Good Omens, episode 1 review: David Tennant and Michael Sheen's chemistry props up a wobbly apocalypse comedy

Tristram Fane Saunders
David Tennant (left) and Michael Sheen star in Good Omens -  Sophie Mutevelian

Armageddon has never been so eagerly anticipated. Fans of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s 1990 novel Good Omens – a comic account of an apocalypse triggered by a young antichrist’s arrival in Tadfield – have long been itching to see it on the screen. And there are a great many fans: the book has sold over five million copies.

There was talk of a film adaptation for years – at one point, the authors offered the rights to Terry Gilliam for a groat – but it languished in development hell until Gaiman received a letter from Pratchett, posted after the latter’s death in 2015, urging him to make it happen.

To fulfil that deathbed request, Gaiman has adapted every episode of this new six-part series himself. First, the pros: it’s beautiful to look at, it has a dream cast – later episodes introduce Benedict Cumberbatch as Satan and Brian Cox as Death - and Gaiman’s screenplay is utterly faithful to the novel. But is “faithful” really the best thing for a blasphemous comedy to be? This reverential approach feels at odds with the book’s innate playfulness.

The success of the book had less to do with its plot – a sprawling tangle of witchfinders and apocalyptic horsemen – than its rich comic prose, in a quintessentially English style that owed much to PG Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. In an attempt to translate that to the screen, the show falls back on voiceover narration (from Oscar-winner Frances McDormand). This technique is always a danger when an author is allowed to adapt his own work; it gives him an excuse to cram in all his favourite descriptive passages at the expense of visual storytelling.

Here, it’s a distracting and unnecessary irritant. “Two demons lurk at the edge of the graveyard,” says McDormand, as the camera hovers over two demons lurking at the edge of a graveyard. “The hellhound growls a low, rumbling snarl of spring-coiled menace,” she tells us, muffling the snarl. That screenwriting chestnut, ‘show, don’t tell', has rarely felt more apt.

Michael Sheen as Aziraphale, with David Tennant as Crowley Credit: Chris Raphael

Combined with heavily signposted comic beats, that storybook narration has an unfortunate effect on the overall tone; it often plays like a children’s programme, though it’s not billed as one. Oddly, young Sam Taylor Buck, who pops up in the closing minutes as the Just William-esque antichrist, is virtually the only cast member who isn’t taking the stage school approach of broad-acting-for-kids.

Salvation comes from the comic chemistry between the show's pair of scenery-chewing stars, David Tennant and Michael Sheen. They light up the screen as Crowley and Aziraphale, a demon and angel stationed on earth as spies for their respective bosses, who have struck up an unlikely friendship over the millennia. The pair conspire to keep an eye on the young Antichrist with a view to preventing Armageddon, but – after a mix-up at a satanic nuns’ nursery – find themselves watching the wrong child.

Sheen’s prim, bowtied aesthete is the perfect foil to the louche, snake-hipped Tennant, who seems to be channeling a mixture of Mick Jagger and Bill Nighy. It’s a real treat watching two serious actors try to out-ham each other; together, they’re enough reason to return for another episode, but only just.

A co-production between the BBC and Amazon, Good Omens will air on TV six whole months after the series is released on Amazon Prime UK – by which time the Pratchett and Gaiman devotees will doubtless have seen it already. As a result, what was meant to be one of BBC Two’s flagship dramas for 2019 will arrive feeling like a re-run. At the moment there is a buzz around the show, but will that excitement last until the winter? The omens aren’t good. When you’re planning an apocalypse, timing is everything.

All six episodes of Good Omens will be available to watch on Amazon Prime from May 31. It will be shown on BBC Two later this year.