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Gormenghast (****)
Directed by Andy Wilson
Written by Malcolm McKay (from the novels by Mervyn Peake)
Principal Cast
Andrew Robertson -- Titus (17 years)
Neve McIntosh -- Fuchsia
Olga Sosnovska -- Keda
Sean Hughes -- Poet
George Yiasoumi -- Bookman
Lynsey Baxter -- Cora Groan
June Brown -- Nannie Slagg
Windsor Davies -- Rottcodd
Stephen Fry -- Professor Bellgrove
Richard Griffiths -- Swelter
Celia Imrie -- Lady Gertrude
Christopher Lee -- Flay
Spike Milligan -- Deadyawn
Warren Mitchell -- Barquentine
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers -- Steerpike
Ian Richardson -- Lord Groan
John Sessions -- Dr. Prunesquallor
Fiona Shaw -- Irma Prunesquallor
Eric Sykes -- Mollocks
ZoŽ Wanamaker -- Clarice
Daniela Zocchi -- Wild girl
  • Official Mervyn Peake Site
  • BBC Gormenghast Site
  • Peake's War Drawings
    BIOGRAPHY: 1, 2
    Misc. Gormenghast/Mervyn Peake Sites:
  • Peake Studies (Critical journal)
  • French Peake Site
  • Gormenghast the opera
  • Fuchsia's Secret Archive
  • Gormenghast Castle I
  • Gormenghast Castle II
  • Kemp Books Peake Page
  • Site on Gothic Architecture
  • Gormenghast Role-playing game
  • Gormenghast the rock band
  • Official Gormenghast Jewelry
  • Gormenghast Discussion Groups: 1, 2, 3
  • BBC TV Series: 1, 2(a, b, c, d), 3, 4(a, b), 5, 6, 6 (copy), 7
  • Soundtrack to TV Series: 1, 2, 3 (in Japanese), 4
  • Gormenghast Novels: 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Gormenghast the Rock Opera: 1
  • Gormenghast the Theatre Play: 1
  • BBC Radioplay: 1
  • Fragment from Titus Awakes
  • Fragment from "The Adventures of Fruit Foot"
  • Excerpt from Titus Groan
  • Past Feature Reviews
    A review by Georges T. Dodds


    Gothic Fantasy is the term usually applied to the Gormenghast Trilogy, particularly the first two books Titus Groan and Gormenghast, which are the basis of the BBC production. Before you go off thinking that Gormenghast is yet another in the line of endless fantasy trilogies, let me point out that Gormenghast is only a trilogy because Mervyn Peake died of Parkinson's disease before he could write more, but fragments or outlines exist of Titus Awakes and Gormenghast Revisited, and Peake intended the series to chronicle the entire life of the title character. As for it being Gothic, while it does have the trappings of the gloomy old castle, there are no supernatural occurrences; as for Fantasy, the characters are all human, there is no magic, and few of the trappings associated with the standard post-Tolkienian fantasy. Overall, Gormenghast, was most influenced by Peake witnessing the huge socio-economic disparity in early 20th century China, and by the horrors of WWII, particularly the Belsen concentration camp, which he saw first-hand in his role as war artist for the British Ministry of Information. Gormenghast is one of those unique works that defines great fantasy while avoiding most of the paradigms of the genre.

    Browsing the links, it is clear that the BBC production of Gormenghast has received largely positive reviews. Certainly the cast is stellar, Christopher Lee as Flay being my personal favourite. One can tell that several of these actors are veterans of Shakespearean theatre, and this style suits many of the characters very well. The attention to detail in terms of the characters' likeness to Peake's own sketches of them is also to be lauded. The production also has wonderful multi-layered detail which prompts one to watch the series not just for the story, but to look at the detailing of everything from Lord Groan's library to his tablecloths. Certainly, for anyone who isn't a Gormenghast purist or scholar, the BBC's production gets the main plot elements and feel of Peake's work across.

    Some reviewers and fans have suggested that Steerpike's character in the books and TV series differ significantly in a number of ways, not all to the good. In particular, the casting of the young and attractive Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as the anti-hero Steerpike and the love for Fuchsia he represses are rather at odds with the somewhat unattractive and more callous loner-opportunist character in the books. While I thoroughly enjoyed the BBC production and recommend it to anyone as many notches above the usual TV drivel out there, and I understand that the production needs to be commercially viable, there are nevertheless a couple of things I might have modified.

    I first read the Gormenghast books some 20 years ago. What remains with me most, now that many of the secondary plot elements are forgotten (before seeing the BBC production) is partly Peake's wonderfully evocative prose (which was used largely verbatim in the TV series), but most of all the dark, vast, yet labyrinthine castle that is Gormenghast. As much as there were scenes of various characters travelling around the castle in obscure dusty corridors, the BBC production didn't entirely capture, for me, the mood of Gormenghast. To me the mood of Gormenghast would have been best exemplified by the sort of film technique in Murnau's Nosferatu or in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Now I'm not suggesting that Gormenghast should have been made as a silent movie, but perhaps more shadow play and something to bring out the vast yet claustrophobic webwork of passages, abandoned wings and forgotten rooms draped in centuries of dust might have more closely mirrored the mood of the books.

    The DVDs come with additional materials on the making of Gormenghast, actor interviews, and material on the costuming and set design. As the best fantasy on television that you're likely to see in many years, the Gormenghast DVDs are certainly an excellent investment in quality filmmaking.

    Copyright © 2001 Georges T. Dodds

    Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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