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Bringing Gormenghast to television for the BBC was a five year effort by producer Estelle Daniel and director Andy Wilson. Malcolm McKay (Yellowbacks) was hired to do the adaptation from Mervyn Peake's original novels, but Daniel and Wilson knew they had a big task in front of them when the first scripts arrived. Daniel says, "If anything was intimidating it was reading those scripts. Normally there are a couple of big set pieces. As I turned the pages there were floods, fires, murders. If you had the job of fitting all that into a feature film you would never do it. You would be killing people off at the rate of one every ten minutes."
The look of the entire piece would be essential, as the castle of Gormenghast itself is a major character. Wilson recalls, "I had found a painting by Max Ernst called The Entire City. It was Gormenghast for me. It looked oriental, like some high plains Chinese city, Lhasa or something. By coincidence Estelle had been in India with her husband. She brought back a picture of a Ladakhi monastery in the high plains of India. We both had the same idea. Armed with this, plus the research done on Peake which showed the influences of China on his life (indeed, he was born there in 1911), made this a natural choice for the art direction to take. Christopher Hobbs, designer of films like Velvet Goldmine, was brought on board the production over 18 months before the cameras were to roll, as were costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux and cinematographer Gavin Finney.
Sets (numbering 120 in all) were erected in London's famous Shepperton Studios beginning in 1998, with a tremendous eye for detail, right down to the unusual paintings hung on the walls. All the hard work was acknowledged when Peake's family visited the sets, about which Hobbs says, "The family all seemed to think it was right, it looked how it should look, which was hugely pleasing for me."
Producer Daniel was also keen to use Gormenghast as a vehicle for reflecting on a century of art (even though the series itself is set in a timeless never-never land). "It has allusions to lots of 20th century artists," she says, "We have commissioned original music by Richard Rodney Bennett and choral music by John Tavener (an incredible over-the-top score which perfectly compliments the series). We have nods to some of the great twentieth century artists - Kandinsky banners, sculptures that look like Miros, murals in the spirit of Klee. A good classic should operate on all sorts of different levels and that is there for the discerning audience," she said.
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