Gormenghast is, in my opinion, the best drama the BBc has ever done. The casting is superb, and everyone fits their role to perfection. It's seems anyone who's anyone is in Gormenghast, Stephen Fry, Spike milligan, Eric Sykes, Celia Imrie, Chrisopher Lee, Steve Pemberton, Ian Richardson.. I could go on. It's probably the fisrt time I encountered Johnathan Rhys Myers and you could tell from his showstealing performace that he was going to do many great things to come. (Most recently, of course, appearing as Henry VIII in the BBC's hugely successful drama The Tudors). Myers plays Steerpike, a kitchen boy who works his way up the rankings in the weird kingdom that is Gormenghast. Is he the villian or the hero though? Watch and decide for yourself. Based on Mervyn Peake's novels which are literacy classics but somewhat difficult reads, this BBC adaptation makes the eccentric characters and thrilling story accessable for everyone. It's such a shame this gem has seemed to have been forgotton. I demand a re run.
A lot of people have talked a lot of rubbish about this adaptation. The look is too chinese - the book feels more english. Though brilliant, the look is just not right. Peake lived in China, but probably was not influenced to that extent. Ghormengast is a story of class revolt, and I do not think that Peake was in favour of it. The book shows the steady state of society as being grim and tradition-locked. You don't see the ordinary people; everyone's a gargoyle. The writer writes [comparatively] obscure fiction for avid readers - and to them, burning a library is about the worst thing imaginable. We must ask ourselves; is Manservant Flay [Christopher Lee] worse than a conniving young murderer? Steerpike is not the hero, he's a virus - a warning against change for change's sake. Titus is the hero, although volume one ends when he is still only 2 years old! In the end, Titus brings more change than Steerpike ever did! Steerpike is just a conventional man of dark passions. And this is, at the base of it, a more conventional tale than the critics would like.
Based upon the first two of Mervyn Peake’s supposedly unfilmable trilogy of novels, ‘Titus Groan’ and ‘Gormenghast’, this BBC adaptation attempted to combine Fantasy (of a different tradition than the better-known Tolkien variation of Fantasy, but still Fantasy nonetheless) with the costume drama of which the BBC is so fond, to produce a programme rich in sumptuous visual detail which revelled in its literary heritage and included a large number of British TV and film personalities in its cast to produce something which, whilst not altogether successful, was still worth catching and will probably come to be regarded as the seminal screen adaptation of Peake’s work. Gormenghast is a massive fort complex in which live the Groans, the Royal family, together with a number of relatives and a whole host of servants. Everything, everyone and every occasion within Gormenghast is strictly governed by ritual and tradition, to which everyone thoughtlessly adheres and yet which very few actually have any enthusiasm for; in fact, this lack of enthusiasm permeates to every level of life within Gormenghast, and it soon becomes apparent that the entire dynasty is in severe decline, especially since most of the Groans and a good proportion of the servants appear to be eccentric at best (and some are, quite frankly, insane). Within this framework arrives a new baby for the Groans: Titus. He is the heir to the throne, but is not instantly liked by his sister or, indeed, his mother who instructs the haggard old nursemaid to take him away and “bring him back when he’s eight.” Almost simultaneously, a young and ambitious kitchen boy named Steerpike begins to ruthlessly plot his ascent, reaching further and further above his appointed role in the castle as time passes, and developing ambitions to rule over Gormenghast himself, whilst gradually falling for Fuschia, Titus’ elder sister, who it would appear he woul
d wish to rule alongside him. Gormenghast is effectively a four-hour telling of the complex political intrigue which occurs in Gormenghast, revolving around an increasing hostility between Steerpike and the other varied and bizarre characters who inhabit Gormenghast, until, at last, Steerpike thinks he may have concentrated enough power in his hands to make his move on the leadership of the castle itself. During this time, many murders, disappearances and other strange occurrences happen, most of which have Steerpike at their root in some form or another. As stated above, the design of Gormenghast can hardly be faulted, most of the serial having a glossy filmic feel which is quite an achievement for the production team who were obviously working on a much tighter budget than they would have been doing on a feature film. The acting, also, is of superior quality for the most part (although there was one unfortunate exception to this, an elder statesman of the British screen who is obviously well past his best making a brief cameo that was, frankly, cringe-worthy … although to criticise this person by name would, even to me, be rather churlish), with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christopher Lee, Neve McIntosh, Warren Mitchell and the rest of the cast, in fact — naming them all would be far too long a list — all putting in sterling performances as their respective characters, most of whom are not actually characters at all by traditional definitions but are instead exaggerated characterisations of people Peake knew during his varied and tumultuous life. Gormenghast, indeed, works on many levels: as a costume drama, a love story, a fantastical allegory and as a straight fantasy. However, the serial is not always completely successful, and one of the major weaknesses inherent in the storyline of Gormenghast is the sheer amount of intricate scene-setting, necessary to the plot development of the story as a whole but which bogs down the
earlier part of the narrative and makes the first episode rather slow and uninvolving, especially upon first viewing. This is undoubtedly what lead to the phenomenon of a huge audience tuning in to BBC2 for the first episode (obviously generated by a combination of the large amount of advance publicity the BBC had given to a serial it — correctly — considered prestigious and the formidable reputation of the original books), who did not return for subsequent instalments, causing the serial to be blasted as a failure in such as the Daily Mail (not, I have to admit, that most genre fans particularly care about what the Daily Mail has to say, in any case); a shame since the following episodes did become considerably more exciting as the plot quickened, and many of those who deserted the show after week one might have been considerably more satisfied by the more action-adventure oriented plots which appeared later. Recently released as a DVD set by the BBC, which contains two discs in one case and includes all four hour-long episodes together with a behind-the-scenes documentary (probably the sort of thing originally commissioned for BBC Choice) and a small selection of text-based features, and which features a stunning print of the programme which would be the envy of some films, Gormenghast is certainly worth collecting, especially for those who didn’t stay with it on its TV transmission, and, I have to admit, I liked it second time round much better as well, even enjoying the first episode this time since I was able to revel in the foreknowledge of what was to come. A classy adaptation of a British fantasy classic, this is occasionally slightly stuffy as much BBC produce is wont to be, but is, nevertheless, good viewing, and will surely go down as a classic in its own right.
The best thing by far about this production was the beautiful costumes and spectacular scenery. Everything from the dusty corridors, untouched for centuries, to the amazing view from the rooftops was incredibly realistic. Even when the scene was completely computer generated, it still managed to take my breath away. It also boosted a good cast, including well-known stars such as June Brown as Nannie Slagg (also Dot Cotton in Eastenders) and Ian Richardson as Lord Groan. My particular favourite however, was Jonathon Rhys Meyers as the lead. He portrayed Steerpike as a somewhat sympathetic young man, without taking away the horrific nature of his character and the cleaver way he charms everybody into liking him. Watching Steerpike climb the ladder of social class in Gormenghast castle isn’t actually that interesting, but extremely amusing. The program in general is very funny, thanks to actors such as Fiona Shaw and John Sessions, and a well-written screenplay. The serious parts in the screenplay are also very good, although I don’t like the way 13 years are missed out between the second and third episodes. I don’t know if this is what happens in the book, but I personally think it spoils the whole thing. What has Steerpike been up to for all those years? Don’t try to tell me he hasn’t tried to seduce or murder anybody for all that time! The only real problem with this production is that not one of the characters is likable. I’ve come to the decision that either they’re all somewhat mad, or just not very nice people. Which makes it very hard to sympathise with the characters situations.
While I realise that this style of drama is not everyone's cup of tea, I found it extremely enjoyable. A brilliant cast, including Christopher Lee, June Brown and Ian Richardson meant that the quality of acting would be hard to fault. A "heavy" drama, I found it easier to tape each episode and watch through at the end. It's one of those productions which is best enjoyed when you can guarantee no interruptions... The plot was riveting - kitchen boy manages to manipulate everyone in his path with his boyish good looks and verbal charms... He manages to rise to a position of dubious respect and destroy all around him, in the hope of obtaining ultimate power... Of course good overcomes evil... I really cannot wait for the secon and third parts of the trilogy - I think that they are calledTitus Groan and Titus Alone...
Surely the best serialised drama on British T.V for some time. A sureal setting, excellent characterisation and a captivating plot all make perfect escapism. Not to mention a wonderful cast. I can empathise completely with the heroine's dilema and divided loyalty between her brother and the man who tries to seduce her. Gormenghast is gripping right to the end and we are left wondering if the social upheavals we have witnessed will mean the end of an empire. Plea to the BBC: repeats please !