A BBC miniseries directed by Andy Wilson & produced by Estelle Daniel
Written by Malcolm McKay, based on the Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake
2000. Color, approximately 240 minutes
Tape available from BBC Video
When I was a teenager I discovered Mervyn Peake's outrageous Gormenghast trilogy and was instantly hooked. The books were dense and provocative, populated by strange and bizarre people and written in a semi-poetic style laced with sly, offbeat humor and outbursts of shocking violence. The three books – Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone -- also included several pages each of Peake's own illustrations of his sociopathic characters. These drawings captivated me as much as the prose. No one ever named characters like Mervyn Peake: Flay, Swelter, Sepulchrave, Steerpike, Perch-Prism, Rottcodd, Deadyawn, Spiregrain, Mulefire, Bellgrove, Prunesquallor…. I began a love affair with the books that continues to this day.
When I heard that the BBC had produced a miniseries version of the first two books (we'll get to why the third one wasn't included in a minute), I became very excited. I ordered the tapes the day they became available in the U.S., in July of this year ('01).
Peake was known primarily as a poet and an illustrator when the first Gormenghast novel, Titus Groan, was published. (As you might expect, therefore, poems of a rather enigmatic nature are scattered throughout the trilogy.) From the beginning, the books met with a variety of reactions. Some people were captivated by the towering imaginative conception of the ancient castle of Gormenghast and the dozens of characters, whereas others couldn't abide Peake's intricate, lapidary prose and meandering plotline. The titular character never advances beyond infancy in the first book. Its hundreds of pages are filled, rather, with the weird interactions of Titus's relatives and other denizens of the vast, crumbling castle with its hundreds of rooms, many abandoned and uninhabited for centuries.
Titus is born the 77th Earl of Gormenghast. His father, Sepulchrave (played in the film by Ian Richardson), is a clinically depressed man, a melancholic whose interest is only aroused by his huge library. A prisoner of the ironbound traditions of the Groans, Sepulchrave's life is an endless round of empty ceremonies overseen by the Master of Ritual, Barquentine (Warren Mitchell). This is to be Titus's heritage when he comes of age.
The Countess of Groan, Gertrude (Celia Imrie), is a huge, sour woman with red hair and a forbidding mien. Gertrude loves only her birds and her white cats. She has little to do with Titus (played as a child by Cameron Powrie and as a teenager by Andrew Robertson) and his sister Fuchsia (Neve Macintosh), who is twelve or thirteen when Titus is born. Wild-haired, gauche, and childish, Fuchsia has retreated to a world of imagination, spending most of her time in three attic rooms accessible only through her bedroom, and attended by Nanny Slagg (June Brown), a diminutive simpleton of a woman, silly and tactless.
The cadaverous Flay (Christopher Lee), who is so laconic that he hardly ever speaks, and whose knees are so arthritic that they click and snap with every step he takes, is Sepulchrave's loyal retainer. Flay's archenemy among the other castle servants is the Chef of Gormenghast, the obese Swelter (Richard Griffiths), a sadistic sot who is as voluble as Flay is taciturn.
The trilogy (and the film) opens on the day of Titus's birth, as the castle celebrates the arrival of an heir to Lord and Lady Groan. As the festivities reach their riotous peak, a sly kitchen boy named Steerpike (Jonathon Rhys Meyers) escapes from the fetid depths of Swelter's domains and begins his slow rise through the castle's social structure. Fleeing across the roofscape of the enormous castle, Steerpike at last finds sanctuary in one of Fuchsia's attic rooms. When she discovers him he prevails on her to take him along with her on a visit to strange little Doctor Prunesquallor (John Sessions), whose foppish exterior masks a sharp mind. Steerpike is a master manipulator, and Fuchsia is no match for his wiles. Steerpike swiftly makes himself indispensable to the Doctor and his vain, nearsighted sister, Irma (Fiona Shaw). Flay, who hates him, is banished from the castle by an enraged Lady Gertrude after he injures one of her precious cats, leaving the coast clear for Steerpike to insinuate himself into the lives of the castle's cognoscenti.
The bulk of the series is taken up with Steerpike's gradual penetration into the very heart of the castle's life, as he gathers more and more threads of power and influence, ruthlessly exploiting and eliminating any who stand in his way. Meanwhile, Titus grows into childhood and then adolescence, sharing with his sister a hatred for the hidebound traditions of Groan and ever hopeful of finding some way of escaping his fate. The only person besides Fuchsia who seems genuinely fond of Titus is the ditzy old headmaster, Professor Bellgrove.
Steerpike's machinations are not laid bare for a number of years, and then only through the tireless efforts of the exiled Flay, who has been clandestinely reconnoitering the castle on a regular basis after having found a long-lost entrance. Steerpike, his schemes at last laid bare by Titus and the Doctor with Flay's help, becomes a fugitive in the castle during the worst storm in human memory. He is driven from floor to floor as the waters of Gormenghast Lake slowly rise and render the lower reaches of the castle uninhabitable. Pursued by boats, Steerpike is at last cornered by Titus, with whom he has a final, climactic confrontation.
The edition of the Gormenghast novels that I discovered in my youth was published through Ballantine's late, lamented Adult Fantasy series, edited by Lin Carter. (Please note that there is not the least hint of magic or of anything supernatural anywhere in these books, however.) I am forever in Carter's debt for this series, and not just for Peake's work. I have read these books a number of times, though usually only the first two, Titus Groan and Gormenghast. By the time Peake commenced work on the third volume, Titus Alone, he was increasingly ill with a degenerative brain disease. Consequently, Titus Alone was written as quickly as possible before the disease robbed him of his creative powers. Indeed, for the final decade of his life Peake would write no more. This third volume, then, is radically different in tone and style from the first two. In it, Titus escapes at last into the outside world, a world utterly unlike Gormenghast. Though the first two books give no hint of all of the outside world and in fact mention no modern conveniences whatsoever, such as electricity or radio or television, all these things exist in the outer world in which Titus finds himself. (The filmed version does show us a few electric lights toward the end, but only in Steerpike's office once he has ascended to power as Master of Ritual after he murders Barquentine. I liked this touch as it alludes to a new order coming to the fore in Gormenghast. Remember that Peake wrote these books just after World War II. Steerpike certainly does embody some Nazi-like characteristics.)
The producers of the BBC series wisely decided to omit the third book from the film, so the series ends with Titus literally riding off into the sunset on his voyage of discovery.
As an interesting side note, however, British author Langston Davis was hired in 1970 by Peake's London publishers to edit Titus Alone from the original source material, and he apparently worked quite hard to make the book more coherent. I have not read his edition but I certainly mean to.
The film version is a sumptuous piece of work, quite well acted and beautifully realized. Costumes and sets are totally convincing. I found Neve Campbell's Fuchsia to be as headstrong and immature--and darkly lovely--as she is in the books. Jonathon Rhys Meyter's Steerpike is perhaps a bit less cerebral, cold-blooded, and icy than he might be, but overall he performance is excellent. Christopher Lee's Flay is simply marvelous, as is John Session's Dr. Prunesquallor, although Sessions actually understates the Doctor's manic character. Fiona Shaw as Irma Prunesquallor can't be faulted, playing this shallow-minded man-hungry spinster with delightful verve. Shaw and Richard Griffiths (Swelter) will be playing the roles of Harry Potter's horrendous aunt and uncle in the forthcoming Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone this autumn. I daresay that the actors were utterly delighted to be offered these Dickensian roles. The most sympathetic characters in the book are Flay, despite his taciturnity and forbidding aspect, Fuchsia, the eternal innocent who retreats from the sorrows of her pointless life into a world of make-believe, and Dr. Prunesquallor, who is quite the most human of them all despite his effete manners and hyaena laugh (which doesn't make it into the film).
I can't imagine this work finding a mass audience – it is just too weird, too self-referential. (Then again, people said that about Ulysses, and that one seems to have done pretty well for itself.) I applaud the BBC for financing and producing the series, and I hope it results in more exposure for Peake's work. Make no mistake, however, the Groan novels are important works in twentieth century literature, for their uniqueness if for nothing else. The film serves as a splendid introduction to them, but shouldn't be a substitute. The books are far richer in detail and the inner lives of the characters, with long asides about even the most minor of characters, such as Penecost the gardener and Rottcodd, caretaker of the Hall of Bright Carvings. It is also rife with some purely delightful comic scenes, such as the wacky party thrown by Irma Prunesquallor for the Professors of Gormenghast, from whose rank she is determined to snare a husband. This soiree (her word for it) has to be among the great accomplishments of English literature and can easily stand on its own as an almost Chaucerian comedy set piece. Irma herself is a comic tour-de-force of a character.
So. Gormenghast. Read the books, or view the series, but please don't miss this incredible opportunity to dive into a world that is totally unique. If you have any love at all for imaginative literature, Peake's strange masterpiece is essential.
(Fannish note: there are a number of good Gormenghast fan sites on the World Wide Web. One such can be found at http://www.gormenghastcastle.co.uk/index.html. It serves as a good introduction to the world of Mervyn Peake. Be sure to look for the character sculptures--they're outstanding.)
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