Thursday, April 10, 2014

Neglected Gem #52: BBC's Gormenghast (2000)

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in BBC's Gormenghast

2001 was a good year for epic film adaptations of classic fantasy literature. It was the year that the first installment in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy premiered, but it was also the year that the BBC series Gormenghast first aired in the U.S. (It had played in the U.K. the year before.) Directed by Andy Wilson and adapted by Malcom McKay, Gormenghast is based on novelist Mervyn Peake’s trilogy a “fantasy of manners" set in an isolated earldom called Gormeghast. (Peake envisioned a longer series of books but died before he could get past the third, Titus Alone. The TV version sticks to the events of the first two, the 1946 Titus Groan and the 1950 Gormenghast, which was very sensible.)

The story begins with the birth of the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan, Titus. (Ian Richardson plays his father, a melancholy bibliophile whose spirits and sanity do not survive the destruction of his library.) All the inhabitants of Castle Gormenghast seem to be mad, yet most of them have style, and Gormenghast is an entertainment for those able to set aside 21st-century attitudes towards democracy and royalty, or at least bend them a little, for the sake of a wallow in pure style. Although the cast is packed with comic monsters, the villain is the lowly born boy who would tear it all down and incite revolution: Steerpike, “a diabolically clever little monster” played by that specialist in louche dandies, Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Christopher Lee in Gormenghast
Steerpike is introduced as a worker in the kitchen, which the red-faced, porcine head chef Swelter (Richard Griffiths) operates as his personal fiefdom. When the Earl’s manservant Flay (Christopher Lee) sees Swelter abusing the kitchen boy, the appalled Flay struggles to think up an insult, and appears to settle on “Chef of… kitchen!” Then he goes back to the well and spits out, “Chef of scum!” Flay, who talks like the Incredible Hulk in order to give his utterances blunter force, rescues Steerpike, but soon realizes his mistake and consigns the rabble-rouser to a handy cell. This, it turns out, is his second mistake: It’s easier for the kitchen boy to escape from imprisonment, and launch himself upwards, than it was for him to get a moment of peace to scheme and plot when he was a worker, with responsibilities and eyes on him.

With set design by Christopher Hobbs and costumes by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, Gormenghast looks like the kind of labor of love that only happens when talented people know they are not going to get the chance to do anything quite like this again. The look of the show is consistent with the sound of the polished, high-camp dialogue; the characters look utterly insane, but not in the way that, say, the unfortunate wearers of the “futuristic” fashions in the Hunger Games movies do; surreal as the ladies’ hats are, you can’t be sure you didn’t see something less practical and more fanciful during the TV coverage of the last royal wedding.

Gormeghast is also an actors’ triumph; the performers, too, must have known they wouldn’t get many opportunities to inhabit a world like this or speak this kind of dialogue, and it’s the rude, Dickensian life that actors like Griffith and Celia Imrie (as Titus’ perpetually uncharmed mother) bring to their roles that keeps the series from ever threatening to become an exercise in production design. Fiona Shaw, her face perpetually set in mid-tic, is the neurotic Irma Prunesquallor, who Steerpike melts by declaiming his “overwhelming and instinctive desire to serve you.” As the resentful twins Clarice and Cora, Zora Wanamaker and Lynsey Baxter do a doubles act that could have gotten them thrown out of the Addams Family for creeping out Gomez and Morticia. But the show, like the Lord of the Rings films and also the second of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, often feels like a covert tribute to the towering, bright-eyed Christopher Lee. As the proud, loyal manservant and the whole dynasty’s most fervent supporter, he’s both a superb, stylish comedian and a force of nature like a volcano, or a hurricane. He was 77 at the time Gormenghast was made, and he’s 91 now. It’s exciting to think about what he might still do, given the chance.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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