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Screaming Womb - Gormenghast

Another column, another new title. This one is a pun on "Screening Room", reflecting my unusual choice to watch most of my television inside a womb, while I scream incessantly at the top of my voice. I find it helps to relax me. Today in Screaming Womb, I'll be kidnapping the BBC's 2000 mini-series Gormenghast based on the novels (Titus Groan and Gormenghast - the last entry in the trilogy was wisely excluded) by Mervyn Peake, before making hot steamy criticism with it and leaving it out in the woods.

The first two episodes, covering Titus Groan, show flashes of promise but overall give the impression that this expensive production isn't borne out of a great love for the property (which doesn't have as rabid a fanbase as certain other fantasy sagas) but out of a suspicion that it can be tweaked into something with mass appeal. Mass appeal for something like this was defined rather differently in the days before The Lord Of The Rings or Harry Potter shagged the shit out of all the box offices, and it's more the tea-time family drama of the creaky old Narnia series that this adaptation aims for. Which is visibly a bad fit for the source material, even if you're not familiar with it. Tonally, the programme is allover the fucking shop.

Though it is a fantastical novel, Titus Groan (published in 1946) bears very few hallmarks of the genre - all the characters are human and there's no magical powers or spells or things like that. In many ways it's little more than a comedy of manners, albeit one played out against a richly imagined society and it's stagnant traditions. It's also a dark and complex novel, full of surreal and gothic imagery. Though it does have a protagonist of sorts in Steerpike, the machiavellian kitchen-boy scheming his way up the social ladder, it spends an unusual amount of time amongst the supporting cast, and exploring the odd kingdom. Which is great, because they're all really interesting, in the book.

Using the flimsy excuse that Peake's drawings of Gormenghast show an influence of his time in Tibet or China or whatever, they've made the castle city far more colourful and pastel-shaded than anyone reading the book would ever imagine. It's really, really annoying, and clearly a ploy to make the whole thing look more like a fairytale romp (it doesn't help that whenever the city is shown in the background of shots, it's the worst green screen effect fucking ever ever ever ever). Also, there's very little sense of the internal geography of Gormenghast - a castle the size of central London, which ought to be as much a character as any of its inhabitants. Some of the sets are wonderful, but they all feel far too much like sets, and glimpses of the entirety of Gormenghast just make it look, well, crap. It's a stylistic shambles. Certain scenes which ought to be amongst the most pivotal and dramatic just sort of thrown away, like the final confrontation between Swelter and Flay. I've never, ever, ever, seen worse choreography in a fight scene. It's impossible to watch Gormenghast without having LOTR and Harry Potter in the back of your mind - if only they'd waited a few years and seen how it's possible to do these things PROPERLY, this could have been much better than any of them.

Much of the supporting characters are robbed of their depth, with Swelter the chef particularly suffering. In the book he's a case study in vile cunning, and in the television series he's just a fat horrible bumbling thug. Similarly, Dr. Prunesquallor has gone from a massively intelligent, graceful man with a distinctive laugh to a chirping tit. Such one-dimensional, broadly comic and yet entirely unfunny characters plague the series, and as such, the various feuds and arguments between them (which often don't serve the plot, but are simply enjoyable to read in the novel) are absolutely impossible to give a flying fuck about, and completely inconsequential. If they weren't to be adapted with any depth, one rather wishes they'd abandoned them completely and devoted more screentime to the things that DO work. I know you have to simplify things for TV, but not to the point where vital information about Steerpikes rise to power is sidelined in favour of crap slapstick from Dot Cotton and Alf Garnett. Every time we revisit Steerpike he's got a new job, a new swishy outfit, and the overall impression is that there's a really interesting story happening offscreen while we're busy listening to Alf Fucking Garnett shouting his head off.

Garnett (I can't be arsed IMDB'ing his real name) plays Barquentyne, who's funny because he shouts and swears and he's on crutches, or something. In the novel Barquentyne inherits his position (which is something to do with organising all the various traditional festivals and feasts and ceremonies of Gormenghast) at the age of 65, having been living in the wilderness previously - hence his somewhat gruff manner. Given the sheer amount of time he's onscreen shouting and being annoying, this little extra tidbit of information would have added at least some depth to the character. As it stands, he might have more lines than anyone else in the production, but he's just a completely annoying wanker. His ranting and raving is too toned-down to be amusing. He's just like a drunk on a train. There's any number of scenes that could have been cut to fit that little bit more background about him in, but no, you're just expected to laugh because it's Alf Garnett shouting not particularly rude things. STOP GETTING GORMENGHAST WRONG. It's supposed to be a tired, grim place, mired in outdated customs and ruled by madmen. It's not fucking Fun House.

So, what does work, then? Well, the production seems to come to life whenever it takes a darker turn. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers Steerpike is more of a theatrical pillock than he is in the book, but his ruthlessness, manipulation and cunning are all engagingly on show. Ian Richardson is absolutely wonderful as the incumbent Earl Of Gormenghast, drifting slowly into insanity. His loyal manservant Flay, played by Christopher Lee, appears to have stepped off the pages of the book right into your telly. Celia Imrie is similarly visually perfect, and her Lady Gertrude is enjoyably sourfaced and imperious although, again, a bit one-note. Lady Fuschia's relationship with her ailing Father is one of the more emotionally compelling aspects of the storyline, with a scene between her and the increasingly-insane Earl probably the highlight of episode two, just as it's one of the highlights of the book.

Episodes 3 & 4, covering the second book, are a vast improvement. As the characters are slowly dispatched in various exciting ways to meet their maker, the narrative focuses and darkens, and the new characters introduced are a vast improvement - Stephen Fry's endearing, dusty Headmaster for one. As Steerpike makes the transition from anti-hero to genuine psychopathic villain, climbing higher up the ranks of power, the rallying of Gormenghast to oust him provides the first opportunity to get a real handle on the drama, the stakes, and the risks involved. Titus Groan himself, last seen as a baby, being ordained as the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, has grown up into a restless, moody, handsome young rebel with loads of plums in his mouth, and a slightly perverse obsession with his "foster sister" - the daughter of his deceased wet nurse, who roams the forests looking like that man out of Life Of Brian who lives in the hole by the juniper bushes and doesn't have any clothes on. Changes to the book are by and large forgivable, though the relegation of Dr. Prunesqualor and his sister Irma (probably the most startlingly accurate incarnation of one of Peake's character sketches) to The Two Stooges is still a bit irksome. And The Hall Of Bright Carvings is basically The Dusty Room Of Some Wooden Oxfam Tat, but it's not a big deal really. Special mention ought to be made of the music, aswell - it's fantastic, and really elevates the drama when it swells. It's a good reflection of the mish-mash of influences (gothic, baroque, eastern-european) visible in the architecture and culture of Gormenghast. The last episode is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster all round, Lady Fuschia in particular is quite affecting in her capriciousness and naivety. She get's all the best lines too - "I don't want to see any more furniture! OR Monkeys!" is my favourite. And when she interrupts a lengthy, Shakespearean monologue from Steerpike to tell him "you are ugly."

Overall, if you can treat them as seperate entities, the adaptation of Gormenghast is far superior to that of Titus Groan, although there's perhaps an effect of the curious shambles of the latter to lower your expectations of the former. I certainly don't view it as a definitive adaptation, and with the exception of Christopher Lee, I don't see any of it's actors when I read the books and visualise the characters, but it's certainly a proud effort and could have been marvellous with a more focused idea of what it wanted to be.

3 Stars

About this entry


"it doesn't help that whenever the city is shown in the background of shots, it's the worst green screen effect fucking ever ever ever ever"

Gawd, yes. I remember being appalled at how bad the greenscreeing was. It was like being taken back to the BBC SFX of the 1980s at that point. Horrible.

I started watching this but I don't think I stuck with it and can't recall much about it other than Steerpike being manipulative and it being set in a castle. The other thing was all the people that kept popping-up in cameos. Doesn't Spike Milligan show-up as an old professor at one point?

It's odd that it's not been repeated on BBC3 or something since it would be nice to give people the opportunity to rediscover it. I seem to remember it wasn't very heavily promoted and got fairly disappointing BARB ratings. Perhaps Beeb management declared it a flop and have tried to forget about it.

By Zagrebo
March 27, 2007 @ 7:04 pm

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I remember reading somewhere that there was a dvd which didn't sell very well, or something. I had a book on "The Art Of Gormenghast", might still have it somewhere, there was some interesting stuff in that. Apparently the bad greenscreening was something to do with the weather effects in the model shots being accomplished by submerging them in water, which for some reason made the colour-matching very difficult. It's a shame because it really blights the model shots, they look like matte paintings and not in a cool way

By Michael Lacey
March 27, 2007 @ 8:24 pm

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Oh, and yes - Spike Milligan plays the headmaster of the school where Stephen Fry, Phil Cornwell, Martin Clunes, Pauline off The League Of Gentleman and the gay one off Gimme Gimme Gimme work. He only has about two lines, but he's sort of funny

By Michael Lacey
March 27, 2007 @ 8:30 pm

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I knew it was speedily released to video/DVD after its broadcast. There was much bitching on "League of Gentlemen" forums at the time about series two of LOG not getting the same "speedy release" treatment.

"Apparently the bad greenscreening was something to do with the weather effects in the model shots being accomplished by submerging them in water, which for some reason made the colour-matching very difficult"

Ha! The BBC's SFX department's vaulting-ambition o'er-reaching itself, there. At least there's a reason for the greenscreening looking rubbish but it really did jar considering the rest of the production looked pretty lush.

I would like to see this again and I wish BBC3 would repeat it instead of endless repeats of shows from the last couple of years that we've all seen dozens of times (I'm finding it weird that it's been less than a year since series two of "Doctor Who" ended because BBC3 has meant I've managed to catch most episodes of it about three times and it feels so old and familiar). The Beeb really needs its own version of ITV4 - one that plays loads of old shows. Perhaps they could use some of that funding they get in a unique way to set one up instead of paying Jonathan Ross a squillion pounds and building new buildings for themselves all the time.

By Zagrebo
March 28, 2007 @ 11:25 am

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> Garnett (I can't be arsed IMDB'ing his real name)

Warren Mitchell.

> Pauline off The League Of Gentleman and the gay one off Gimme Gimme Gimme

Steve Pemberton and James Dreyfus.

> The Beeb really needs its own version of ITV4 - one that plays loads of old shows.

UKTV Gold.

By performingmonkey
March 28, 2007 @ 5:12 pm

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"UKTV Gold."

That's not on Freeview, though. By BBC I meant, y'know, free-to-air (apart from the License Fee, obv).

By Zagrebo
March 29, 2007 @ 12:20 pm

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And UKTV Gold of course no longer shows much in the way of old shows anyway. Or even UK shows (presumably one of the reasons it isn't called UK Gold any more). It was nice while it did, though - those happy evenings of The Goodies, old Top of the Pops in full, A Very Peculiar Practice, Doctor Who, and so on. And Paramount used to show some good stuff in those days, too. Ah, the days when having more than 4 channels offered me more variety in entertainment rather than just the chance to watch the same stuff over and over again.

By Antony Sidwell
March 29, 2007 @ 7:26 pm

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