Those abroad who have not seen the television adaptation of the first two books of Mervyn Peake’s trilogy should be aware that this review gives away important plot developments of the mini-series. So if you wish to see it without preconceptions, it might be wise to read no further!
I have long observed that we seem to be moving from a verbal into a visual age. This is noticeable particularly in the world of television advertising, where it is possible to watch thousands of pounds of visual ingenuity, perfect in its beauty, which is accompanied by a fatuous, unpoetic, ungrammatical commentary that might have been written by a ten-year-old. Or at least, a ten-year-old thirty years ago. Similarly it’s possible to buy a computer game which has had thousands of man-hours spent on programming the graphics, while its messages to the user are full of misspellings and dreadful grammatical errors.
So it is strange that now, that wonderful verbal utterance, Gormenghast, those books of hundreds of thousands of words by Mervyn Peake, every word of them polished and perfectly placed, have finally been adapted for television, half a century after they were finished and after such a long period of general neglect.
But as well as having an extraordinary verbal facility, Peake was an artist, and the books are amazingly visual. Of course, the television production was visually stunning. A real effort had been made not only to conform as closely as possible to Peake’s descriptions, but to make them as seductive to the eye as possible. The colours at the beginning were reds - ranging from deep scarlet to sepia. In the last episode they had become burnt umber, and dark greens, dark blues and greys predominated. Oddly, an opportunity was lost in the last episode for a striking visual finale, where Steerpike is trapped in a flooded room, only the window as exit, with the entire castle closing in, many people in pursuit in boats, each with a lantern, making the waters of the room gold, and where the castle walls become populated with heads. "She turned her head upwards, and the stone acres rose dripping into the night. But the great facade was anything but blank; for from every window there was a head thrust forth. And every head in the glow of the torchlight was of the colour of the walls from which it protruded, so that it seemed that the watchers were of stone, like gargoyles, each face directed to the brilliant barge-light that weltered on the waves outside the ‘cave’." But in general the visuals were not only sumptuous, but were designed to be as much like Peake’s description of them as possible. The consequence was that for people familiar with the books, there was not that jarring dissonance which comes when what is essentially a personal vision is translated to the screen. Certainly, there was not a lot of difference between what I saw and my own personal images.
Similarly, the cast were modelled as far as possible on Peake’s descriptions and on his own drawings, which littered the manuscripts of the books. Using human beings it was not possible to make the characters conform exactly to what Peake described, but in general they came as close as it was possible to be. Fiona Shaw's Irma Prunesquallor in particular, with her gyrating neck and her grimacing lips, both of which seemed to have a life of their own, was so close that she almost seemed perfectly to match Peake’s grotesque portrait.
Unfortunately other choices were not so good. Neve McIntosh made a valiant effort to portray Fuchsia, and was certainly responsible for some of the most emotional moments of the series, but one has to ask whether she was the right person physically for the part. Fuchsia is described as being ugly. Peake says that with a small twist she might have become beautiful, but, like Titus when he was born, she is supposed to be ugly in appearance. In the same way that Jane Eyre is always played by an elegant and beautiful actress, so Neve McIntosh was made ‘ugly’ by the addition of poorly-applied makeup and thick eyebrows. It didn’t work.
Another character that didn’t seem right was June Brown as Nannie Slagg. With the demise many years ago of that wonderful British actress who played little old ladies - I am told her name was Esmé Cannon - the perfect Nannie Slagg became unattainable. But June Brown was not in my view a good choice for the part. Nannie Slagg is snobbish and sometimes aggressive, but her heart is kind, and her snobbery and aggression are so ineffectual and so short-lasting that no one takes any notice of them In the book on several occasions Fuchsia pretends to be unaware that she has left her hand within range, and Nannie’s punishing hand slyly creeps up and ineffectually slaps it. And then, more often than not, Nannie bursts into tears and has to be comforted by Fuchsia. June Brown’s character was much more forceful, and spent much of the time complaining and attacking others. So that on the one occasion when she did burst into tears, when Keda left, a moment that should have been poignant, it was unconvincing. She spent a lot of time insulting Steerpike, presumably so that he might subsequently murder her. In the book she died of natural causes. Despite the way she made herself appear small, Nannie Slagg remained a slightly less self-righteous Dot Cotton.
Ian Richardson as Sepulchrave was excellent, expressing well both the melancholy, and the inner kindness that had been suppressed by the ritual of Gormenghast. Celia Imrie made a good Countess, although the production didn’t give us the impression of growing wakefulness and intelligence as the effects caused by Steerpike became more noticeable.
And Steerpike himself was rather more presentable than Peake’s character. The Welsh accent seemed slightly anomalous, but of course there was no reason why it should have done. It was Steerpike who was responsible for a couple of jarring moments, when he did a Hitler impersonation in the first part, and quoted Shakespeare in the last. The whole point of Gormenghast is that it is not of our world. By pulling it back here, you are diminishing Peake’s vision. Indeed, in the last book of the trilogy, Titus Alone, the world is at the same time more similar to our own, containing helicopters and factories, and even further away in its surreal conjunctions. It is its other-worldliness that makes the parallels so effective.
Steerpike's 'political' views seem to be given too much prominence in the adaptation. Of all the things it might be, the Gormenghast trilogy is most certainly not an allegory of any kind, political or otherwise. Again, by even hinting at this interpretation, you are reducing the power of Peake's imagination. Even in the last book, when Peake's experience of Belsen became more overtly expressed, there is nothing so crude as political or social allegory, and to suggest there is diminishes the books.
Swelter is one of the more grotesque characters in a gallery of grotesques. It was a touch of brilliance to give him a fang, because at the same time it makes his appearance less human, and also gives his words a slushy quality which go well with the character. It is a shame that when he tried to assassinate Flay we were deprived of the trail of cakes.
Flay himself seemed slightly awkward at the beginning of the series, perhaps because his verbal style looks better on paper than it sounds in the flesh. But as the series went on one warmed to the character, either because Christopher Lee became more used to the character, or we did.
I felt after seeing the first episode that it was unfortunate that Dr Prunesquallor had been made so camp. His homosexuality was made very evident, whereas in the books it was, as in real life, something that might have been inferred, but was never explicitly stated. We had the impression that when he accepted Steerpike as his assistant, he was swayed in his decision by lust for the youth's body rather than, as in the book, admiration of his intellect (which possibly concealed the more basic reason). His motives, in short, were made less subtle. Fuchsia called him Dr Pru, instead of Dr Prune, and one was worried that in a later episode he might be made to appear in drag parading up and down the Stone Corridors, but fortunately that didn’t happen. He also lost his laugh, but that was just as well, because in real life it would have been intensely irritating. He was played well, and remained, next to Fuchsia, probably the most sympathetic character in the series.
It was unfortunate that his terror in the presence of the countess was lost in the adaptation, because it was the opportunity for much humour, and made the way the two characters came together towards the end of the second book more striking. We also missed the wonderful ambivalence of his attitude to his sister, where he is either being totally embarrassed by her or desperately trying to protect her.
In the books Bellgrove has a face of great nobility, but an internal consistency of jelly. Unlike Stephen Fry’s version, his inner kindness does not become obvious to the reader until the game of marbles with Titus, when the young Earl is imprisoned - a very striking image from the books which, unfortunately, was not included.
Visually it was difficult to fault the series. It seemed to me that verbally there were many errors of judgement, and some serious lapses.
One of the worst things occurred in the first episode, when we saw Fuchsia’s adventure book, and, later, her writing on the wall of her room. In both cases her name was misspelled! This was unforgivable. Surely there was someone on set who could spell?
In many cases dialogue was added. Obviously this has to be the case in an adaptation. But was it necessary in the series to add so much? For example, when Steerpike visits the rotting corpses of the twins, in the book he feels the stirrings of madness, and willingly gives in to them, strutting, dancing and hooting round the bodies. This scene could have been chilling and effective without words, as it is in the book. Having Steerpike deliver such trite lines as "I’m mad, mad, mad," does no service to Peake.
Another bad moment came during Sepulchrave’s madness. He is found in his bedroom, perched on the mantel above the fire, believing that he is an owl. He calls Swelter, the cook. He asks him whether the traps in the kitchen are full. Swelter, not understanding, nervously says that they are. He asks whether ‘they have been given to the cats’. When Swelter says they have not, says to him: "Bring me a plump one." A line which fully expresses the horror of the moment. In the adaptation this became "Bring me a mouse." Peake’s horror reduced to the mundane.
The above change is really irritating, because there was no possible justification for it. Obviously when you compress two enormous books into four hours, the dialogue has to suffer, but there seems to me to be no justification for making changes just for the sake of it. Particularly when the writer you are dealing with has the verbal facility of Peake. In every case, when the dialogue lost its sparkle and became mundane it was because it had departed from Peake’s original.
At one point in the books after Fuchsia has become infatuated with Steerpike, she is suddenly brought up short by the contempt in his tones during a moment of crisis. At the end of the scene she starts to leave the room, but then turns back and says: "Steerpike, I think you’re going soft." The David Glass Ensemble performed a very successful theatrical adaptation of the books, and managed to squeeze the essence of them into two hours, perhaps because they made the adaptation very different. David Glass said that the only line of dialogue they had difficulty with was that one, so apparently uncharacteristic of Fuchsia.
I believe that what is happening there is that Fuchsia’s unconscious mind, that analytical and rational part of her that has up to now been buried beneath her romantic yearnings, finally finds its voice. It is at that point that Steerpike recognises the danger of having her as an enemy, and makes up his mind to seduce her.
It is a crucial line, but a difficult one, and the BBC version solved the difficulty by leaving it out altogether.
Fuchsia’s suicide was handled oddly, because in the books it was not a suicide at all. Instead of listening to that inner voice, she becomes captive of her romantic ideas, and finally, fantasising about her own death, without realising what she is doing, stands on the windowsill of her room, above the floodwaters. A knock at her door brings her back to consciousness, and she starts at finding herself balanced so precariously. She turns, to try to get back into her room, loses her footing, and falls, striking her head on the way down.
The adaptation has her jumping, and we lose the tragic irony of her death.
The music is effective throughout, and is not over-used. It is a happy conjunction of music and visuals which makes the opening so effective. The flying rook accompanied by the treble voice singing Richard Rodney Bennett’s setting of the professors’ song from the second book, accompanied halfway through by sweet harmonies from the strings, immediately gives the impression of something special and out of the ordinary. John Tavener’s choral music gives a sense of occasion throughout, and by the time we hear the Hindemithian brass music at the end the music has successfully heightened the emotion and sense of occasion. A nice touch was at the end of the final episode, where we heard different music, which segued into a string arrangement of the professors' song, giving us a feeling of closure.
Apart from some things which I felt could have been done better, all in all it was an adaptation which strove to be faithful to the books, and much of the time succeeded. It is a delightful and unexpected thing to find myself criticising points of detail rather than the overall conception. Certainly, back in the sixties, when no one had heard of Peake, and it seemed that the books were destined for an undeserved oblivion, it seemed impossible that anyone would ever wish to adapt them and remain true to the author’s conception. It is to the credit of the BBC that they were prepared to finance this project, and that they allowed the director a free hand, rather than making the series more mundane and perhaps more acceptable to the viewing public.
Now, perhaps, it is time to start thinking about Titus Alone, the third book of the trilogy.
© Langdon Jones, 2000