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Directed by Andy Wilson
Written by Malcolm McKay (from the novels by Mervyn Peake)

Contest Plot Cast and Characters Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast 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

Cast and Characters
      Fuchsia Groan is one of Steerpike's first victims. He arrives in her attic and, seeing the book of fairytales strewn on the floor, poses as an exciting adventurer. Fuelling her fantasies he becomes her servant. As Steerpike rises to power Fuchsia's infatuation with him grows, leading her to a tragic end.
      Neve McIntosh sees Fuchsia as a silly little girl. Such conceited and unsympathetic characters are notoriously hard to portray. McIntosh sought to play Fuchsia as a screaming brat.
      McIntosh claims that Fuchsia's doomed attempts to be tough and independent are the key to her character. They explain her treatment of Nannie Slagg and her fits of hysterics. McIntosh sought to amplify Fuchsia's frustration throughout her performance.
      Fuchsia's demise resonates strongly with McIntosh. Tragic, romantic and self-determined, Fuchsia's death could have come directly from her book of fairytales.

STEERPIKE STEERPIKE Played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers
      Steerpike is the catalyst of the story, a figure who rocks the traditional foundations of the castle. Steerpike escapes the drudgery of the kitchens through his gift for manipulation. He plays on Fuchsia's yearning for adventure and exploits the ambition of Cora and Clarice to his own ends. He's the villain of the piece yet his ascent is often brave and admirable.
      Jonathan Rhys Meyers believes Steerpike simply wants to be loved. He argues that had Flay helped Steerpike, the tragedy of Gormenghast could have been averted. Meyers strongly identifies with the character's restless ambition. With no theatrical training Meyers has to learn with each role, just as Steerpike is forced to improvise in Prunesquallor's pharmacy.
      Meyers prepared for the role by reading Samuel Beckett. Attracted to Beckett's way of stating things plainly, Meyers believes that Steerpike's brilliant villainy simply stems from loneliness.

FLAY FLAY Played by Christopher Lee
      Flay's loyal service to the 76th Earl of Gormenghast ends once Steerpike dupes him in order to escape the kitchens. As punishment Lady Groan banishes Flay to a solitary mountain hut. In exile Flay grows in wisdom, protectively watching over the young Titus Groan. Flay is troubled by walking, talking and, most of all, by his loathing for Swelter.
      Christopher Lee is the sole member of the production to have known Mervyn Peake personally. The two would share coffee in the former Harrods' library. Lee remembers Peake as charming, gentle and quiet. Lee recalls his friends' surprise upon learning that the BBC was to adapt the novel for the screen. His greatest challenge was mastering the piece's unique dialogue, particularly Flay's terse, staccato phrases such as "Drop. Boy". Lee believes that what works on the page can often irritate on screen. He accordingly modified aspects of Flay's character, not least the way his legs click as he moves.
      The star of countless Gothic horror films, Lee believes that none of his infamous works can rival Gormenghast in terms of emotion and imagination.

      Nannie Slagg is guardian to first Fuchsia, then Titus. Sly and disgruntled, she's easy prey for Steerpike. Despite her noble intentions she's intimidated by Gertrude, bullied by Fuchsia and tricked by Steerpike.
      When she was first approached to join the production June Brown's response was an emphatic no! She even went as far as to recommend other actresses for the role. Self-deprecating to the last, June claims she confined herself to merely wearing the costume and saying the lines.
      June claims that learning the script for Gormenghast was especially difficult. "One is rather careful about this text," she explains, "because it is so precise." To capture Nannie Slagg's hesitant speech patterns she would repeatedly listen to messages on her telephone answering machine from erring callers.
      She has not read Peake's novels. "I bought the books and got a third of the way through Titus Groan, but it's not bedtime reading, if you know what I mean."

TITUS GROAN TITUS GROAN Played by Cameron Powrie / Andrew N. Robertson
      Spurned by his mother, Titus leaves Nannie Slagg's care and becomes the hero of Gormenghast. Though often naÔve and wilful, Titus poses the greatest problem to Steerpike's plans.
      Thirteen-year-old Cameron Powrie plays the young Titus Groan. Many of Titus' scenes are conducted on horseback and Cameron was forced to learn basic horsemanship for the role. Cameron claims Titus dislikes the rituals and traditions of Gormenghast and longs to understand the thoughts and feelings of the children living outside the castle.
      Andrew N. Robertson plays the older Titus. Andrew prepared for the role by studying videotapes of Prince William. He claims that the part helped him understand and sympathise with the pressures of duty and etiquette that the Royal Family endure. Titus, he argues, carries the same burden.

SWELTER SWELTER Played by Richard Griffiths
      Swelter runs the kitchens in Gormenghast with tyrannical fervour. A grotesque pig of a man, Swelter has a revolting spike of a tooth that falls outside his lips. He sings whenever he pleases and kills on a whim. He is Flay's equal within the hierarchy of Gormenghast but his opposite in all other respects. They soon engage in a puerile battle for supremacy.
      Richard Griffiths thinks Swelter's demented insinuations about the kitchen boys are horrible. Yet in the context of the book, he argues, they work as comedy. "It is like the private joke that makes the audience jolt with laughter."
      Richard Griffiths refuses to condemn Swelter's grotesque excesses. He explains "everybody has these private visions, they are all unique and most of us go around unable to express them... artists make it possible to see these other avenues in a very gentle, passive way. And the best of them, like Peake, don't try and hit you over the head and hold a hand out for the cheque."

      Despite his outlandish appearance Dr Prunesquallor is one of the most astute and sympathetic characters in Gormenghast. He delivers Titus and resists Steerpike's machinations. What he cannot do, however, is change. Like Lord Groan and Flay, he is a slave to the traditions of Gormenghast.
      A Peake aficionado, John Sessions came to the production well prepared. Nevertheless, he had very specific fears about his performance. "Gormenghast... is very hard to underplay," he explains. "You've got to find a way of making a large performance real, which is quite tricky.
      The scene in which Dr Prunesquallor delivers Titus and then hoists the baby triumphantly in the air gave Sessions some difficulty. Though the baby's mother was present throughout, Sessions says he hadn't previously realised how heavy a baby could be and was acutely conscious of the risk of dropping it!

CORA AND CLARICE CORA AND CLARICE Played by Lynsey Baxter and Zoe Wanamaker
      Identical twins Cora and Clarice have spent fifteen long years yearning for power. Steerpike exploits this longing to his own ends. He manipulates their envy of Titus and convinces them to destroy the library.
      Lynsey Baxter claims that the twins are alike in thought and easily bewildered: thus their fifteen-year exile was quite an ordeal. She says she found the key to Cora during the long, arduous makeup sessions she shared with ZoŽ Wanamaker.
      Wanamaker sees the twins as two halves of the same person. Accordingly, she worked with Baxter to develop distinct mannerisms to portray the twins' duality. Peake's description of their voices being "as flat as haddocks" posed more of a problem. Wanamaker sought a tone that would annoy and bore in equal measure.

LORD GROAN LORD GROAN Played by Ian Richardson
      The 76th Earl of Gormenghast, Lord Groan has grown weary of both his position and his loveless marriage to Gertrude. He seeks refuge in the library which Cora and Clarice, aided by Steerpike, destroy. And when the library goes, Lord Groan's mind goes with it.
      The tyranny of Gormenghast's rituals and social pressures trigger Lord Groan's descent into madness. To explore this fall from grace is an immense challenge. Ian Richardson believes that Lord Groan is the most complex character he has played in his forty-year career.
      Groan's madness manifests itself in an obsession with owls. Richardson studied wildlife footage for mannerisms to incorporate in his performance. He spent many days of the production hunched in an imitation of an owl. These physical demands took their toll, forcing him to take frequent soothing baths.
      Richardson read Gormenghast during the era that marked the end of the British Empire. He sees a parallel with the novel's theme of a corrupt cancer ripping through the established order. He claims Steerpike is like Hitler in his brutal ability to disrupt order and cause mayhem.

GERTRUDE GERTRUDE Played by Celia Imrie
      Wife of Lord Groan and mother of Titus, Gertrude has no love for either. "Bring him back when he's six," she exclaims at the birth of her son. She's not vicious or cruel but merely weary of her royal role. Nevertheless, it is Gertrude who first identifies the threat Steerpike poses to the traditional order.
      Hidden within an enormous costume, her features contorted by a prosthetic mask, Celia Imrie had to endure long, arduous makeup sessions. She says that the constraints of her costume informed her performance as the torpid, imperious Gertrude.
      Imrie thinks that the relationship between Gertrude and Steerpike is vividly important. They admire each other so much that in his final moments Steerpike suggests that he, not Titus, should have been her son.
      Gertrude's self-possession deserts her upon Fuchsia's death. In one of the only signs of human compassion she ever shows, she allows a single tear to fall down her cheek.

Content copyright © 2000 by British Broadcasting Corporation

Contest Plot Cast and Characters Mervyn Peake

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