American television producers may be churning out "reality" shows, but the British apparently still love fantasy.

This week, PBS devotes Wednesday and Thursday nights at 9 to the BBC's lavish, four-hour adaptation of Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast," starring Ian Richardson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and horror-movie legend Christopher Lee. WETA repeats the show in its entirety beginning Saturday at 8 p.m.

Five years in the making, the first-ever adaptation of "Gormenghast" uses 120 elaborate sets -- including Kandinsky banners, sculptures reminiscent of those by Miro, murals in the spirit of Klee -- and an array of costumes to re-create a book that became a cult classic in Britain after World War II.

Andy Wilson directed from Malcolm McKay's screenplay of the first two books of Peake's trilogy. Producer Estelle Daniel commissioned music by Richard Rodney Bennett and choral music by John Tavener for the production.

One of English literature's most imaginative efforts, "Gormenghast" is built on themes of treachery and decay, madness and honor. Some see the story, set in an ancient walled city-state with a feudal system of harsh laws and hollow rituals, as an allegory for the fall of an empire, the passing of an age and the rise of fascism. This is a corrupt society that is ripe for rebellion of the sort that can replace one evil with another.

Set in the sprawling, crumbling castle of Gormenghast, the production features colorful characters with fanciful names who plot, seduce, murder and go mad.

Some say "Gormenghast" is the story of the rise and fall of the evil Steerpike from humble kitchen boy to an insider determined to overthrow the past-its-prime royal family. But because there is a sequel, "Titus Alone," others view it as the journey to manhood of young hero Titus Groan, who must defend his ruling family from the usurper Steerpike.

Producer Daniel said: "People have always said it's dark and Gothic, but it's not. It's warm and funny as well as being a great action-adventure story."

As the story begins, the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, named Titus, is born into the family of Groan, which has lived for centuries in the vast castle. Little do they know that the kitchen-boy Steerpike is determined to leave his menial position and achieve control of the House of Groan for himself.

As Steerpike charms and outwits the eccentric inhabitants into submission, only the young Titus stands in his way. Titus and Steerpike eventually will fight a bloody duel against the fantastic backdrop of the disintegrating castle.

Starring as Lord Groan is Richardson, a fan of Peake's novels and a Shakespearean-trained actor who portrayed devious politician Francis Urquhart in an earlier "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation, the "House of Cards." As the 76th Earl of Gormenghast, Richardson plays a man who is weary of both his marriage and the rituals and social pressures of his position. He seeks refuge in his beloved library -- which is torched as part of a plot designed to unhinge his mind.

Lee, the only cast member who actually knew Peake, is a veteran of many Gothic horror films including "The Curse of Frankenstein" and the upcoming "The Lord of the Rings." He plays Flay, Groan's cadaverous manservant. Exiled for mistreating one of the palace cats, he remains faithful to the dynasty and seeks to discover the evil genius who is destroying it.

Rhys Meyers, an Irish-born actor who appeared in "Velvet Goldmine," is the villain Steerpike, who rises from kitchen boy to Master of the Ritual as he plots to topple the House of Groan. The catalyst of the story, he is ruthless and cruel and has a gift for manipulation. Rhys Meyers, however, has said he thinks the ambitious young man is lonely and wants to be loved.

Celia Imrie is Gertrude, Countess of Groan, a woman who prefers birds and cats over her own newborn, Titus. (She tells his nanny, "Bring him back when he's 6.") Weary of her royal role, she is nevertheless the person who first identifies the threat Steerpike poses.

Cameron Powrie, 13, plays Titus as a boy; Titus at age 17 is played by Andrew Robertson.

Scottish actress Neve McIntosh plays Lady Fuchsia Groan, Gormenghast's spoiled princess. As Steerpike rises to power, Fuchsia's infatuation with him grows -- she thinks he is a romantic adventurer -- and she becomes one of his first victims.

Zo{hstar} Wanamaker and Lynsey Baxter are the demented twin aunts, Clarice and Cora, whose fixation on the trappings of power leads them into a ruinous alliance with Steerpike.

Also in the cast are fancifully named players who provide the humor: John Sessions is the astute Prunesquallor, the bizarre surgeon-in-chief who delivers Titus; Richard Griffiths is the monstrous Swelter, homicidal head of the palace kitchens and Flay's competition for supremacy; Stephen Fry is the narcoleptic Professor Bellgrove; and June Brown is Nannie Slagg, elderly guardian to teenage Fuschia and Titus.

Mervyn Peake created the fantasy world of Gormenghast during his British Army service in World War II. With the publication of "Titus Groan" in 1946, he developed a cult following that included both teenagers and literary critics.

Robert Ostermann, writing in Britain's National Observer, compared Peake's fantasy novels to the classics: "To speak of these novels as being 'about' anything is as inadequate as saying 'The Odyssey' is about a man trying to get home to his wife. Such fiction is first and foremost about itself . . . and it imposes itself with obsessive force on the reader."

Born in 1911, the son of a missionary doctor in China, Peake was sent to England's Eltham College, in Kent. He drew upon these schoolday memories later in his writing. As a student, Peake enjoyed practical jokes, but he based those of Steerpike on the more savage pranks of his classmates Graham Greene and Dylan Thomas. Although "Gormenghast" includes mordant humor and sudden scares, Peake was a quiet, reserved and gentle man who disliked jokes that frightened people.

Still, according to the BBC, Greene's influence on Peake cost him a potential fortune. As "Titus Groan" was about to be published in 1946, Peake asked Greene whether he should demand a flat rate or a royalty from Pan Books. Greene advised taking the flat rate. But Pan Books became a huge success; if he had demanded a royalty, Peake could have made more money from that deal than he ever did from his writing.

Peake, a gifted book illustrator, wrote poetry, plays and other novels, but "Titus Groan," "Gormenghast" (1950) and "Titus Alone" (1950) made his reputation. He had planned to write more about Titus, but, ravaged by Parkinson's disease, Peake died in 1968 at age 57.