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Neil Gaiman, Jarvis Cocker reveal secrets of their 'Likely Stories'

This new adaptation of Gaiman's short stories explores the unsettling places at the edges of the world we know.

Actor Kenneth Cranham in "Looking for the Girl", the last of "Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories".

Sky

Walking home from a screening of "Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories" on a route that I have walked every day for the best part of a decade, I found myself on a street I didn't recognise. It was filled with houses that didn't seem to belong. Ahead of me was a pub I'd never seen before, from which I could hear a great noise of voices, laughter and clinking glasses. But when I looked through the window, the pub was empty.

It turns out that, lost in thought about what I had just watched, I had turned off one street too early. And there was nothing spooky about the pub -- the noise was coming from a hidden terrace, where a crowd of drinkers were enjoying the balmy spring night. It seemed fitting to find myself creeped out in my own home, however, as the London that Neil Gaiman conjures in "Likely Stories" turns the familiar unfamiliar.

Speaking at the London premiere of the four half-hour standalone dramas, Gaiman said he was fascinated by the stories that directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard chose to adapt from a choice of 40 that were available.

"I love the fact that they weren't the ones I would have picked for television," Gaiman said. "They're a little bit darker. They push over into the ultraviolet. They're the lonely ones."

The discussion at the premiere was accented by the burbling from the audience of Gaiman's eight-month-old baby -- with the odd heckle thrown in from his wife, musician Amanda Palmer. Former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker also took to the stage, backed by an orchestra of strings and shuffling drums, harps and handclaps.

Cocker, who wrote new music specially for the series, felt a connection to Gaiman's dingy world on the edges of everyday life. "I recognised the locations of the stories: doctor's surgeries, late-night low-rent drinking bars, all-night cafes...it's just like a night out for me."

Pollard explained that the score, by turns mysterious, lascivious and portentous, informed the development of the stories. Cocker's music was written before a single frame was shot. The directors played the theme to the show's cinematographer with the instructions, "We want you to make a world, and we want it to look like this."

The first episode, "Foreign Parts", is an off-kilter and darkly funny tale of a young man and his doctor transformed by a shared encounter. The final story, "Looking for the Girl", is the least involving and leans rather too hard on Kenneth Cranham's performance as a David Bailey-like photographer. But in between are "Feeders and Eaters" and "Closing Time", two unsettling shaggy-dog stories and sketches of creeping suspense.

The creators reference classic 1970s short story anthology "Tales of the Unexpected", but these stories don't stoop to "he was a ghost all along!" twist endings. Instead, they're more like mood pieces: unsettling glimpses of a world that looks like ours until you get too close and see the subtle strangeness of it.

"Short stories feel closer to the form of a song," said Pollard. "They can be a bit lyrical or strange."

"You don't always have to explain everything in a short story," said Gaiman. "What is unexplained lingers...there are bits around the edges that leave you wondering quite what happened." That enigmatic quality created some practical problems for the filmmakers, though. Gaiman recalled how "Ian and Jane would phone me up and say, 'In the story you are very mysterious, but we have to actually put this on the screen, so you need to tell us what was happening.' And then I would tell them."

"...Or not," added Forsyth ruefully.

"Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories" is on Sky Arts on 26 June. You can stream Cocker's music from the series on Spotify or buy it from iTunes. There's no word yet on when or if the series will be shown in the US or Australia.