The Art of Gormenghast: The Making of a Television Fantasy -

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The Art of Gormenghast: The Making of a Television Fantasy

By Andrew Osmond     January 25, 2000

With a series as sumptuous as the BBC Gormenghast, one would be forgiven for expecting this tie-in to be no more than a stills collection, a showcase for the production's considerable assets. In fact, it's a good deal more than that. Both text and visuals have been given equal thought, and the result should appeal to fans of both the series and the books.

In 160 large pages, the book covers the making of the series from the perspectives of the producer (who's also the author, Estelle Daniel), the director, the designer, and the principal actors, whose articulate comments punctuate the volume. There are separate chapters covering costumes, music and Daniel's enjoyable production diaries. Two more chapters focus on Gormenghast's creator Mervyn Peake, discussing his background and the circumstances in which the books were written. An afterword is provided by Peake's son Sebastian.

The quality is high throughout. Of course, the expected program stills are there, and very good they are too, but they're accompanied by page-sized storyboards, design sketches and behind-the-scenes pics. Even more intriguing are a number of photos from the Peakes' family album and examples of the author's own Gormenghast sketches. Then there are tantalizing curios such as letters from Peake's friend Graham Greene and Narnia creator CS Lewis; glimpses of Peake's unfinished play and opera inspired by Gormenghast; and a sample from the novel manuscript.

The text succeeds in increasing one's respect for the BBC production, and encouraging a second viewing to catch all the details. The account of the magpie influences for the sets and costumes--from Buddhist monasteries to Max Ernst pictures--is lucid and fascinating. The section on visual effects describes how the methods ranged from FORREST GUMP-style computer-Xeroxed crowds, to a model city shot in a fish-tank with cotton wool for clouds. Several sequences are explained in blow-by-blow detail, revealing (for example) how to safely push venerable comedian Spike Milligan out of a 200-foot-high window.

Gripes? The section on Peake begins with an account of how he created GORMENGHAST in the war-years, then skips back to his childhood in China. The reasoning is clear with hindsight, but it's disconcerting. Given the laudable emphasis on Peake, I would have liked a little more on those elements of the books that didn't make it onto screen, and perhaps more discussion of TITUS ALONE, Peake's unfilmed third book, which continues strands of the Gormenghast saga. On a more wry note, I chuckled at the opening chapter, wherein Daniel recalls how she found Peake's books in--horrors!--the fantasy-&-science-fiction section of a store and surreptitiously moved them to the 'proper literature' part. Of course, SF fans are famed for doing precisely the opposite with their favorite works, and I'd love to see the reaction if the two sides ever meet.

Overall, a fine, rewarding book. Ideally it should be read in conjunction with a video of the series, but then most people who buy this will probably have a recording already. Recommended.


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