12.01.84 THE RADIO TIMES


The following interview with Michael Cable appeared in a December 1984 issue of Radio Times magazine...

Police man's Peake - 'Weird and wonderful' is how superstar Sting describes the novels of Mervyn Peake.

The cult writer's most famous fan plays the lead role in Radio 4's dramatisation of 'Titus Groan' and 'Gormenghast' Sting - the multimillionaire superstar - has, a horse called Steerpike. It's an unusual name but one that clearly has great significance for Sting because he has also given it to his pet dog and one of his business companies.

What's it all about? The answer is to be found in a remarkable set of books by an extraordinary author.

Steerpike is the central character in Mervyn Peake's 'Titus Groan' and 'Gormenghast', which with 'Titus Alone' form three masterpieces of brooding fantasy and macabre imagination known collectively as 'The Titus Books' or 'The Gormenghast Trilogy'. And Sting has been totally hooked on them for almost half his life.

Up until now - 25 years after the publication of the third volume - the books have attracted a worldwide cult following without ever catching on in a big way with the general public and, Peake has remained a largely undiscovered genius. But his most famous fan could soon be instrumental in helping to change all that.

The 32-year-old leader of top group Police - one of the few pop idols to make a name for himself as a serious actor - is about to play the part of Steerpike in a two-part Radio 4 dramatisation of the haunting 'Gormenghast' saga.

He also owns the film rights and has written a script with which he hopes to go into production in the near future with himself once again in the starring role. His fascination with the story - and, in particular, with the ruthless and sinister character of Steerpike - goes back 15 years to the days when he was a trainee schoolteacher and part-time musician in Newcastle and a girlfriend gave him the books as a present. Like most readers who make the effort to get into these dauntingly monumental works he eventually fell totally under their spell.

"At the first attempt I gave up after a few chapters," he admits. "I was put off by the acres of dense language - it is heavy going at times. The books lay on my bookshelf for about a year and then I went back to them and found that once I did get into them I couldn't put them down. They are so seductive - you start to live inside them. I ended up reading the entire trilogy in a week."

He adds: "It's worth persevering - anyone who does will be rewarded. That's why people who do get through the books so often become fanatical and strangely possessive. You have to he careful not to commit sacrilege on their idea of what it is really all about. Since my involvement with the film project became known I've actually had several threatening letters saying: 'How dare you want to make a film about my books!'"

Sting's own fanaticism is considerable. Apart from giving Steerpike's name to his horse, his dog and his company he has also called one of his two daughters Fuchsia after another character in the books. "One of Peake's many talents was his ability to give characters names that sum them up perfectly," he says with a smile. "He was like Dickens in that way."

There are many who believe that Peake - who was born the son of a missionary in China and who died in desperately tragic circumstances in 1968 at the age of 57 - deserves recognition as one of the greatest writers of the century. It is his astonishing versatility, say his admirers, that has worked against him.

As well as being a highly original author he was also a fine poet, an accomplished playwright and a brilliant painter and artist who, as an official war artist, was one of the first people into Belsen - an obviously harrowing experience that almost certainly inspired some of the more foreboding aspects of 'Gormenghast'.

But it is as a book illustrator that he is probably best known. His drawings for such classics as 'Alice in Wonderland', 'Treasure Island', 'The Ancient Mariner' and 'The Hunting of the Snark' are stunningly original. To complete this picture of all-round brilliance he was also a champion athlete in his youth, setting a high-jump record at Eltham College that remained unequalled for more than 25 years.

"He was just too multi-talented and we don't know how to cope with that," suggests Brian Sibley, the writer and long-time friend of the Peake family who faced the demanding task of condensing the first two books into a three-hour radio play.

Brian, who adapted Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings for radio three years ago, adds: "We always want to put people into neat categories and Mervyn Peake just won't fit."

The public desire to pigeonhole personalities is something which Sting understands only too well.

Throughout his career he has gone out of his way to avoid conforming to the stereotype of a pop superstar.

He takes great delight in being unpredictable - especially when it comes to picking his acting roles.

He appeared as the Devil incarnate in Dennis Potter's highly controversial 'Brimstone and Treacle', switched back completely to play the Archangel Gabriel in a BBC1 production of David Rudkin's obscure 'Artemis 81' and will soon be seen as an intergalactic bandit in the sci-fi epic 'Dune'. He also plays Dr Frankenstein in 'The Bride', Machiavelli in a dramatised documentary for BBC2's 'Arena' and one of Meryl Streep's ill-treated lovers in the film 'Plenty'.

He relishes the prospect of going off at yet another tangent with a radio play on Radio 4 - perhaps the last place you would expect to find one of the world's richest and most successful rock stars.

"It's a challenge I'm looking forward to," he says, adding: "I've always been a big fan of radio plays. I have a great collection of the Sherlock Holmes radio series on record."

In some ways he suspects that radio may possibly he a better medium for the Peake books than film or television. "With the film the difficulty is going to lie in doing full justice to the images that Peake conjures up and the sheer scale of the scenario," he explains. "On radio you can suggest all that with sounds and with the narration of his own words and leave the audience to create the sense of Gothic drama in their imaginations."

Sebastian Peake - the author's 44-year-old son who took over as president of the Mervyn Peake Society when his mother, the artist Maeve Gilmore, died last year - will he delighted if the play and the film and Sting's involvement with them both help to bring his father's work to a wider audience.

He feels strongly that Peake - whose last years were made unbearably miserable by a combination of encephalitis and Parkinson's disease that rendered him prematurely senile and cruelly robbed him of the ability to write or draw - got a raw deal from the critical establishment of the 50s and 60s.

"There was a clique of critics who were very unsympathetic to his work and they tended to dismiss him out of hand," he recalls. "But I sense that attitudes are changing. I travel the world as president of the society and I have noticed a tremendous upsurge of interest recently. His books are everywhere - they have been translated into at least ten languages - and he is no longer just a cult figure. Apart from the play and the possible film there is a musical coming out next year based on another of his novels - Mr Pye."

Says Sting: "Anthony Burgess rated the 'Gormenghast' books high in his list of the best books of the century. They are weird and wonderful - but they're not just for freaks."

© The Radio Times magazine
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