I don’t know if it carries on today but, back in the Eighties there was a vicious battle in certain quarters over the respective merits of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy. Actually, to characterise it thus is misleading: the main proponents, writers Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison, didn’t regard Lord of the Rings as having any merits at all. Ellison, more than once, described it as ‘imbecile shit’.
I’m not going to get into the argument save to say that it did harm to Peake’s work by setting it up in opposition to the vastly more popular Tolkien book by presenting the praise for the breadth and depth of Peake’s imagination in terms that positively reeked of elitism and literary snobbishness. If Peake was worthy of the praise being heaped on him it did him a disservice by framing him with the negative quality of being not-Tolkien.
Gormenghast, to give it the overall title applied to the books, consists of three books, Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone. It was originally intended to be a series of seven books but Peake’s failing mental health and eventual dementia cut things short: his widow Maeve ‘completed’ a fourth novel, Titus Awakes, which is little known. It appears to have been derived from notes and a few very early drafts and has not been accepted as part of the larger work. I had seen the three books many times in my slow trawls through the shelves of Didsbury Library, their spines being very distinctive, but when I borrowed the first book to try it, I was utterly defeated. The language, its density, the absence of any immediate, clear story baffled me, and I lasted no more than about twenty-five pages.
Whether this was before, or after, I was introduced to Moorcock and Ellison’s opinions, I can’t now recall. Either way, I gave the books no more thought until it was announced that the BBC had produced an adaptation of the first two books, under the title Gormenghast, in four parts, broadcast in January and February 2000. Though it was obviously a much-condensed adaptation, it was a high-powered matter, five years in preparation, with a seriously heavyweight cast. I watched it with fascination and went on to borrow, read and complete the two books on which it was based (though not Titus Alone, not to this day).
And then I promptly forgot the whole thing until last summer when, on one of my visits to the far flung branches of CEX within reach of the Manchester Metrolink system, I discovered and bought the DVD of the series, which I’ve today begun to watch.
I tried to approach it as if it were brand new and I was watching it for the first time. This wasn’t hard to do as in the intervening twenty-three years I’d forgotten practically everything I had ever known about series or books. The first thing that impressed me was how thoroughly and convincingly the BBC had created a complete otherworld, in set-design, special effects, costuming and production, an entirely separate but extant world to which the cast, down to the smallest bit-parts, shaped themselves perfectly. Like the sets and scenery, they were theatrical, unnatural, artificial and not afraid to be ridiculous in mundane terms, but established from the outset a completely coherent and convincing environment.
And what a cast, including, in no particular order, Ian Richardson, Christopher Lee, Celia Imrie, June Brown, Richard Griffiths, John Sessions, Warren Mitchell and Zoe Wanamaker, in the company of whom younger and unknown actirs such as Neve McIntosh and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as the central figure of Steerpike, did more than just hold their own. In a way, it was reminiscent of Alan Rickman in The Barchester Chronicles, save that neither actor has gone on to the kind of career he did (McIntosh’s name, though not her face, should be familiar from the recurring role she had in Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who).
The opening episode was split roughly two-thirds to one-third between world-building and story, so much so that, by about the half hour point I was telling myself that it looked good, and was indeed rich, but what was it for? The story, when it made itself apparent, was almost insultingly simple. But let us first establish, at not quite so great a length, where we are.
Gormenghast is a realm, an isolated city-state consisting of an immense, many-towered, crumbling and decaying castle. It is the seat of the Groan family, of whom Sepulchrave (Richardson) is the 76th Earl, bound by ritual that dictates his actions every day of every year eternally. He is a still, impassive man, a ruler both absolute and impotent, emotionless. To him, as things start, is born a son, a male heir, the eponymous Titus, by his wife Gertrude (Imrie). His family consists of teenage daughter Lady Fuschia (McIntosh), and twin sisters Lady Clarice (Wanamaker) and Lady Cora (Lynsey Baxter). Fuschia’s mood swings faster than a weather-vane in a cyclone whilst the ladies are vain, ineffecual and stupid, believing that the obese and unconcerned Gertrude has usurped their position and the power, not to mention opulence, they should enjoy as of right.
Add to these servants such as the genial, preposterous and frankly OTT Dr Prunesquallor (Sessions), his plain but vain sister Irma (Fiona Shaw), the Earl’s manservant Flay (Lee), his Master of Rituals Barquentine (Mitchell), his cook (Griffiths) and the Nanny, Mrs Slagg (Brown), and we have a world of grotesques that cannot possibly exist but which we accept as entirely solid.
And then there’s Steerpike. Steerpike begins as a kitchen boy, under the fat, flatulent, tusked Swelter, who hates him. But Steerpike is a creature of ambition. At first it’s no more than to get out of the kitchen and away from Swelter, to where and what being unimportant. He follows Flay, Swelter’s bitter enemy, who despises him equally but allows him to see something of the Groans before imprisoning him for his effrontery. This is all a mistake. Steerpike escapes, walks the rooftops, ends up in Lady Fuschia’s attic, drawing her fascination by pretending to be a Romantic Adventurer. From there he becomes Dispensary Assistant to Prunesquallor, flatterer to Irma and arch-manipulator of Clarice and Cora, preying upon their combination of ambition, malice and stupidity to end the episode by having then set fire to the Library with all the Groan family save them within.
All this last bit within the last twenty minutes or so as the story becomes that of Steerpike’s ambition to take the rule and power of Gormenghast for himself, by foulest means. As I said, simple. Indeed, almost banal.
Given the mundane, indeed cliched basis of the plot there’s a case to be argued over Style versus Substance. I’m not going to get into that now, not with three more episodes to be viewed. What I do want to get into is the thought that struck me clearly in this first episode, about how archaic and retrograde the overweliming majority of fantasy is. Not an original thought, not by any means, but made pertinent by the imaginative structure Peake has built here. Gormenghast, as a world, is ancient and ritual-bound, by design, but that only focussed my attention on it being – like Tolkien, like Game of Thrones – so bloody retrograde. It’s always and only ever Kings and Queens and Earls of Groan, the complete medieval hierarchy of monarch and subjects. In a modern world, I suspect fantasy’s clinging to such things to be dodgy in the extreme.
It also casts a different light upon Steerpike’s ambitions. His aspiration towards ultimate rule is triggered by his exposure to how stultified and inflexible, no to mention feeble, the Groan’s realm is, and how easy it is to manipulate. Steerpike is the infusion of new blood this incestuous world requires to refresh itself. The villain is easily identifiable as the hero, the end to stagnation, even as he’s the usurper.
I shall watch this aspect of the story very carefully over the next three weeks.