Peake time viewing

Television - <em>Gormenghast</em> will challenge our conditioned taste for period drama

We are so used to the kind of classics television favours for adaptation that when one comes along that is not built on thwarted young love, period detail and drawing-room conversation, we are likely to feel a little lost. With Gormenghast (Mondays, 9pm, BBC2) you have to wait until episode three before you see a man ride a horse. But having seen that episode, and the next and final one, I now realise that the discomfort of its first outing was to the adaptors' credit, just as the cosy easiness of the end is to their credit, too. Mervyn Peake's "loony-tunes" novel sequence is reputedly one of the most untranslatable in the English language. The BBC makes sense of it.

Gormenghast, the castle kingdom where this adult fairy story is set, is less a nation state than a state of mind. It is ruled over by Lord Sepulchrave, who is both sepulchral and grave (perhaps because he was saddled with one himself, Peake used names that speak volumes). Below in the kitchens works the boy Steerpike, ruthlessly determined to attain power himself. In his way lie nothing worse than enfeebled aristocrats and their feuding retainers. Steerpike makes a steep hike to the top of the castle and shouts his plan from the rafters: "Murder!"

Everything about Gormenghast is bigger, wilder and more allusive than television is designed to contain. Just as Gormenghast is said to be infinite, so the sets seem to be endless - and Christopher Hobbs, the designer, eschews workaday Gothic cliche in almost all of them. The baby Titus is anointed heir to the dukedom in a river ceremony out of an alternative version of Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Emperor. In the cat sanctuary, teat-shaped goldfish bowls hang from the ceiling like chandeliers; from the castle walls, trees sprout at right angles. Yet under Andy Wilson's direction nothing is fudged or smudged. We see clearly, and what we see looks like the DVD of a very expensive Hollywood movie.

After the initial shock, we buy into this world for two reasons. First, because it is screamingly funny; second, because it turns out not to be as outlandish as it seems. This is not an epic; it is too intimate. And although Sepulchrave's daughter Fuchsia (played by Neve McIntosh looking like a character from a Millais painting) threatens early on "to have a dream, and it's going to be a long one", the story's logic is not oneiric. People's motives - their desire for power, riches or love - are worldly ones. Their obsessions would be recognised in the psychiatric hospitals that treated Peake himself before his death in 1968.

This is a fable of individual loves misdirected towards madness. Titus is born to a father who adores only his books. His mother, Gertrude, refuses to see him for six years but is inseparable from the white stonechat that perches on her shoulder. The fat chef, Swelter, is in love with his meat cleaver; Barquentine, the "Master of the Ritual", with his meaningless ceremonies. Dr Prunesquallor is infatuated by his vocabulary (which is perhaps why he lives in a facsimile of Dr Johnson's home). Only his sister, Irma, longs straightforwardly for a man, but is incapable of finding one.

Instead of loving their world, these characters vainly attempt to impose order upon it. Ritual is one ordering device, language another - the characters habitually rechristen whomever they are speaking to. But Sepulchrave's heavily compartmentalised library is the metaphor in full; when it burns down, his teetering sanity collapses with it.

Yet the instinct for order that drives the citizens of Gormenghast mad, saves Gormenghast's sanity. By its watery conclusion, one can flatter oneself that one has fathomed it. "Structurally, it is a sound child," the doctor says of Titus when he is born. Structurally, Malcolm McKay's adaptation is rock solid, too.

"Why is everybody so old?" Fuchsia asks at one point of her family. There is, as they say, no answer to that, but in consequence there is a consistency to the acting that could only come from a cast whose average age pushes 60. Ian Richardson gives a crumbling tower of a performance, but so do lesser lights, such as Warren Mitchell as the obscene, tramp-like Barquentine, and the logorrhoeic old Christopher Lee, who, in a casting director's joke, plays a monosyllabic manservant. John Sessions is superb as Dr Prunesquallor, on a perpetual verbal helium-high yet susceptible to momentary deflations by Gertrude (Celia Imrie as Princess Anne on steroids). With the novelty of youth on his side, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike is a worthy foil: beneath his beauty, he is uglier than any of the show's grotesques.

If I have a reservation it is that each instalment is so intense that it can be hard to absorb. Had it been scheduled in half-hour slots over a fortnight rather than in four 60-minute helpings, Gormenghast might have had even more impact. But if the timing of the rounds is wrong, the BBC has wrestled this supposedly intractable masterpiece to the ground in grand style. And I hate fantasy and adore period love stories that rely on drawing-room nuance.

Andrew Billen is staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of the brands