When I heard that the BBC intended to bring Gormenghast to the little screen I was pretty amazed. It's an over-looked series of books, even by fans of the science fiction and fantasy genres. It has a rather labyrinthine plot, lots of characters, and a main character who's hardly heroic and certainly not very nice. Not really the normal BBC adaptation of a classic work, but certainly something to look forward to.
This 2-disc DVD contains all four of the episodes of Gormenghast along with some perfunctory special features we'll look at later on. But first, the plot.
Gormenghast tells the tale of a vast gothic/fantasy city, Gormenghast, which it is said it would take five hours to cross. The ruling family of the city, the Groans, have reigned for centuries and there is a sense that nothing ever changes. The scale is so large that many of the servants born and brought up in the gutters of Gormenghast have never even seen a Groan, yet they know that the Groans are the lifeblood of Gormenghast and it is their sworn duty to do everything in their power to serve and please the family. Daily life in Gormenghast is made up of ritual upon ritual, and it is a very claustrophobic place to spend your life. The story begins with the birth of the 77th Lord Groan, Titus, which coincides with the escape of one of the kitchenboys, Steerpike. The two, in vastly different ways, question the old order, building up to a climax that will change Gormenghast forever.
Of course, the first half of the story mainly concerns Steerpike, as Titus is still a baby at this stage, and we see how Steerpike uses charm and sheer cunning to seduce, subvert and use every opportunity to inveigle his way to the top of the class structure of Gormenghast. This mirrors the first of the novels written by Mervyn Peake (Titus Groan). We are introduced to the myriad of strange-named characters, such as Barquentine, Dr Prunesquallor, Flay, Nanny Slagg, Swelter and the family Groan itself (Gertrude, Titus, Lord Groan, Cora, Clarice and Fuchsia). We learn of the hatred that exists between Flay and Swelter, of Dr Prunesquallor's man-seeking sister and of the tensions that exist within the Groan family. Cora and Clarice, sisters to Lord Groan, think that his wife, Gertrude has usurped power from them. Gertrude is more interested in her cats and Master Chalk (an albino raven). Lord Groan is a man of learning, who loves his library and has to cope with all the rituals incumbent of the head of the family. And Fuchsia, the only daughter of the House of Groan, lives in a perpetual childlike state, knowing that a son is everything to such a family, and a daughter fairly inconsequential. Steerpike observes this as we do, and we are drawn into his ability to use every nuance and every opportunity to find favour with Fuchsia, to get a job with the doctor that allows him access to poisons, and eventually to replace Barquentine as Master of Ritual. It's a heady mix of Machiavellian politics, for sure!
The second half of the series and the second of the books (Gormenghast) documents Titus's early life, but by now we see him grown to childhood, able to bunk off lessons and seek out the 'wild girl', thus leaving the confines of Gormenghast. The focus switches and Steerpike becomes less charming and more authoritarian, as he works to subvert the system from within, desperately climbing until he reaches the highest point a non-Groan may attain, arousing a few suspicions from within as he does so. Titus, on the other hand, doesn't understand the old order and doesn't care for it. He is much more likely to run from his responsibility, which makes him just as much of a rebel as Steerpike. The story eventually builds into a final showdown, where Steerpike's fate and Titus' destiny are finally decided.
There are many deaths throughout the story, some more ridiculous that others, but the story maintains a sense of fantasy and humour through its dark meanderings. It is something of an achievement that the BBC managed to bring this series to light, and to keep so well to the look and feel of the books. Of course, it's a great shame that they didn't finish the story by filming the content of the third and final book (Titus Alone), especially as they keep all the hints in the series about the things that Peake writes about in the final chapter. From the moment Titus' wet nurse starts to tell him of her unborn child and how it will be a sister to him, I mourned the loss of the final instalment - but then, I know what happens. I'd guess that a fairly natural reaction to watching the series is a need to read the third book, if not all of them.
The writing is strong, you do get a sense of the books and the story is told as well as it can be in 4 hours, and with a multitude of characters, lots of backstabbing and manipulation. The acting is superlative, with a cast including Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Celia Imrie, Ian Richardson, Warren Mitchell, Christopher Lee and Fiona Shaw, all perfectly suited (in my opinion) to their roles. Neve McIntosh as Fuchsia was the only character that I was unsure about; I found her acting solid, yet she didn't live up to how I saw the character. If you haven't read the books, this is quite irrelevant though.
The DVD is presented in a 16:9 anamorphic transfer with Dolby Digital stereo sound. In fact, a Dolby Digital trailer plays after you load the disc, slightly unnecessary perhaps, even though it signals the fact that the sound quality on the discs is sterling. Music is well-balanced behind speech, and the clarity of the sound is especially notable during the opening credits of each episode, heralded, as they are, with a lone operatic voice. Video quality equals that of the sound, with good balance of colours. This is very important to Gormenghast, as the set is moody and sometimes hidden in shadows, contrasted with sudden shots of light and colour, and all are shown crisply on these DVDs.
The special features, however, are a bit lame. They include a 'Making Of' feature, 30 minutes long, which includes soundbites from the cast (including Stephen Fry and John Sessions who show themselves to be something of experts on the books) explaining their characters and something about Mervyn Peake and the story as a whole. However, there's very little information about how they made the show, just a quick comment about filming models underwater, and some details on costume and make-up. Much of the time seems to be spent trying to justify the books, moving them away from being fantasy/sci-fi (which they are) and arguing that instead Mervyn Peake was writing a social commentary on the British class system (which he was, but in the context of fantasy!).
Other features are fairly static costume designs, listings of which characters die and how (quite fun, but only really worth a once over). The menu navigation (designed around a row of books) is quite pretty, but not entirely intuitive. So, all in all, the actual feature is of good quality, well-acted and beautifully brought to screen, but the features are fairly nondescript, though certainly better than nothing.