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Gormenghast


 The Producer's Diary
The following entries are taken from Estelle Daniel's book The Art of Gormenghast: The Making of a Television Fantasy, published by HarperCollins Entertainment (2000), and distributed in the United States by Trafalger Books.


March | April | May | June | July


15 March
The fifteenth day of the third month, and Titus, seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast, is to be born in time for the Millennium.

I get up before six, leaving three small boys asleep and set off for Shepperton in the pinkish light with ninety shooting days in front of me. Breakfast for the hundred-strong unit at Shepperton then on to S Stage to turn over at 8 a.m. with the birth of Titus Groan. The set is bustling. Warm red and cone shaped, it is dripping with candle wax and bird droppings. Clusters of pigeons are being settled onto perches round the walls. Today we have birds, cats and a newborn baby. Nobody said it was going to be easy. A large camera crane has been pre-rigged for the opening shot of the film. The white bird, having skimmed the towers of Gormenghast, swoops down into Gertrude's bedroom and lands on the bed. The camera will swoop down over the bed as if from the bird's perspective.

We move with a following wind, and the actors appear on set for the first shot. Celia Imrie has been here since 4.45 a.m. for several hours of prosthetic make-up, hair and costume. John Sessions, dapper in his shock-headed grey wig and dandy heels, is given a case of murderous-looking surgical instruments to use. We select a purple freesia for his buttonhole, this will be continuity now and he will wear it in every shot. The baby arrives on set, the first Baby Titus, five days old. He is put in a small, warm cubicle with the unit nurse and his father and mother.

The unit is standing by and Andy calls the first 'action'. The camera swoops -- and the crane jams. Baby Titus stirs and gurgles. Gormenghast, not yet started, grinds to a halt. It is several hours later that John Sessions is handed the small Earl, covered in stage blood and in full royal voice. He raises him over his head, 'It's a boy!'

16 March
I arrive on set to find pigeons still roosting in Gertrude's bedroom. Have they been there all night? A different Baby Titus as in today's scene he is older, the same menagerie of animals plus the white rook. I am yet to make acquaintance with the bird star although he has already spent some time with Celia. His portrait, wings spread, hangs in pride of place on Gertrude's wall. A typical Christopher Hobbs triumph of detail and economy -- a picture of an angel picked up in a junk shop, with the body painted out and replaced with a rook attached to the original angel wings by Christopher himself.

A cardboard box with holes punched in it arrives on set, containing Jimmy White the albino rook. Andy calls for silence and work stops on the two other sets under construction on the studio floor while we release the bird. Another character born and one of quite astonishing beauty. Steve, the bird trainer, lifts out a huge white bird which flutters onto the floor of the set and hops around surveying the unit and the wailing Baby Titus quizzically, with its pink eyes. It caws raucously like a storybook creature. We set up for a take, as June Brown nurses the inconsolable baby and Steve the animal trainer encourages his bird to perch on the shoulder of Celia's embroidered frock. I am reminded of Steerpike's line as he surveys the Groan family: 'Mad, all mad!"

17 March
The scenes in Gertrude's bedroom are complete and we move across to our main studio, K Stage, to shoot in Fuchsia's apartments. Milk-floats with 'Gormenghast' on the front ply between the two studios loaded with props and equipment. The red set is immediately dismantled and work is started to repaint and dress it as the blue cat room which we will film next week.

Fuchsia's bedroom and attic are beautiful, touches of the East, framed with the carved doors and posts but carefully dressed with great detail from the book. I spot the great 'writhing root' on the floor. On the wall Christopher has again with his own hand reproduced a number of the paintings I remember. Two armies engaged in battle, one in yellow and one in purple. A portrait of the twenty-second Earl of Groan with tattoos on his face, and children with a viper, in pink and white muslin dresses. The walls are covered in Peake-like graffiti and in one corner an original Peake drawing lurks as a signature.

The Peake family visits the set. Clare, Mervyn's only daughter, turns to be introduced to Neve McIntosh, Fuchsia with long dark hair and the blood-red dress. She lets out a small cry and tells me that it's as if she's seeing something she's always known inside herself.

Johnny Rhys Meyers arrives on set for the first Steerpike scene. A coiled spring of latent energy. Before he can do any acting we pour green slime over his head, continuity from the scene which will come before this one, where Fuchsia empties a flower vase over his head. We're shooting set by set, so we'll do that scene tomorrow.

Steerpike and Fuchsia chase round the bedroom. He improvises, clowns and charms her, springing around the room with huge cat-like leaps, and breaking the bed on the first take.

The chemistry is electric and we know the seduction will work across the four-hour story.

18 March
The first death. Andy tells me the full corpse count will be thirteen. June Brown lurches across a shadowy vestibule and her tray crashes to the floor. Nannie Slagg's pink wrinkled stockings stiffen and Steerpike grins in the shadows. 'See it as a gift from a kitchen boy, Nannie!' A sad end for Nannie but another thirteen weeks of filming for June Brown, who seems to have died before she has really started.

Ten feet away Christopher creates Fuchsia's attic of junk, where she will skip tomorrow. 'I am Fuchsia, I am me!' A vast cornucopia in the book, it is created on a corner of K Stage with minimal construction, a corridor between piled walls of Peakian paraphernalia. Christopher adjusts a giraffe head next to the doorway and places a cobwebbed harp in front of the camera position. The pigeons from the bedroom have roosting places amongst the piles of treasure.

26 March
...Ian Richardson arrives on set in his Lord Groan royal dressing gown, printed with owl claws. He has been studying owl footage and is equipped with three pairs of owl eye contact lenses, the largest like saucers and which he can only keep in for minutes because of the discomfort. Discussions take place about the royal crown -- does he wear it to breakfast?

29 March
We move on to G Stage for the Hall of Spiders sequence, a comedy sword fight between Richard Griffiths and Christopher Lee. We are now running three studios at Shepperton with sets being redressed and new ones being added on the other two stages. I arrive at the studios to find an ambulance outside, the normal precaution for stunt work and fights, but with the engine running and the backdoors open. Richard Griffiths, Swelter incarnate in his vast cook's overalls, is taking the air outside. He asks me if the engine could possibly be switched off as a precautionary measure, as he is more likely to die from the fumes than Christopher Lee's swordplay, even if it does mean arriving at hospital thirty seconds later.

Mid-afternoon I am called to the studio floor as Christopher Lee has had a fall. During the fight, he has lost his footing and fallen down a flight of steps. Filming only stops for minutes as Christopher, the consummate professional and extraordinary swordsman, has fallen with stunt precision and is on his feet pressing to continue.

31 March
The Great Kitchen. Early on set to get a look at the bevy of supporting artists who will inhabit this very particular castle kingdom. How will they cohere as a group? The vast area in the bowels of Gormenghast is one of Mervyn Peake's best loved and revered bits of descriptive writing, and is central to the piece, although we only go there once and remain in it for a short length of time. The place where Steerpike forms his world view.

The call sheet for the day reads:
Grillers (4)
Butchers (10)
Kitchen apprentices (15)
Legumiers (8)
Poissoniers (8)
Sauciers (8)
Scrubbers (6)

We inspect the different groups, all dressed in faded striped trousers and yellowed white linen jackets, made from a consignment of old mailbags. Each category has a different physique, a different hat and a different type of facial hair -- the butchers are to be hefty and bald. We weed out more than we would have liked, as there are too many loutish Londoners and not enough pure Gormenghast. A lengthy delay before we can turn over as they still seem too pristine. A huge costume and make-up team move amongst the crowd smearing soot and dirt on bare faces and bald heads, spritzing them with sweat and drenching aprons in meat blood and gore.

Andy and I have been nurturing a secret anxiety that the set will be too small, a bit too National Trust and not enough vast pagan chamber. It probably occupies less than a quarter of the studio, jostling with several other sets which must also have their space. On Christopher's original plan we needed seven studios and have had to make do with four.

But Christopher understands the magic involved in filmmaking, and Andy's tracking shot through the kitchen seems to suggest an endless heaving vista of toil. A fleeting glimpse, and a clever illusion which will linger in the memory. On 'action' the huge mouth of an oven springs into flame and the grillers stuff huge sides of meat into its jaws. Scaled up in size considerably and carved in polystyrene, the prototype is an Italian pizza oven reminiscent of a gargoyle. Up above the fireplace, a huge old bellows (a great find in the Gloucestershire warehouse) requires two-man operation. The Grey Scrubbers scour walls and steps; legumiers peel and scrape at mountains of greengrocery and butchers wield cleavers like some kind of charnel vision of hell. A second 'action' and Christopher Lee, bruised from yesterday but unstoppable, picks his way through the mayhem, the floor swilling with gristle, blood and rotting vegetables.

Warren Mitchell arrives from Australia and comes in to talk crutches and beards. He shows us how he will play Barquentine small and stooped over, spitting venomously up out of the corner of his mouth as if he's had a stroke. Lovely stuff.

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