Television: Gormless and ghastly, all in one

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In 1943, a 32-year-old army gunner called Mervyn Peake was posted to Blackpool, where his duties included printing elaborate signs indicating that only officers might use the ascribed toilets. These loos wrought their magic on him, even as somewhat earlier ones had wrought theirs upon Martin Luther. Germany's religious iconoclast had conceived his theory of justification by faith while sitting on the jakes; Peake, on the other hand, put down his paintbrush, took up his pen and wrote Titus Groan, the first of the three novels which together constitute his masterpiece, the Gormenghast trilogy.

Did the dripping cisterns compel Peake to plunge round the bend, like Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting? Or was it the sounds of Glenn Miller being played by RAF servicemen in the room below that put him in such a sustained and phantasmagorical mood? It's unlikely that either influenced him in the slightest. His upbringing in China, though, where he was born in 1911, the son of a medical missionary, undoubtedly influenced him enormously.

Nevertheless, neither those first 11 years in Tientsin, nor those that followed, when the family returned to England via the Trans-Siberian Railway and lived, anti-climactically, in Wallingford, Surrey, can wholly explain the startling originality of Mervyn Peake. Had Jeffrey Archer been spawned in China at the beginning of the century, would he have gone on to write Gormenghast? Nurture only takes us so far. One might even be attributing too much to the Chinese architecture Peake saw as a child. Is it, after all, any more specifically in evidence than the vertiginous staircases drawn by Piranesi in his Carceri d'Invenzione which, if anything, this consummate artist would have known even better?

Simplistic detective work disintegrates in the face of the sheer polymorphism with which Peake con- fronts us. I'm reminded of the interview with Evelyn Waugh when John Freeman nervously suggested that the "curious brother- sister relationship" in Put Out More Flags might have been drawn from Waugh's own life. Belching nothing more deadly than cigar smoke, the old basilisk lets Freeman off with uncharacteristic magnanimity. "Oh, you must allow the novelist's imagination to roam more freely than that, you know." As with Waugh, so with Peake. Creative people invent. Catalogue the ingredients as you may, the recipe will always escape you.

Peake was an original, and an English original to boot; no mean achievement given that both English literature and art teems with such intensely original visionaries as John Martin, Thomas Peacock, Samuel Palmer, William Blake, Richard Dadd and Lewis Carroll. Peake was also consonant with several of these figures in that he, too, suffered serious illness, falling prey to Parkinson's Disease when barely into his forties.

A visionary, certainly, but was he a fantasist? In The Lord of the Rings, Tol-kein's hobbits, orcs and Nazguls populate a Middle Earth much of which evokes Surrey, the Lake District and Snowdonia. Again, Gandalf's pipe- puffing is almost as donnish as that of his creator. Tolkien weaves his richly strange tapestry out of the fustian of the everyday, thus intensifying both its richness and its strangeness, and the same could be said of Peake. As a boy, he'd sung hymns and attended ex-patriate tea-parties while all around post-imperial China basked like a dragon, vastly unignorable and as inscrutable as the opium-ravaged faces he passed on his well-washed way to school. It would almost have been odd if the deafening symbolic clash of two such contradictory cultures hadn't led him to celebrate the incongruous in the way he eventually did. As with Tolkien, a real world and landscape underpins the world Peake created in Gormenghast, however boldly he chose to negotiate it. He says as much in the 1949 preface to his miraculous drawings: "For it is one's ambition to create one's own world in a style germane to its substance, and to people it with native forms and denizens that never were before, yet have their roots in one's experience."

It's wrong, too, I think to see the novels as highly-wrought symphonies fantastiques of gothic horror, when horror, gothic or otherwise, wasn't really the gentle Peake's thing at all. I say this, fully aware that he was presentat the liberation of Belsen.

When the Gormenghast trilogy became modish in the late 1960s, hippies descended on it with pigeon-chested relish, hoping to be appalled. Many, no doubt, loped away disappointed. To adapt a line from Wilfred Owen's famous preface, melancholy and evoking the pity of melancholy, comes closer to what Peake was after, and yet I have to say I think he was after something more.

If Gormenghast had a tongue, it would be firmly stuck in its cheek. Peake was, above all, a humourist, and, given that a framework - albeit tortuous - for the narrative is offered by the plot of Hamlet, the key to his exact tone might be said to lie in Polonius's speech extolling the range of the visiting players. When he speaks of the "tragical-comical-historical", Polonius could easily be describing the Gormenghast inhabitants who are surely compounds of as many figures, both actual and fictional, as Peake could bring to mind.

The Countess is Queen Anne, the Red Queen, Catherine the Great, Miss Havisham and Edith Evans as Lady Wishford. Lord Groan is Scott's Louis XI, Charles the Simple, George III and Alastair Sim as King Lear. Then, to Polonius's categories, Peake adds one that is unequivocally his own, that of the "melancholic-hysterical." The sadness enclosed within the Groans, the court, and indeed the walls themselves is so curdled and distilled as to be side-splitting. Gormenghast is as gormless as it is ghastly, and it is the saturnine banishment of initiative and innovation from the minds of nearly all involved which enables the humour to glitter like a salamander in a dungeon. They cry till you laugh.

Peake refuses to be deconstructed into a hundred fragments, but it's still fun for the literary trainspotter to try. If, for example, Dickens lurks beneath the antimacassars of Alfred and Irma Prunesquallor's little parlour, then it is a Dickens fuelled on crack cocaine, with Edvard Munch screaming in existential panic from behind the wainscot. Alfred's dotty stratagems in the face of his sister' s sex-starved hysteria would recall Charles Lamb's attempts to contain the insanity of his poor sister Mary, were it not for their evocation of umpteen Edward Lear limericks. Dr Bellgrove, trysting with Irma in the moonlight, also comes straight from Lear, but via Frank Richards' Greyfriars.

The Prunesquallors, of course, come nearest to providing a cosy corner within the draughty endlessness of Castle Gormenghast, but even they are as isolated from each other as are the two royal sisters, Clarice and Cora, for however much one sister may replicate the other in word and gesture, each is as alone as a whirring propeller. Then, of course, once Steerpike controls the engine room, they spin to his commands.

No one can really connect with anyone and, of course, nobody sees this more clearly than Steerpike, the plot-spinning axis of this still, stupid world. Lord and Lady Groan only meet over the carrion comfort of timeless ritual. Poor Nannie Slagg, her duties done, lies alone in her bed, "biting her minute knuckles", a lustreless Fairy Godmother bereft of spells. The moribund butler, Flay, is warmed only by his devotion to the House of Groan; the soon-dispatched Swelter by lagoons of wine, and Barquentine, hugging his ledgers like a comforter, finds solace only in the pronouncement of their insane catechisms. Warmth comes to him only when he is burnt to death by Steerpike, and plummets into the moat to be doused like a horseshoe. In Gormenghast, everyone is as lonely as God. Even beyond the walls, the Carvers hardly constitute a community; they're too absorbed in the carvings which they churn out like so many Fay Wrays with which to placate the Kong of the castle.

Yet no one is as lonely as Steerpike, the villainously alert Hamlet of this snoozing Elsinore. At first as negligible as a tick on the hide of a rhinoceros, Steerpike soon shakes Gormenghast to its mouldering foundations, bringing it to life even as he deals death right, left and centre. His early line to Flay, "I am unhappy, sir, that is all," makes one think of Hamlet's "I lack advancement", being no less devastating as an understatement. As with Milton's Lucifer, any hope of redemption is jettisoned from the outset in favour of a nihilistic lust for revenge and power. Indeed, his early escape across the rooftops recalls the fallen angel's journey from Pandemonium to Paradise, for Peake is a worthy heir to Milton in his evocation of vastly dizzying distance.

And he is no less Ovid's when it comes to metamorphosis. Climbing into Fuchsia's bedroom like a bloodless Romeo, Steerpike is almost immediately reconstituted as Richard III, bewitching the Earl's daughter as surely as if she were Lady Anne. Lord Groan's repeated exhortation is to "keep the fastness", but Steerpike wastes no time in shattering the castle's reassuring petrifaction, rising like a killer whale through an ice-floe. Impediments to his progress are dispatched, seasons come and go, the heir reaches adolescence and although suspicions rise sluggishly like bubbles from the seabed, little is done till it is all but too late. Then, agonisingly, at long last, after five murders, the pennies drop in the superannuated minds of Prunesquallor and the Countess. Prunesquallor plays Holmes to Titus's Watson, Steerpike is confounded and Gormenghast is saved.

That is essentially the story. Yet the story of Titus Groan and Gormenghast is not, if you'll forgive me, the whole story. The plot is like a deft, economic drawing which Peake proceeds to elaborate at unexpected moments with profoundly intricate detail. Purposefully prolix, he sinks rods with a physicist's precision deep into the heavy water of the protagonists' psyches. He examines, he sometimes explains, he always sympathises.

Both Andrew Wilson and Malcolm McKay, the director and screenplay author respectively of the forthcoming BBC series, have pointed out that in the world of Gormenghast there is no subtext. What you see is what you get. However, with so much to see and, as we all hope, so much for you, the viewer, to get. Welcome to "the fastness".

John Sessions plays Prunesquallor in BBC2's four-part adaptation of `Gormenghast', starting in mid-January