able to play those scenes together, I really enjoyed as well. There’s a scene in the bandstand where things get very close to the surface, don’t they
David: Oh yeah
Michael: And that was a lovely scene to play.
Samira: I have a theory that for women who’ve played Mary in the school nativity, it always leaves her with a slight sense of superiority for the rest of their lives
I wonder if playing a demon and an angel might have left its mark on you in interesting ways?
Michael: I do find myself fantasising about being able to do things like just suddenly create light by saying ‘let there be light!’ and clicking my fingers, or signing things with flames like you do
Michael: that would be rather lovely
David: Yes, there’s certainly something intoxicating in the superpowers aspect of it yeah.
Michael: I think the thing that affected me the most was the fact that I owned a bookshop! Which is what I’ve wanted to do all my life! To live in a bookshop. And they created almost the archetypal bookshop for Aziraphale, it’s just beautiful, that was my happy place when we were filming, I loved being in there.
Samira: I wonder if the message of the story is that opposites attract and you represent this rather positive combination, a kind of panacea for our very polarised political age
David: I think that’s if there’s a political message to draw from it, it’s that we have heaven and we have hell, which are two slightly polarised, fundamental bureaucracies almost, and if there’s any hope for saving us it’s the two who will kind of walk to the centre ground that give us some hope.
Samira: David Tennant and Michael Sheen – pure heaven. All six episodes of Good Omens are available on Amazon Prime from Friday, and will be on the BBC later this year.