The BBC's Peake-time viewing will stay in the memory, predicts Brian Sibley.
Mervyn Peake's trilogy of novels, Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, has always polarised opinion: readers either love or loathe 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, cobweb-festooned masonry that is the castle of Gormenghast. On the side of the loathers, one respectable national newspaper recently described the novels as "overwritten, escapist nonsense". Peake's detractors will not have been pleased to hear that the first two novels of the trilogy have been made into a pound;10 million BBC television series, which started this week.
I am one of the lovers. I rate 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, one fancies that if Mervyn Peake had been writing in France, Spain or the United States, the Gormenghast saga would have been unhesitatingly hailed a classic and filmed half a dozen times already. One possible reason for British ambivalence towards the trilogy (although it remains a cult novel among teenagers) is the fact that it was the work of a polymath: Mervyn Peake was not only a novelist, he was a poet, playwright, painter and illustrator - one of those geniuses that we are apt to find too irritatingly clever by three-quarters.
But it is exactly these diverse skills that Peake brought 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 BBC2 adaptation has captured with an abundant richness which overwhelms and dazzles the viewer. It is an intoxicating brew, but whether drinking from it will convert anyone who has hitherto disliked the taste is questionable. However, it may well arouse the imaginative tastebuds 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 scarcely made a single compromise in bringing Peake's world to the screen. It is (with minor quibbles that would seem petty to catalogue) the books come to life. Screenwriter Malcolm McKay has coherently presented the many-stranded skein of plots and sub-plots concerning murders, treachery and wild infatuations, set in a kingdom that is weighed down by centuries of arcane ritual and is about to be challenged - even overthrown. And Peake's pageant of tragic, brutal, ludicrous and pathetic charaters has been authentically scripted so that they are not so much larger than life as enlargements on life.
Above all, designer Christopher Hobbs has captured the sense of place which the artist-novelist painted in words. Peake's fantastical mural, with its 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 that grows horizontally from the side of an ancient tower; the roofscapes scaled by the escaping kitchen-boy, Steerpike (destined to be the nemesis of 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 the books - are so strewn with bizarre artefacts and objets d'art (including stuffed giraffes) that it seems as if Steptoe and Son has moved into Citizen Kane's Xanadu.
While the impressive line-up of acting talent - Stephen Fry, Warren Mitchell, Fiona Shaw and Celia Imrie - may provide a 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 an 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 Cotton-ing about the castle like an EastEnder summoned to Buckingham Palace. And, at the centre of this teeming cavalcade are the wild, sad Fuchsia (Neve McIntosh) and the unspeakably clever and ruthlessly ambitious Steerpike (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), whose destinies become desperately entangled.
True, the production doesn't unravel Mervyn Peake's riddles or suggest any solutions to the nagging question of what it all means. It does, however, show the price of a communal insanity that could easily be seen 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 is chairman of the Mervyn Peake Society. His BBC Radio dramatisation of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, which won a Sony Award, is available on audiotape from the BBC Radio Collection