Gormenghast – tape 2493

Opening this tape, there’s a trailer for the drama Storm Damage.

Then, episode one of Gormenghast, a lavish adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s trilogy of novels about the eponymous castle.

It’s got a very starry cast. Christopher Lee as Flay

Richard Griffiths as Swelter

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike

Ian Richardson as Lord Groan

John Sessions as Dr Prunesquallor

June Brown as Nannie Slagg

Warren Mitchell as Barquentine

Celia Imrie as Lady Gertrude

Zoe Wanamaker and Lynsey Baxter as Clarice and Cora

Neve McIntosh as Fuschia

Windsor Davies as Rottcodd

The story concerns the sprawling castle of Gormenghast and its ancient, rule-bound family. It opens with the birth of Titus, son of Lord Groan (Ian Richardson). Steerpike is a young scoundrel working in the kitchen who longs for better, and who wheedles himself into the good graces of the royal family. He persuades the twins, Cora and Clarice, to set a fire in the castle library.

BBC Genome: BBC Two – 17th January 2000 – 21:00

Before the second episode there’s a trailer for revision guides on the BBC.

The second episode is prefaced by the swanky BBC Millennium branding.

Steerpike gains more influence by saving the Groans from the burning library. The loss of his library has turned Lord Groan mad. He now thinks he’s an owl. He lets himself be killed by birds, so Titus the new baby is given an ‘Earling’ and declared the new Earl of Gormenghast.

BBC Genome: BBC Two – 24th January 2000 – 21:00

The third episode sees Stephen Fry make his third appearance on this blog in as many days, as Professor Bellgrove, young Titus’ tutor.

The teachers’ lounge is fairly rammed with famous faces. Martin Clunes as Professor Flower

James Dreyfus as Fluke

Mark Williams and Phil Cornwell as Perch and Shred

Steve Pemberton as Mule

Spike Milligan plays Headmaster De’Ath and Gregor Fisher plays his manservant, The Fly.

A note is found by Prunesquallor and Barquentine, apparently by Cora and Clarice, implying they have drowned themselves, and were responsible for the fire, although Lady Gertrude doesn’t believe it, and is suspicious. But Steerpike is keeping the twins hidden away, telling them that the whole castle is being ravaged by a plague.

Young Titus, now a schoolboy, goes missing from his class on the day of a big ceremony, having gone exploring outside the castle. This rather ruins the ceremony for the Poet Laureate, played by Sean Hughes.

The number of people in this episode who were in Comic Relief yesterday is quite remarkable.

Titus is found by Flay, who has been banished from the castle. When he returns, he’s locked up as punishment.

Prunesquallor’s sister Irma, played by Fiona Shaw, prepares to receive some potential suitors, in the form of the teachers from the school.

The Prunesquallors’ manservant Mollocks is played by Eric Sykes.

Steerpike poisons Fuschia’s servant Nannie Slagg. But Fuschia still distrusts him. Titus brings Fuschia to see Flay, where she learns how her father died.

BBC Genome: BBC Two – 31st January 2000 – 21:00

Episode Four sees Titus as a seventeen year old.

Steerpike tries to kill Barquentine by setting him on fire, but Barquentine grabs him and they fall from the tower. But Steerpike survives, is seen as a hero trying to save Barquentine, and gets his old job of secretary.

But Flay, Prunesquallor and Titus follow Steerpike to the room where he imprisoned Cora and Clarice, so his treachery is revealed.

There’s a rainstorm, which unaccountably floods the castle. Fuschia kills herself, because that’s what woman do in stories like this. And Titus finally kills Steerpike, then goes off riding into the sunset to find something other than Gormenghast, and I can’t say I blame him.

BBC Genome: BBC Two – 7th February 2000 – 21:00

I read the first book in this trilogy, but I never finished the second. Nevertheless, I thought it was interesting enough that a TV adaptation would be good. But despite the massive amount of care, talent and money that’s been lavished on this, it’s dragged down by the dour story and the lack of a single character that we want to care about.

Also, for a series based on two fairly meaty novels (the series ends with the end of the second book) very little actually happens. From my memory of reading the books, this might reflect the original material, which was always about the texture of the environment, and not really about characters. Game of Thrones took ten episodes to present the first book (more or less) and never seemed to lack event or character. This feels like a short story stretched over four episodes.

The tape ends after the last episode, in the middle of a trailer for Top Gear.



  1. Gormenghast was a big deal at the time, a real prestige production, but nobody seems to remember it now. As you say, it’s probably because a lot of the novels’ appeal is in those exquisite descriptions which don’t translate to a TV show where you’re expecting something to happen every couple of minutes. A brave attempt, but just an interesting failure. Christopher Lee was superb casting, however.

    1. Lee was excellent, but all the casting was top notch. Even the young Rhys Meyers was perfect as Steerpike.

      After the last episode The continuity announcer described the show as a ‘landmark’ production while promoting the VHS version so they were clearly proud of it, Also, It seems odd that in 2000 The BBC were still pushing VHS tapes, and hadn’t yet moved to DVD primarily. But then, I was a very early adopter of DVD – my first ‘player’ was a Creative Labs DVD drive and add-on card for my first PC, which I bought before DVD was even officially released in Europe. I had to order my DVDs from US websites (this was pre-Amazon).

  2. I was at uni at the time, and remember eschewing my usual evening at the student bar to watch Gormenghast! But it is a failure, albeit a glorious one. Ultimately there is too much going on and too little focus on the more important strands in the novels. I remember picking up a VHS copy in somewhere like Woolies or Waterstones in Wrexham at a discount for five quid a few months after it was released, so clearly the home sales didn’t go well. There was also a ‘Making of Gormenghast’ book IIRC.

    I think public attitude towards the production at the time was summed up by a joke Jack Dee included in his standup routine for a while:

    ‘Last night, I got so pissed that I watched an episode of Gormenghast.’ (Pause for the laugh) ‘And understood it.’

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