Weird world

 

I think it may have been the name which first drew me towards the forbidding walls of Gormenghast Castle. A lumbering, guttural blend of gothic horror and Dickensian dankness, Gormenghast conjured up visions of grotesque creatures, echoing halls and sprawling shadows, and carried an intimation of something darker and deadlier beneath the stony surface. The vast, imaginary birthplace of Titus Groan exerted a huge gravitational pull on my teenage imagination, and I eagerly allowed myself to be led around the castle's crumbling corridors, following the misadventures of the evil Steerpike as he inveigled his way into power through murder and deception.

Mervyn Peake's gothic trilogy, published between 1946 and 1959, rivalled that of Lord Of The Rings for sheer scale and complexity, and became a cult among young readers in the 1960s. Now, more than 30 years after his death from illness, Peake's weird vision is about to be brought to the small screen, in a lavishly-produced fourpart series on BBC2 starting on Monday. "Peake freaks" will watch with interest and perhaps a little trepidation to see if the producers have done justice to this famously unfilmable epic, but fans of good, old-fashioned costume drama may just find their breath taken away by the elaborate sets, and find themselves fascinated by the eccentric characters who inhabit this dusty, self-contained world.

Gormenghast stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike, an ambitious kitchen boy who rises through the ritualistic social structure of Gormenghast, posing a threat to the young heir apparent, Titus Groan. On his climb towards the top of the pecking order, Steerpike must gain allies and destroy enemies, so much death and betrayal ensues. The castle is ruled by Lord Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Groan, played by Ian Richardson, and Gertrude, Countess of Groan, played by Celia Imrie. Christopher Lee is Lord Groan's faithful, monosyllabic servant, Flay, and Stephen Fry is Professor Bellgrove, Titus's teacher and mentor.

Other members of this motley human menagerie include the castle doctor, Prunesquallor (John Sessions), the castle chef, Swelter (Richard Griffiths), the master of ritual, Barquentine (Warren Mitchell), dotty aunts Clarice and Cora (Zoe Wanamaker and Lynsey Baxter), hormonal teen-heiress Fuchsia (Neve McIntosh), and Titus's nursemaid Nannie Slagg (June Brown).

It has taken director Andy Wilson and producer Estelle Daniel five years to bring Gormenghast to life, and it looks as if they might just crack the cinematic challenge posed by Peake's unwieldy maze of narrative. Others have tried before. Sting, a selfconfessed "Peake freak" who named one of his horses after Steerpike, bought the movie rights with the intention of producing and starring in the film version of the trilogy. The mooted project never got off the ground, but Sting did play Steerpike in an award-winning radio adaptation by the BBC. Artist and director Terry Gilliam took up the baton, but not even the Python could surmount the obstacles. Finally, the BBC secured the rights, along with the approval of the Peake family, and Wilson was landed with the daunting task of recreating the labyrinthine world of Gormenghast and enacting the trilogy's convoluted plot.

"Television is the perfect medium for it for two reasons," says Wilson. "Firstly, you couldn't possibly squeeze that entire story into a two-hour film, and secondly television is character-driven. Here is an extraordinary gallery of characters almost without parallel in English literature. It also feels right because Mervyn Peake and his family had always worried that if Hollywood got hold of it, it would not reflect the true values of the book. They always felt that the BBC, with its tradition in classic drama, could bring things to it that no-one else would."

CREATING the unique look of Gormenghast, which until now has existed only in readers' imaginations and only been hinted at in Peake's own illustrations for the books, was the odious task given to artist Christopher Hobbs. Peake had spent some of his childhood in China, so the designs reflected a mix of Oriental garishness and grey English gothic.

Hobbs created 120 sets for the saga, many of them built by moving vast abstract shapes into different positions. Flitting among these shadows and shapes, the characters wear costumes designed by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, each one a strange blend of classical Eastern and Western styles. The towering edifice of the BBC's production, however, will ultimately stand or fall on the performance of the actors who wear the costumes and stalk the grounds of Gormenghast. And word is that the cast is well up to the job. Christopher Lee, who has been in the business for more than 50 years, has praised the performance of his young Cork-born co-star, Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

"Jonathan is almost the most instinctive actor I've ever met. He has done things in scenes that I didn't expect - they weren't in the script - gestures and movements that are instinctive. I think he could have a remarkable career."

Lee is the only member of the cast who has actually met Mervyn Peake, and even he never believed that the author's words would ever make it to the screen. Now that it's in the can, however, the word is that Gormenghast will be a major TV event, and may even set new standards for television drama in the new millennium. I can't wait to get to a Peake.

Gormenghast starts on Monday at 9 p.m. on BBC2.