The BBC films Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast

Overwritten escapist nonsense! Not my view of Mervyn Peake’s trilogy of novels Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone (the first two of which have now been transformed into a £10 million BBC television series) but that of someone writing recently in a respectable national newspaper.

These books have always polarised readers: people either love or loath the strange denizens who dwell in the mouldering kingdom of the House of Groan and are either hypnotised or repelled by the sinister goings-on among the miles of crumbling, cob-web-festooned masonry that is Gormenghast castle.

I am one of the lovers: rating Peake’s books among the greatest novels of the last century and – in the spectrum of world literature - on a par with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Don Quixote and Moby Dick.  Indeed, I fancy if Mervyn Peake had been writing in France, Spain or America, the saga of Gormenghast would have been unhesitatingly hailed a classic and been filmed half-a-dozen times already.

One possible reason for our native ambivalence towards the saga of Gormenghast is the fact that it was the work of a polymath: Mervyn Peake was not just a novelist, he was a poet, playwright, painter and illustrator.  One of those geniuses that we are apt to find irritatingly too clever by three-quarters.

But it is exactly these diverse skills that Peake brings to bear on the creation of his epic.  He writes as an artist, concerning himself as much with setting as with story, as much with colour and texture as with character.  And that is what this BBC television series (Monday nights, BBC2) has captured with an abundant richness that overwhelms the viewer with dazzlement.

The result is an intoxicating brew, but whether imbibing it will convert anyone who has hitherto disliked the books seems doubtful.  However, it may well arouse the imaginative taste-buds of those who have never trod the Stone Lanes, gazed up at the craggy silhouette of the Tower of Flints or endured the suffocating heat given off by the ovens in the vast, greasy kitchen of Gormenghast.

The greatest compliment that can be paid to Gormenghast’s producer, Estelle Daniel and director Andy Wilson is that they have made scarcely a single compromise in bringing Peake’s world to the screen.  It is (with minor cavils that would seem footling to catalogue) the book come to life.

Screenwriter, Malcolm McKay has coherently presented the many-stranded skane of plots and sub-plots concerning murders, deeds of treachery and wild infatuations, enacted in a kingdom aching from centuries of arcane ritual that is about to be challenged, even overthrown.

And Peake’s pageant of tragic, brutal, ludicrous and pathetic beings have been authentically paraded so that they are seen not so much as larger-than-life, as enlargements-on-life; but, above all, designer Christopher Hobbs has vibrantly captured the sense of place which the artist-novelist painted in words.

Peake ’s whole fantastical mural of sweeping vistas, dizzying perspectives and gloomy recesses of darkness has been given a three-dimensional reality. The foolish, power-hungry twins, Lady Clarice and Lady Cora, take tea at a table set out upon the bole of a gigantic tree, growing horizontally from the side of an ancient tower; while the roof-scapes scaled by the escaping kitchen-boy, Steerpike (destined to be nemesis to the line of Groan) reveal an eye-stretching panorama of towers, turrets, domes and pinnacles that is the history of everywhere and nowhere.

The interiors - perhaps a little less chilled and shadow-filled than they are described in books – are, however, so strewn with bizarre artefacts and objects d’art – including stuffed giraffes - that it seems as if Steptoe & Son had moved into Kane’s Xanadu.

Whilst the impressive line up of acting talent – Stephen Fry, Warren Mitchell, Fiona Shaw and Celia Imrie - may provide a little titillating inducement for any uncertain viewers, the matching of role to actor is far more than an exercise in star-casting: John Sessions as the shock-headed, ingratiating royal physician, Dr Prunesquallor, flits in and out like a errant gadfly; Christopher Lee as the monosyllabic retainer, Flay, is deeply weary of his world, yet fiercely loyal; Richard Griffiths as Swelter, the ugly, gargantuan chef, drips fat and oozes malice.


Mervyn Peake’s characters have a Dickensian – even Shakespearean - flourish: their names denote not just who they are, but what they are: Lord Sepulchrave (Ian Richardson), the doomed and melancholy 76th Earl of Groan, father to Titus, the child whose birth is the signal for change; Nannie Slagg, the delicious June Brown, Dot Cottoning about the castle like an EastEnder summoned to Buckingham Palace.

And, at the centre of this teeming cavalcade: the wild, sad Fuchsia (Neve McIntosh) and the unspeakably clever and ruthlessly ambitious Steerpike (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) whose destinies become desperately entangled.

True, the television series doesn’t really unravel Mervyn Peake’s riddles or suggest any solutions to the nagging question of what it all means: the ruin of empire, the end of days, a world (like, yet unlike, our own) falling into decay.   It does, however, show the price of a communal insanity that might easily be viewed as some kind of millennial malaise: ‘Now,’ says one of the characters, ‘we have seen true madness.’ 

The BBC’s Gormenghast is filled with madness, sorrow and a fierce and terrible beauty that will haunt the viewer for a long time – maybe forever…

Brian Sibley

Brian Sibley is Chairman of the Mervyn Peake Society and the author of the Sony-award winning radio dramatisation of Titus Groan and Gormenghast starring Sting as Steerpike which is currently available from  the BBC Radio Collection.