Bookmark: Mervyn Peake


Another not-so-old TV documentary. It’s good to keep finding these as I have no means at the moment of viewing all the video tapes I’ve kept. Bookmark is (or was) a BBC series about the lives of various writers. This edition concerns author and artist Mervyn Peake, and was broadcast in 1998, shortly before the BBC screened their flawed dramatisation of the Gormenghast books.

Peake’s three children—Sebastian, Fabian and Clare—all recall life with their father, while other contributors, Quentin Crisp among them, discuss his work, his experiences during the Second World War, and life on the island of Sark. The narrator is Julian Glover, and the readings are by Simon Russell Beale. The catastrophic collapse of Peake’s health that occurred when he’d barely reached middle age means a journey through his biography is always a sombre business, but it does make the scale of his achievements seem all the more remarkable. The film is 48-minutes long, and may be viewed here.


Previously on { feuilleton }
The Web by Joan Ashworth
Peake’s glassblowers
Mervyn Peake in Coronation Street
The Worlds of Mervyn Peake
A profusion of Peake
Mervyn Peake at Maison d’Ailleurs
Peake’s Pan
Buccaneers #1
Mervyn Peake in Lilliput
The Illustrators of Alice

3 thoughts on “Bookmark: Mervyn Peake”

  1. What were your particular problems with the BBC dramatisation? I think I was 13 or 14 when I first saw it, and liked it very much at that time. It served as my introduction to Peake, for which I am grateful. That said, when I rewatch the series now, I find myself wincing. The screenplay was a hot mess, and the performances were so heavy-handed at times that the whole thing was reduced to pure camp. Shame. I’d love to see someone else have a go at it. If the BBC can revisit Dickens, Austen, and the Brontes every few years, surely it’s time to bring Peake back to the limelight.

    I do think that the scenes with the Prunesquallor siblings and the professors were all very, very funny. Jonathan Rhys Meyers was often quite good, although I thought he should have been less obviously malevolent.

  2. I felt pretty much the same: I enjoyed it while it was on simply for seeing the characters brought to life. Later I felt that it should have been at least six parts, not four, and that aspects of the production could have been tweaked to make it darker. Peake’s descriptions continually reinforce the atmosphere of decay yet much of the design and costuming was too clean and bright.

    I agree about the acting: it was a great cast but some of them–John Sessions in particular–edged into pantomime. It’s a problem with the excessive quality of Peake’s characters: Swelter is described in terms more like Jabba the Hut than anything human; when these qualities are concentrated on a mere actor then the result is bound to be lacking, hence the overplaying.

  3. Pantomime is exactly the right word. It may sound odd to say this about such a linguistically creative writer, but less may well be more when it comes to dialogue in a Peake adaptation. Those scenes between Swelter and Flay would have been a great opportunity to let sound, lighting, and camerawork tell the story, instead of relying on two old hams (albeit great hams!) shouting at each other. When Christopher Lee does not inspire dread, you know there’s a problem!

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