Picks and Pans Review: Gormenghast

updated 06/25/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PBS (Wed.-Thurs., June 27-28, 9 p.m. ET)

Goodness, how to describe Gormenghast? "It's Dickens on crack" is the catchy press-kit quote from John Sessions, who portrays Prunesquallor, a prolix physician with a Don King hairstyle. Now go further and imagine Lewis Carroll and William Shakespeare smoking something strange. You're beginning to get an idea of what to expect from this extravagant four-hour adaptation of the first two novels in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy (published in the 1940s and '50s). Just call it a Gothic fantasy-tragicomedy-political allegory.

Lord Groan (Ian Richardson), 76th earl of mythical Gormenghast, goes batty—in fact, he thinks he's an owl—after his beloved library is torched by the wicked Steerpike (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a rebellious kitchen servant whose goose-stepping surely signals fascist tendencies. After Lord Groan's suicide, it's up to his brooding son Titus (played as a teenager by Andrew N. Robertson) to keep Steerpike from wresting control of the realm from caustic Lady Gertrude (Celia Imrie) and Barquentine (Warren Mitchell), the irascible master of ritual. You'll like the funny parts, but when a disfigured Steerpike starts running around in a Phantom of the Opera mask, you may feel the need to step outside and clear your head.

Bottom Line: Sample it, but carefully

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