Paul Rhys, Miranda Richardson and Carl Prekopp star in this major six-part BBC Radio Classic Serial based on the writings of Mervyn Peake and Maeve Gilmore. The life and times of Titus Groan, 77th Earl of Gormenghast - a vast stronghold of crumbling masonry steeped in immemorial ritual and inhabited by an extraordinary cavalcade of characters including the kitchen boy, Steerpike, who ruthlessly rises to the upper echelons of dynastic power through mischief and murder. Based on the novels written by Mervyn Peake and on the recently discovered concluding volume, ‘Titus Alone’, written by his widow, the six one-hour episodes chronicle Titus’ life from birth, through childhood and adolescence to his decision to renounce his title and embark on an exploration of the alien world beyond the confines of his home. It is a journey in search of identity that eventually takes him to a distant island where he encounters the man who is none other than his creator. The Gormenghast trilogy is both a powerful and unique fantasy and a satirical allegory on the fancies, foibles and phobias of the world around us, and this BBC Radio production brings Peake’s extraordinary imagination to vivid life. Featuring a star cast including James Fleet, Tamsin Greig and Olivia Hallinan, it was dramatised for radio by Brian Sibley. The series was produced by Jeremy Mortimer.
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I can't believe no one has written a review of or even rated The History of Titus Groan, the 2011 BBC radio dramatization of Mervyn Peake's wonderful Gormenghast trilogy and his widow Maeve Gilmore's moving fourth book, Titus Awakes. To be sure, it's probably best listened to by aficionados of the original novels, because it might be difficult to follow for someone unfamiliar with them. And yet it retains the grotesque grandeur and beauty of the original trilogy, as well as all of the important plot developments and many of the most memorable lines of Peake's prose, and the voice actors are all top notch. However, although I really wanted to like the radio drama and was caught up in most of it and moved or appalled by some of it, too much of it felt hurried and some of it felt irritating.
The radio production is made of six 50 or so minute episodes, Titus Arrives and Titus Inherits (mostly from Titus Groan), Titus Discovers and Titus Departs (mostly from Gormenghast), and Titus Abroad and Titus Alive (mostly from Titus Alone, with a little from Titus Awake). The adaptation begins with Titus arriving as a young man at an island where he takes up with an artist who has been sketching and painting scenes and figures provocatively similar to ones from Titus' past in the castle of his birth, Gormenghast. And as the young man and the older man talk about the pictures, they begin taking turns narrating the radio drama that follows, Titus setting the scenes and giving first-person psychological insights, the artist speaking the third person poetic and painterly descriptions, so that the narrative dialogue between the two provides the listener with context and imagery with which to understand the action and the lines of the various characters. Carl Prekopp and Miranda Richardson are excellent as Steerpike and Lady Gertrude, while Luke Treadaway and David Warner are perfect as the young adult Titus and the Peake-like artist-writer. And the radio-play is enhanced by sound effects (birds calling, babies crying, doors opening, shoe heels clacking, glass breaking, bells ringing, fires burning, and so on). The music usually works well with the story, but I often wished for it to be more spooky and melancholy and less electronic and hokey, especially when a theremin-like instrument warbles up like some old Doctor Who or Star Trek theme song and clashes with Gormenghast's stony, time-eaten buttresses.
I liked the first four episodes, which depict the birth of rebellious Titus (who as an infant violates the Book of Baptism and drops into a lake the symbols of his role as 77th Earl of Gormenghast) and the climb of amoral Steerpike (who as a youth insinuates himself into the heart of the castle) and the effects that both of these have on the ritual-clotted and hermetic castle culture and its eccentric inhabitants. These episodes also include sub-plots like the violent hatred between Flay and Swelter, Keda's tragic love, and Irma Prunesquallor's quest for a husband. Titus and the Artist work together smoothly as co-narrators, and it's a tribute to both Brian Sibley's adaptation and to the voice actors that the essence and texture of the first two dense novels are expressed in the radio medium. It does require concentration, because Sibley's text is distilled Peake, and if you daydream for a moment, you might miss some signpost for the next direction the adaptation takes. And things felt a bit rushed or sketchy for key story arcs like the flood and the hunt for Steerpike.
The last two episodes, which mainly adapt the third book in Peake's trilogy, Titus Alone, made for difficult listening. The disorienting sense of being in a more modern and science fictional world than Gormenghast is effectively conveyed, both by the text and the sound effects for cars, airplanes, police radios, glass surveillance globes, and the like. But Titus is so self-centered, proud, nervous, confused, and often delirious, that Luke Treadaway is too often reduced to sobby or febrile voice acting, which began making me grit my teeth. As in Titus Alone, the courtroom scene is great, but I missed the missing Under River sequence, and was too relieved when Cheeta's surprise party for Titus ends. But the last fifteen minutes, taken from Gilmore's Titus Awakes, movingly conclude the whole thing and nearly redeem all other problems of the dramatization. Titus and the Artist, character and creator, kindred spirits, recognize each other in a simultaneously voiced "You."
If you've read the Gormenghast trilogy and you like well-produced radio dramas, you would probably like this one. But I prefer Sibley's earlier BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (1981) because it's roomier (13:19) than The History of Titus Groan (5:42) and hence has more of its original novels in it.