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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.


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1 May
Director's birthday. Another Marks and Spencer's birthday cake with balloons on. Those of us with children feel less than enthusiastic. One too many cakes from M&S over the years, but at least it's not the Chocolate Caterpillar. We do the photo shoot of the clock image. World War Three breaks out as the photographer, the two visual-effects supervisors and a committee of about six in all struggle with the science. There are several components -- the actor, a large pair of iron hands way up above our heads, a blue screen, a white screen, a step ladder and a large pair of paper hands.

Over on the set the twins have arrived, thankfully before the sandwiches -- Zoë and Lynsey in funny teeth doing synchronised greed, looking like two old dolls from a long forgotten cupboard. We smother them in a couple of sacks of dust. Over their bed is a big appliqued rabbit, aunt-appropriate needlework, handmade as described in the book. ... First shot of the famous root room. The twins famously have a huge tree growing out of the side of their apartments. Next to their bedroom they have a room which contains the roots from the tree. Tangled and coloured to match the decor. We continue sequences from Steerpike's journey across the roofs of Gormenghast, and Johnny Rhys Meyers hauls himself up through a thick, tangled slope of ivy -- wonderful part of the book. It reminds me of the best fairytale sequences, Jack climbing the Beanstalk or the Prince scaling the thorn hedge to Beauty's castle.

'What's it all for?' he says.

5 May
Meeting with the Peakes. They've come in force to discuss plans for a graphic novel. Fabian has allayed all worries about embarking on this one, by saying that Mervyn is big enough to withstand all comers.

...Then dinner, and, as ever, Peake-style storytelling and the great generosity of spirit that characterises the family. They give us the sense that we are a group of creative artists bringing our art to their father's piece and that this can only give cause for celebration. It seems I am wearing the perfume which Maeve always wore. 'Arpége,' says Clare, 'she was well known for it.' Sebastian tells tales of smugglers and how they get caught by customs officers who can smell the fear on them. Then the one about the ship in the typhoon sailing for a month yet scarcely leaving the port as it's being blown back -- that central recurring metaphor for Titus caught in the undercurrent of Gormenghast. Clare remembers how Mervyn had older twin sisters who died in China as babies, the first I have heard of this -- 'What if we'd had twin maiden aunts!' Surely the Gormenghast twins ...

6 May
Twins on set. Steerpike comes to them in their dungeon and tells them the castle has been struck by the plague... he orders them to crawl under the carpet. They dive under. Those of us huddled round the monitor have noticed the 'tame' rats, released for ambience, sniffing round the actresses' skirts and disappearing underneath -- a terrible scream and Lynsey and Zoë emerge from the carpet with rats crawling under their dresses. The rats know when they're onto a good thing and repeat the performance on every take.

10 May
A grassy mound created in a tin shack at Shepperton, the smallest and humblest of our studios. The big scene between Titus and Gertrude -- Countess tells young Earl what it is to be royal. Very 1999. Celia's prosthetic goes into meltdown as Gavin creates beating sunshine up in the reds. She sits on the mound side-saddle on a carthorse with a white bird on her shoulder and melting rubber on her face, doing one of the most difficult and most moving scenes in the film. Forever indebted to Celia Imrie.

11 May
First day on location -- unit out to play. Breathing the air of Wimbledon Common and filming in Axel Munthe's house. A place of eccentric beauty -- minimal dressing required for Gormenghast. The soothing routines of location filming -- the trucks, the dining bus on the common, the actors bunked up in caravans, the members of the public who stop and ask if all these people are really necessary... We do a make-up and costume test for Fiona Shaw as Irma. Odile has created a parrot dress and Fiona has an object like a flower vase pinned to the side of her head with flowers of coloured wire cascading out. No one is holding back... Steerpike spends the afternoon fingering bottles of poison in the bathroom -- done up as Prunesquallor's dispensary. A call from the cutting room to say that the rushes show a crack in Celia's rubber face in the close-ups yesterday. We'll need to remount the scene -- horse, white rook etc. Look like being even more indebted to Celia Imrie.

13 May
Long-necked Irma in front of her portrait. Christopher Hobbs, master painter, has done a portrait of Irma for her drawing room that is a combination of Mervyn Peake's Irma drawing and Fiona Shaw in costume and make-up. Fiona, in top comedy actress form, swoons at the sight of half-naked Steerpike, plans her party and longs for a man 'to keep clean'. She propels a paper knife into the ceiling, fuelling a wonderful piece of Sessions business where she brandishes the knife round his nose...

24 May
Lord Groan's library.

We arrive back from location to find the library window where the family escapes is at ground level. Andy points out it will need to be higher if Steerpike is to rescue them by ladder. Design team goes into impressive crisis management and the window moves miraculously up the wall by after lunch.

The set is astonishing. Row upon row of books. Twenty-foot high walls with bird's-eye camera positions up above, so the actors look like chess figures below. Half a pine forest around the set -- sawn-off fir trees suspended with wire.

Warren Mitchell back from holiday. New, better babies, crying on cue as they must for this scene. Steerpike and Baby Titus eye to eye through the keyhole. The boy laughs, the baby cries. Zoë called at 5.15 a.m. for complicated twins make-up and is reported as having got out of the car, with the words, 'I'm too old, too tired and too talented to be called at this time!'

25 May
Smouldering library...

Jack (photographer) puts his head round the door to say he can't get any pictures in the smoking library. Christopher Lee is wearing a BBC issue red smoke mask and Baby Titus is a rubber dummy.

26 May
Burning library. Cameras above pan the books. Party atmosphere amongst the actors, Andy sits behind the monitor doggedly working his way through smoking shots. 'It's a war zone in here,' he says. Christopher Lee, still weak-chested from illness earlier in the shoot, wears the red smoke mask between shots and celebrates his birthday. He and Ian Richardson are visited by their agent, Jean Diamond. She watches rushes and is surrounded by actors for the verdict -- they won't watch themselves while it is being filmed. Christopher says he's been working for fifty-two years and can often tell on the first day the quality of the work. We get the thumbs up on the grounds of perfect casting.

The flames lick round the books. Christopher Hobbs has invented a fire engine. It's an Indian cart with a large barrel on the top and a hand pump. Andy tools up for a chain of buckets shot though the pine trees...

27 May
The Royal Family are still trapped in the library, God help them.

I watch Steerpike shatter the sugar glass through artificial flames and smoke, and realise how complex the sound design will have to be to make this into a real world.

28 May
The King Lear scene. Groan and Fuchsia outside the burnt-out library pretending the fir cones are books. The last weeks have been marked by an anticipation of this scene. A full blooded and intensely moving performance from Ian Richardson. Andy uses the image of the picture of the brain geometrically divided -- one section is the books, one the castle and so on, and they are being pulled out Rubic Cube-like, one by one. I see Peake's genius. The scene, brilliantly realised by Malcolm McKay, is about the madness induced by a life without poetic meaning. 'We should never have had the poets, their pen is the pulse, Fuchsia...' Groan gives Fuchsia, the artist of the family, the kiss of death by giving her this knowledge. In gothic plate-sized brown lenses, 'I am the Death Owl.' He kisses her and holds her head, the seal of her suicide. The tears flow from Neve. 'I have no daughter,' says Ian. The blood-red dress, the girl raking the forest floor, swinging between love and despair, an intensely beautiful and passionate scene.

29 May
Rooftops. Steerpike surveys Gormenghast. The turning point. He sees the kingdom and sets out to climb by whatever means. 'I have seen the great pavement in the sky.' The devil on top of the world.

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