When I was in my early teens my father gave me a book called The Gormenghast Trilogy. Having read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings many years before, I delved into this novel with gusto and felt it had not deserved its rightful place alongside Tolkien's epic work. Although the two books differ greatly, Peake's organic absurdism has created a antediluvian civilisation built on a premise of stone caked with variegated rituals and ceremonies, the meanings of long forgotten but practiced to the letter.
When television producers actually care about what you will be seeing and what you may want to see over and over again is Gormenghast. Such is the production values employed with the television adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novel. The series is based on the first and second book of the trilogy. An incredible cast supports Peake's magnificent imagination, actors such as Ian Richardson, Christopher Lee, Celia Imrie, Richard Griffiths, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Martin Clunes, Eric Sykes, Stephen Fry, Zoë Wanamaker, Warren Mitchell, John Sessions, Fiona Shaw, Sean Hughes, June Brown, and Spike Milligan.
Although the crew come from quite "ordinary" television backgrounds, what they have produced here is in-line with the BBC at the top of its form. It still comes across as T.V. of course, and I stand my ground to this day when I say that if ever it were to be made into a film then Terry Gilliam must be the one to direct it, and it would need similar high quality of cast as the television series although poor old Spike has had his day and that was his last role, strangely enough playing a character called De'Ath.
The reason I say this (That Gilliam would be perfect) is that Mervyn was edging ever closer to the Steampunk genre, especially in the final book Titus Alone, however in Gormenghast aside from the manifestations directly from Mervyn's imagination, a soup of emperical cultural symbolism, from China to Germany are apparent. Mervyn Peake was actually born in China (Jiangxi Province 1911) and much of what he must have known growing up there has been etched in his mind enough to filter out into his work.
The sets are beautifully constructed and as much effort has gone into choreographing the scenes to behave like scenes in feature films with much larger budgets. Although the younger actors especially Neve McIntosh and Jonathan Rhys Meyers tend to make their performances a bit "theatre" like, it is forgivable if you know what the characters are drawn out to be in Mervyn's novel. The character of Steerpike is the ultimate anti-martinet who through rebellion gains ambitions that only a despot can devise.
There is no "good" and "evil" in Gormenghast, each character has their own endearing or despicable traits. I don't see the story as a basic over-throwing of traditions, I see it as a compass for navigating our way around and through the processes of formality and admiring the strength of values and standards that have long since lost the shine of ancient triumph. Where meaning becomes saturated with autocratic diplomacy, and that humanity will always have its cracks no matter how solid we try and make our stones.
I forgot to mention that my reason for this post is having just picked up the series on BBC DVD after years of searching for it. They must have re-released it because the original release I saw had a different cover design. You can order it from Amazon at the Mervyn Peake website along with many of his books.