Friday 19 August 2011


With the repeat of 'Titus Alive', the final episode of my radio Classic Serial, The History of Titus Groan tomorrow, Saturday (BBC Radio 4 at 21:00) my most ambitious project for very many years will come to an end.

If you have missed any or all of this cycle of plays based on the books by Mervyn Peake and featuring a cast headed by David Warner, Luke Treadaway, Miranda Richardson, James Fleet and Carl Prekopp, you've still got a day in which to catch up on any or all of the six episodes on the BBC iPlayer.

It's been a week of mixed fortunes as two national radio critics passed judgment on the series. First was Gillian Reynolds in The Daily Telegraph.

Back in 2004, reviewing my serialisation of The Pilgrim's Progress, Ms Reynolds had written: "Sibley dramatised The Lord of the Rings, did excellent versions of C S Lewis's Narnia stories, got Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast better than BBC TV (and for two ounces of that other version's megaton budget), and all for Radio 4..."

Now, however, she wrote:
Titus Groan, the first Radio 4 Classic Serial in ages to be given six parts, ended on Sunday. I have listened to every episode, admiring the acting, Brian Sibley’s adaptation of a complex work, the pace of Jeremy Mortimer’s direction. I still couldn’t understand what was going on. At all. The minute I thought I had, off it would go again into another dimension of fear, temptation, betrayal, each so vivid it flooded the mind’s eye, all adding into a dream I didn’t want to enter. If anyone can offer me the key into this version, pray tell. Just don’t say “the book”. If the book is the key, what’s the point of a radio version?

Well, yes, I admit I was momentarily cast down, but then came along the wonderful Elisabeth Mahoney in The Guardian and gave me one of the most fantastic reviews I have ever received:
In 1985, Brian Sibley adapted Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan and Gormenghast for Radio 4. I had only recently discovered both Peake and Radio 4, but I wasn't sure I wanted them to meet. Peake's extraordinary writing it felt to me then, was all about a solitary, personal flight of imagination where the reader makes the pictures to match the soaring, peculiar prose. Someone else's version would surely feel like an intrusion.

In fact, it was brilliant, so much so that I quite got the jitters on hearing that Sibley was tackling Peake again. Instead of worrying about my images while reading Peake being replaced by radio ones, I was concerned about the two radio ones competing. And it was a hugely ambitious project: Peake's three novels plus the concluding volume by Peake's wife, Maeve Gilmore, rediscovered last year, made into six hours of Classic Serial.

The terrific new adaptation ended at the weekend (but the whole series can be heard online until Saturday), and shows just what radio drama can do in the right hands. It captured every brilliant thing about Peake: the glorious writing; the strangeness; the collision of voices and realities; the satire of now – whenever now is as you read or listen – and the beautiful, vivid conjuring of fragments of the past.

And actually, it added to the brilliance, which in Peake's case takes some doing. Roger Goula's music and Peter Ringrose's sound production are outstanding, as memorable and transporting as the exquisite words. Luke Treadaway, as Titus, has the exact voice Titus always had as I read, while David Warner as The Artist has just the right weary omnipotence yet glittering turn of phrase, drawing you into scenes; very movingly indeed in the last moments with Titus.

I listened to these alongside whatever each weekend presented (lashing rain, allotment duties, coastal walk) and they were a huge treat. With really good writing, and an exceptional adaptation such as this, it does rather occlude everything else.

I smiled and, in dark realm of Gormenghast – unlikely as it may seem – the sun came out, birds sang, little children laughed and flowers blossomed!

Time is also running out to catch the last in the current series of Quote... Unquote... in which Nigel Rees puts questions on quotations to Shealagh Fogarty, Ardel O'Hanlon, Martin Jarvis and Moi! There's two days left to listin in on BBC iPlayer.

Images: The Estate of Mervyn Peake


Boll Weavil said...

You can't please everyone it seems although you have won over someone who knows the book and that, as we well know, is always the hardest battle. I have never read it myself and what I know of it comes from your own previous adaptation. As previously stated though, I believe this will come to be regarded with the same acclamation as LOTR which is surely vindication for your efforts.As someone who is constantly looking for definitive radio versions of popular works, I can rejoice in having got another one.That reviewer is also right in their comment on the production and music. They too are fabulous.

Brian Sibley said...

One of my oldest (i.e. longest known) supporters whose judgment I trust and opinion I value: thank you!