As an author, Mervyn Peake published little during his lifetime a childrens book, four books of poems and one other fantasy novel Mr Pye (1953), but will always be known for the Gormenghast trilogy. The Gormenghast trilogy consists of Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959), the latter published uncompleted after Peake developed Parkinsons Disease. It is said that Peake drew his inspiration for the world of Gormenghast from the journeys of his early youth through the remnants of imperial China with his father, a doctor. The image of the castle that permeates the books was taken from the vast sprawling Arundel Castle in West Sussex that dominated the skyline where Peake lived in the village of Burpham during the writing of most of the Gormenghast books.
This was a BBC tv adaptation of the Gormenghast books. The mini-series only adapts the first two books, leaving out the fragmentary Titus Alone, wherein Titus finally leaves the castle and travels to a strange futuristic city that resembles the present world. The mini-series was made at four-hour length and is screened variously in four one-hour or two two-hour parts.
I loved the Gormenghast books in fact, I may even be so heretical as to say that I think Mervyn Peake is a better writer in terms of place and character than J.R.R. Tolkien. Peake was a master of texture who would describe something to hyper-exaggerated extremes I remember where Peake devoted one entire chapter to the single image of a baptismal party as reflected in a dewdrop. Alas, the Gormenghast mini-series kills the books off. Director Andy Wilson has no appreciation of Mervyn Peakes texture and treats everything with a cartoonish giddiness. There is no sense in the mini-series of anything like what the books conveyed of the weight of the castle that surrounded every character, with everything covered in dust and the ritual having gone on to the point that it has reduced the lives of everyone living there to meaninglessness. Rather, the mini-series is Mervyn Peakes world played out in a colourfully silly and absurdly over-ornamented landscape akin to The Wizard of Oz (1939) or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).
Andy Wilson seems to have encouraged his cast to go as over-the-top as much as possible and most of them overact horrendously. Jonathan Rhys Meyers villainy comes with a theatrically overwrought absurdity (although once Rhys Meyers gets his mask, the villainy of Steerpike starts to become something physical). Some of the scenes with Jonathan Rhys Meyers posturing, doing silly faces and producing eggs out of his mouth for Neve McIntoshs Fuchsia or mocking Christopher Lees Flay are incredibly silly. Among the rest of the exaggerated caricatures that pass for performances, in particular Warren Mitchell, usually a fine performer in British comedies like Till Death Do Us Part (1965-75), plays with an abrasively shrill falsetto and quaver that irritates in a major way whenever he is on screen. Cameron Powrie, the actor playing the young Titus, is wooden in his perpetually cross intensity.
The castle is depicted with some not very special digital effects people lounge against obviously inserted blue screen backgrounds. Occasionally Andy Wilson creates some imaginative visions Ladies Clarice and Cora holding a tea party along the trunk of a giant tree that is growing out of the wall of the castle at a 90-degree angle, or of Steerpike having fallen down a vast wall and caught onto the arm of a giant clock. Other scenes unfortunately descend into pure slapstick the fight to the death between Flay and Swelter is directed as a comic set-piece rather than a dramatic scene; the pure silliness of scenes like where Steerpike commands the twin sisters to sit down in the water in the lake; or where Spike Milligans decrepit headmaster is propelled out of a classroom window.
The only other of Mervyn Peakes works to be adapted to the screen was Mr Pye (1986), an enjoyably funny mini-series where Derek Jacobi alternately becomes angel-like and then devil-like. The Boy in Darkness (2000) was also a short film adaptation of Peakes short story pendant to the Gormenghast cycle.