Sir Christopher Lee, who died last Sunday, 7 June, at the age of 93, had the sort of career most actors can only dream of. The obituaries have rightly focused on Lee’s career-defining work in the Hammer horror films of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. These include his imperious turn as Lord Summerisle in cult horror classic The Wicker Man (1973); his arch performance as James Bond villain Scaramanga opposite Roger Moore in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974); and the remarkable Indian summer he enjoyed in the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Hobbit films in the late ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s, playing antagonist Count Dooku in the former and Saruman in the latter.
Yet this final period of his career contains an overlooked gem: an excellent performance as the servant Flay in the BBC’s BAFTA Award-winning adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s epic fantasy story Gormenghast (2000). The adaptation received mixed reviews, and today is thought of as something of a curate’s egg: its complicated plotting arose from the requirement to shoehorn several hundred pages’ worth of dense prose — the first two books of Peake’s trilogy — into four hour-long episodes. As a result, the finished serial has the unmistakable feel of a work reconfigured into a format ill-suited to it, and suffers both in terms of pacing and narrative. Yet both staging and casting were superb, and in spite of the series’ flaws, a rewatch makes for rewarding viewing.
In playing the supporting role of Flay, Lord Sepulchrave’s trusted servant, Lee found himself in exalted company. Among the cast are Tony-nominated stage actor Ian Richardson as Sepulchrave; Olivier Award nominee Celia Imrie as Lady Gertrude; Stephen Fry, in an uproarious performance as the kind-hearted but stodgy schoolmaster Bellgrove; Shakespearean actor Fiona Shaw, later to star in HBO’s True Blood as Bellgrove’s would-be beau, Irma; and a 22-year-old Jonathan Rhys Meyers in his breakout role as anti-hero Steerpike. A bevy of British television and comic actors provided excellent support in minor roles, including Peter Sellers collaborator Eric Sykes, Shakespeare in Love star Martin Clunes, and British comedy’s elder statesman and inspiration for the Monty Python troupe, Spike Milligan.
In Peake’s books, Flay is a true grotesque: walking with a stoop, his knees making cracking sounds with every step. Peake’s own sketch shows a haunted, joyless character with a widow’s peak, a prominent jaw, and dark, staring eyes. Bringing such a character to life would be a challenge for any actor, and it is a testament to Lee’s abilities that he managed to convey the grotesqueries of the character while bringing to him the human quality that so distinguishes him from so many of Gormenghast’s population.
The character of Flay stands as one of Peake’s finest creations. A noble among degenerates, Flay’s devotion to “the stones,” as he puts it, is absolute, and Lee developed a convincing onstage chemistry with both Cameron Powrie and Andrew N. Robinson, who played the heir to Gormenhast, Titus, as a child and teenager respectively. Titus’ status as a disappointing son of Sepulchrave and Gertrude encourages a reading of Flay as a surrogate father, and his portrayal displays these avuncular qualities in abundance.
Lee’s extraordinary voice was always one of his most distinctive characteristics, but as he aged, its mellifluous quality gave way to a gruffer, more gravelly tone. It was perfect for the monosyllabic Flay, whose inability to construct even a moderately lengthy sentence could have presented other actors with considerable problems when it came to humanising the character. Instead, Lee’s considered delivery and his natural gravitas lent Flay’s speeches a terse, almost poetic quality. “Leave his name in fat and grease,” he states baldly at one point of his archenemy, Gormenghast’s repellent cook Swelter, played adroitly by Withnail And I star Richard Griffiths.
From their first scene together, it becomes obvious that for Flay and Swelter, a day of reckoning is at hand. Gormenghast is not big enough for the both of them, and the climactic moment arrives in the second episode, during which they face off, Flay armed with a sword and Swelter with a meat cleaver from the castle’s kitchens. Lee would, of course, later appear in the celebrated lightsaber duel opposite Yoda in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones (2003). Here, however, was its comic predecessor: just as Swelter and Flay are to go at it, a sleep-walking Sepulchrave appears and interposes himself between them. Burning with hatred for one another, yet sworn not to harm their lord, Griffiths and Lee raise the scene to the level of a sublime farce, ineffectually lunging and swiping at one another in a display of mutual clumsiness.
Flay’s position at court, however, is not to last: after a momentary indiscretion — the flinging of a cat onto the floor (the moggy, thankfully, is unharmed) — he is banished by Lady Gertrude to the wilderness beyond Gormenghast’s walls. At intervals we visit him, now living in a hovel in the forest, even now doing his best to cleave to his duty by keeping an eye on his young charge Titus by means of a brass telescope. These are among the most tragic scenes Lee ever appeared in, and the most subtly played too. Not a lip quavers and not a tear is shed, but Lee cuts as forlorn figure as can be, his bearing that of a dog who has lost his master.
Lee’s final scene is likewise a tour de force in tragic playing. Having maintained contact with the young Titus, Flay surreptitiously re-enters the castle with the purpose of tracking the movements of Steerpike, who has climbed the social scale “faster than Virginia creeper” and now sits in a position of power in the castle’s royal government, from which he can plot the downfall of the ruling family. Having alerted Titus to the danger, the pair, along with the castle’s foppish but upstanding doctor, Prunesquallor (John Sessions), confront Steerpike, now discovered to have murdered twins Clarice (Zoë Wanamaker) and Cora (Lynsey Baxter) by the horrific method of immurement. Far from fearful, Steerpike is nonplussed by the trio who have come to apprehend him, and makes short work of Flay with a knife thrown at the throat. Titus’ grief is heartfelt and profound, as is Flay’s remorse at his inability to serve his charge in adulthood.
In a career dominated by “bad guy” roles, the character of Flay provided Lee with the rare opportunity to play the hero. He grabbed it with both hands, and in doing so, reminded us of his extraordinary ability to tease out nuance and meaning in the most challenging of roles.