Part Two of my series discussing radio adaptations of Mervyn Peake.
This was a more difficult task than I had anticipated. I found that, in trying to juggle in my mind the multiple audio adaptations and the original source material, it was nearly impossible to clearly refer to the language and keep it in mind without a text in front of me. Something about the very medium makes that a challenge, particularly when discussing works of such length. I took as many notes as I could throughout the listening.
The two plays (Titus Groan and Gormenghast) form the 1984 BBC adaptation of Mervyn Peake's novels. But only the first two. Rock star Sting was a big fan of the novels, and as such secured the film rights but was unable to gather the funding to make a big screen adaptation happen. Instead, he managed a radio version, staring himself. Brian Sibley, already well-regarded for his work in adapting Tolkien's Lord of the Rings for the BBC, helmed the scripts.
The first thing I noticed was The Artist, played by Freddie Jones. I believe this is meant to be Peake himself in the role of narrator. The Artist weaves in and out of the plays, aggressively narrating, his voice found in only one side of the stereo sound. I really enjoyed that. Jones, unlike the ABC Narrator, takes a more intimate approach to his material, and the use of stereo position sits him next to the listener, instead of above the action. His close microphone proximity brings the audience in closer. The extensive narration would have become very annoying if the producer hadn't made such an effort to do that. He starts sentences that are finished by characters. His voice bobs in between conversations and actions. He imbues the plays with Peake's voice and language, which is so vital to the novels. It sometimes seems as if the characters are in dialog with him. Peake's prose is a character in its own way, so having him woven deeply into the fabric is a good way to dramatize this.
And of course Sibley has The Artist begin with the insistent declaration “This is Gormenghast,” asserting this strange reality from the first moment.
This production in general features greater use of proximity and sound than the ABC series, although I hesitate to be so certain about this because the recording I have of the ABC series is not very good. But it seems in keeping with what we know about BBC versus ABC radio drama. The BBC was cranking out a lot more than Australia was, and I'm sure had a larger budget and better access to the technical equipment and the specially designed studios, etc. There is more detail in the sound design of the BBC version, and the acting generally gets more subtle and close. Early on, we even get into Sepulchrave's head, an unusual choice for a character who is so remote from everyone, whose inner life is so opaque. Sibley's choice to begin with him is interesting, instead of with the birth of Titus or with Steerpike. Sibley sets up the status quo, and then shatters it with the arrival of Titus and Steerpike in short order.
We come into contact with the thoughts of Steerpike, played by Sting. He begins to fall short immediately. Remember, Steerpike decides to leave the kitchen for a very clear reason. He is being abused. Sting doesn't quite get the sharpness and urgency of Steerpike pestering Flay. And Flay, at the same time, lacks the guttural quality of speech that is found in Peake's dialog for him. Thus far, only the TV version with Christopher Lee has, I think, correctly rendered Flay's vocal nuances. It is a very unique voice, a dry, dusty croak, a mouth that has calcified from years of “yes, master”. Flay is a gothic, petrified Jeeves, not a costume drama butler. Even David Warner lacks that similar grotesque flavor, in his portrayal of Sepulchrave.
Nannie Slag's speech to the outer dwellers always gets me – these people who seem to derive nothing from the castle are so singularly in allegiance to it. I suppose it is the only thing that gives them an identity.
Sheila Hancock plays the dual roles of Corice and Clara. Again, the characterization doesn't quite go all the way. Hancock is a great actress but what makes the twins so uncomfortable is their obvious mental handicaps, the sortof creepy inbred childishness spiced with venom and resentment. Hancock plays them much straighter than she should. I also wonder at the convention of having one person play both characters. If you try to give them the same voice to indicate their twin-ness, the dialog would get too muddy and confusing. But if one person plays both characters, you can't get that real interaction which is so interesting. I think the TV movie, once again, solves the problem by casting two different actresses and having them synch their words at certain times. It conveys their shared mind and their twin-ness. Here, however, the effect is lost and nothing is gained.
I love some of the sounds I hear in this, but I long for sharper moments. Take Fuchsia's first encounter with Steerpike. Here the princess is supposed to be a fanciful child. Lonely and vulnerable, Steerpike uses his eloquence and hypnotic tongue to charm her into friendship. He recognizes quickly what he needs to do to manipulate her. Except, in the rendering, Sting exhibits little of this charm and eloquence, and Fuchsia likewise has little of the romantic babble that defines her character. Later, Steerpike employs the same tactic with Irma Prunesquallor, and again Sting fails to deliver a believable portrayal of persuasion. The narrator has to tell us that Steerpike is being insincere.
In fact, throughout the two plays, Sting really just doesn't have the range of voice or the subtle craftsmanship of an actor to deliver necessary story points. Notice how flat he is with the twins when convincing them to burn down the library. Notice his nonchalance at the very end, when, cornered like an animal, the Artist tells us that Steerpike loses his mind, and the cleverness and guile fades away into rage and savagery right as he is finally found and killed. The Artist has to tell us this, because we cannot hear it in Sting's voice.
There are other moments within these two plays that I do love. Maurice Denham as Barquentine is a joy. So is Bernard Hepton as Prunesquallor, although I think he held back more than he needed to. The Cat Throwing scene, with the rustling animal sounds, works well. So does the opening of the second play, as Titus rides through the castle on a little horse and the artist brings us along with him through the various halls and pocket domains. It is a scene that is more possible in the BBC adaptation than in the ABC version, with its extra level of fidelity and dynamic range. In Fuchsia’s final scene, we see her grown up and contemplating suicide. She has changed over the years, although she would have changed more if the character had been established more specifically in earlier scenes. And yet, despite this lack of dynamic, her death is touching – the quiet, melancholy monolog, teetering on the edge, the knock on the door from Titus, the accidental plunge into the flood waters. Heartbreaking and graceful. Water running in the background, the ancient castle flooding, purging itself.
These 1984 BBC adaptations (which exclude the third novel!) won Sony Awards, and yet they do lack something of the essence of the source material, not in the script or adaptation perhaps, but in the characterization and vocal performances. One of the most delightful aspects of Peake are his rich and fascinating grotesques. Each one of the characters, like Dickens before him, is comprised of exaggerated, extreme features that signify aspects of their essences. And although the cast comprises British luminaries, it fails to take those performances far enough, extreme enough, dangerous enough, to sufficiently render Peake's creations. It plays them straight. It doesn't take enough risks. And, in the center of it all, the “clever little monster” of Steerpike. Voiced by Sting, he seems neither clever nor a monster. In this casting, the plays ultimately fail.
The two plays seem complete within themselves at first glance. But remember we're talking about adaptations here – Peake's thematic arcs are not satisfied with the rendering of merely the first two stories. They require the third novel for fullness and contrast. It is unfortunate that the BBC didn't do this the first time around, but it is exciting that, just last year, they finally did.
Next up, then, is Brian Sibley's new dramatization, The History of Titus Groan.