The spare beauty of the Shipping Forecast; the Today Programme, especially when things get tetchy; the vicarious joys of mud, pricey strawberries and roving cameras fingering those taking time off work at Glastonbury and Wimbledon; the vast commitment to drama on radio - these are just some of the reasons I’m happy to pay the licence fee when the reminder arrives.
Now add to that list a sublime classic serial from R4. The History of Titus Groan, unfolding with luxurious detail yet imbued with a hypnotic narrative pace like a Gothic road movie, had the unmistakable stamp of excellence from the outset.
Producer Jeremy Mortimer, who directs alongside David Hunter and Gemma Jenkins, has achieved a coup in including the just-published fourth Gormenghast novel, Titus Awakes, in the adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s three previous mid-20th century classics. That Peake only wrote a few hundred words of the final volume, which was then finished by his widow Maeve Gilmore after his death in 1968, has disappointed book reviewers who have generally declared it flat and lacking his virtuoso talents.
Brian Sibley’s six-hour radio adaptation has neatly circumvented potential problems by beginning the epic where the new book ends. Titus, born heir to the Earl of Groan at Gormenghast Castle and the only one of his family to break free of its clammy hold, rows to an island where he meets an artist, clearly sometime Sark resident Peake himself - as gifted a painter and illustrator as he was a writer. The story then segues into Titus’ birth, a scene of exquisite comedy balanced with solemnity, and we are firmly back in true Peake territory.
Peake is everywhere at the moment as the centenary of his birth is marked, but it is my contention that many of those who have his trilogy on their bookshelves have failed to read it. This production does it the best possible service, conjuring incomparable atmosphere, assisted by Roger Goula’s ceremonial yet playful score and parading a range of characters the like of which you find only in Dickens, while preserving many of Peake’s indelible descriptions. The servant Flay (Adrian Scarborough) was ‘a statue of chiselled wood’. The Earl’s twin sisters (Fenella Woolgar and Claudie Blakley twittering in hilarious unison) had rather blank visages: ‘preliminary layouts for faces’.
The cast is a heady delight. Paul Rhys, as the Earl, has a wonderful languour, while Miranda Richardson is regal, dismissive and fabulous, surrounded by her birds and white cats. James Fleet’s Dr Prunesquallor is scholarly but unconfident, a dribble of mirthless cackling following his pronouncements. He calls Steerpike (Carl Prekopp), the boy who escapes the hell of the kitchen, his ‘diabolically clever little monster’, making me wonder if Lady Gaga is a Gormenghast fan. This serial will swell Peake’s followers and I intend to return to it here and the many cast members I have not had space to mention...
Sunday 24 July 2011
Just read Moira Petty's review of The History of Titus Groan in last week's The Stage: