A show on BBC4 about TV depictions of Rome tonight – called something grim like Togas on TV. Not brilliant, but better than it could have been. The jewel in the programme’s crown was I Claudius, naturally (though there was a fair bit of time on a favourite teatime series from the late 70s, The Eagle of the Ninth); its whipping boys included Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Sir Kenneth Clark and the 1983 series The Cleopatras. Wheeler was before my time and Clark – whose Civilisation (note that -is-) is enjoying a new lease of life, thanks to nostalgia and DVDs – can look after himself. The Cleopatras, which might be thought of as a prequel to I Claudius (ending as it does with the Battle of Actium, a discussion of which opens the earlier programme), is another matter, of course. The relatively (and you know what I mean by that) distinguished TV critic Chris Dunkley, one of the programme’s talking heads, said it was generally regarded as the very worst historical drama series of the time (if not ever), conveniently – and very much in the tradition of these shows – forgetting that it would have to contend with the almighty critical derision heaped on its predecessor The Borgias. I’ve always had a sort of regard for The Cleopatras, and disliked the generally low opinion in which it’s been held, though I ought to say that I’m not sure exactly how much I got to see of it in the end, as this was 1983 and I was gallivanting around all over the place during my year off between school and university. I remember I wanted very much to like it, as its lead – playing both the famous Cleopatra (number VII?), whose conversations with her tutor bookended each episode, and one of her like-named ancestors – was an actress I had my eye on, Michelle Newell. (She’s the handicapped daughter in the banned TV version of Brimstone and Treacle.) Anyway, the chilly reception accorded to the show did seem to coincide with her disappearance from TV: I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen and heard her since then, which seems a bit of a pity. Like most of the lukewarm commentators, I wasn’t sure what to make of The Cleopatras, and then, maybe halfway through, I caught a ‘farewell’ scene, which evidently had been written and was being played as a sort of parody of similar scenes. Applying this tongue-in-cheek element retrospectively to episodes I’d already seen, I saw the programme in a quite different, and much improved, light. The writer, Philip Mackie, was very well-established, and it did seem possible that he was trying to do something rather unusual (the only other self-referential show I recall from that period was the second series of Gangsters some five years before). It remains in the critical doldrums, of course, and it’s not likely to be rescued, so I don’t suppose I’ll ever get the chance to see it again.
Despite my youth (12) I was allowed to watch I Claudius when it was first shown on the BBC, and it remains perhaps my favourite drama series (though I’m beginning to feel it goes off a bit after the death of Livia). Its success was fairly instantaneous, and the BBC seems to have tried to replicate this success with a number of series which shared many of its features: historical settings featuring dynastic struggles, distinguished casts, strong, slightly off-kilter writing, plenty of sex and violence… Mesmerised by Claudius, I watched them avidly as they came off the BBC production line. First was The Devil’s Crown (1978), about Henry II and his sons, spanning some 60 years to the death of King John in 1216: there was something rather coarse and ill-structured about this, and it lacked sympathetic characters, despite its excellent cast (eg Jane Lapotaire going through a Livia-like ageing process as Eleanor of Aquitaine), but I was a big fan. I Claudius had had no exterior shots (even the forum was a set), and this went one better in having obviously artificial scenery (at least I think it was supposed to be obvious). Next was The Borgias (1981), which was, I suspect, rather expensive to make, had a good character actor (Oliver Cotton) not really convincing as the lead (Cesare Borgia), and the veteran Italian actor Adolfo Celi completely unintelligible as Pope Alexander ‘Desixt’. By the time of The Cleopatras, I wonder whether people – creatives, viewers, critics – had rather given up on the form, which allowed Philip Mackie to play some games with it. But perhaps this theory gives it too much credit (and it’s no good asking Mackie, who died in the mid-80s).
The BBC4 programme had a nice nostalgic surprise up its sleeve (not, I suspect, that it knew it): a glimpse of the historical advisor on I Claudius, Robert Erskine, gravelly-voiced and scruffy-looking, whose pithy disquisitions on various aspects of classical life and culture were a highlight of many Saturday evenings.
D H Loins
BBC4 is in the middle of a threesome of much-hyped new TV plays. The (inevitably?) dispiriting Fantabulosa, about the unhappy life and longed-for death – and, very occasionally, the spritely/spiteful humour – of Kenneth Williams, was last Monday; next Monday will be an updated sci-fi classic I should have heard of, called A for Andromeda, with a rather interesting-looking cast (and Jane Asher*); tonight (Monday) it was the turn of The Chatterley Affair, which gave us the main contours of the 1963 obsenity trial as well as the more usual kind of ‘affair’ based very (self-)consciously on the posh totty/bit of rough coupling of the book. As a longtime fan of the actress playing the aforementioned pt, Louise Delamere** (whose starring appearances on the nurse series No Angels have had me staring at the TV with my mouth open), the prospect of her playing a 60s version of Connie Chatterley in a play written by the famously libidinous Andrew Davies was too good to pass up. (Davies may be better known for sexing up some of his classic adaptations, but anyone who saw that odd original play of his with David Troughton in the mid-90s – which imdb identifies as A Few Short Journeys of the Heart – will know just how interested in sex he really is: positively Potterish…)
I suppose I was bound to be disappointed, though less by the sex (very conventionally handled in visual terms, though with plenty of Lawrentian f- and c-bombs in the post-coital conversations) than the drama as a whole. The show was the standard modern handsomely-mounted effort with no real centre. There was a surely anachronistic reference to ‘getting to first/second/third base’ with a girl – isn’t that level of Americanism much more recent? – plus a slightly mystifying buggery scene. (Did Davies suddenly lose his nerve while writing it, or did the director tone it down? As it stood, there didn’t seem to be much point to it.) The trial, which these days seems rather quaint, was even more of a foregone conclusion than one might have expected, Davies giving all the pro-prosecution sentiments to a pair of hissable male jurors. I wonder whether it might have benefited from a more imaginative treatment (perhaps connecting the outcome of the trial with the peculiar sexualised/prudish dichotomies that now – still? – surround us), but ‘it was what it was’, I suppose. In the old days a playwright might have allowed himself to follow through with an interesting idea, even at the risk of repeating him/herself or getting a bit soapboxy, and perhaps to give a couple of characters some good and long (if not necessarily realistic) speeches: nowadays, it’s all snippets – ideas and speeches both. (Thus speaks the old nostalgist.)
* Cheap and disingenuous, of course: not only is the great JA always welcome (she was in Deep End, for crying out loud!), she has a good pedigree with sci-fi via that interesting Nigel Kneale series The Stone Tape.
** In an earlier entry I talked, apparently without embarrassment, about a ‘pantheon’ of favourite actresses. Oh, she’s in there all right.
*** Actually, as you might have noticed, there’s no three-asterisk reference. But I’m beginning to wonder if someone who already overuses dashes and parentheses and is now branching out into multiple footnotes might consider reworking their style a little bit…
Another vessel for the Sacre
Caught Riot at the Rite (horrible title) on Saturday night. Various (not necessarily good) reasons for watching this: one, it made me nostalgic for the good old highbrow days of BBC2; two, I’m a big fan of The Rite of Spring, in all its guises; three, I have a terrible weakness for cultural (especially musical) biopics*, courtesy of numerous artistic nudes in those 70s Omnibus shows and an excess of Ken Russell films at an impressionable age. An added bonus was the brief but piquant presence of one of my current pantheon of favourite actresses, Emma Pierson, who is devilishly pretty, with an unmistakable, indescribable voice – is it giggly? is it sexy? – and may possibly be quite good at her job (I’m too blinded by lust to make that sort of call).
The show itself was lush, schematic and lazy, with plenty of the sort of duff clairvoyant comments that historical dramas rarely avoid, and centred around a series of empty relationships: Diaghilev with Nijinsky, Nijinsky with Stravinsky, Stravinsky with Diaghilev. (It didn’t help that the three actors playing these parts didn’t look right – Diaghilev too hangdog, Stravinsky not pointy enough – though to be fair, I don’t really know what Nijinsky looked like: when I think of him, I see a cross between Rudolf Nureyev and the racehorse of the same name.) The Rite/riot itself was done pretty well, and conscientiously, giving us the whole of Stravinsky’s score and much of Nijinsky’s choreography. (The rioters, ie the audience, were a mixed bag, with some funny stunt-casting in there.)
Ironically, given this generosity towards the music, the thing that most troubled me was an apparent lack of confidence in its quality. Both Diaghilev and Monteux (the conductor) were shown cordially detesting the music, but recognising its ‘scandalous’ potential. (An evident companion piece to this film made a few years back, Eroica – about the first performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, with Ian Hart as LvB and featuring a cameo from the great Frank Finlay as the great Franz Joseph Haydn – was much more alive to the significance of its featured work.) The only justification for this attitude, perhaps, would be Stravinsky’s own: a chilly, calculating man – a rationalist in ritualist’s clothing – much given to denying music’s potential for affecting people, he seems to have become a little equivocal about the power of the Rite, in effect shrugging his shoulders and coming up with the celebrated line: ‘I was the vessel through which Le Sacre passed’.
As an habitué of these sorts of shows, I am not short of ideas of my own, and have often thought that the real drama of the Rite’s reception might be shown in a slightly earlier performance, when Stravinsky was joined at the piano by Debussy (apparently sight-reading the score for the first time – being able to read a score ‘like a book’ being one of his talents) for the four-hand version. Debussy was then arguably the most important composer in the world, and it is interesting to think of him having to play the piece that effectively ushered in his successor. (Besides, Debussy has always struck me as one of the most compelling personalities in classical music history, with a fairly scandalous private life: given how beautiful so much of his music is – and how cinematic! – it’s seems odd that no one has considered producing a biopic.)
* Perhaps the guiltiest of my innumerable guilty cinematic pleasures is the truly terrible film A Song to Remember, with Cornel Wilde as Chopin and Merle Oberon as George Sand.