Essays: Last of the Romans |
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Last of the Romans

A HEAVY week, with BBC2’s I, Claudius finishing and Granada’s Laurence Olivier Presents: The Best Play of the Year 19— (fill in the year) starting. Comparisons are odious, but irresistible.

Whereas the Olivier-fest was heavily pre-sold in an attempt to acquire a distinguished reputation before the goods had even hit the screen, the Beeb’s inspired piece of Graves-robbing sprung itself on the world only as it uncoiled, enveloping the helpless, viewer as he watched. It was hard to see how anything so entertaining could be quite serious. On the other hand, when you thought about each episode afterwards, it seemed likely that only something serious could be so entertaining. Which gave you an excuse for watching every episode again.

A measure of the show’s strength was that the tone could slip without unsuspending your disbelief. The orgies never shook loose from the clomping Britishness of their ‘Elstree Calling’ choreography. There were numberless Flanagan and Allen routines when pairs of subsidiary characters in tightly gripped togas met behind a convenient column to tell each other what they already knew and so update us on the plot. Jack Pulman’s admirably thought-out adaptation of Graves — a prodigious job of turning interior monologue into exterior dialogue — had more than the occasional slip into colloquial anachronism. (‘Copulation on a cosmic scale!’ raved Messalina’s lover: P. T. Barnum comes to the forum.) But whatever went wrong, everything went right. The narrative power was always there.

The Emperor whom Gibbon called feeble came more alive each week. In the end it was sad to see Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus cash in his chips. Claudius was so strong a role that Derek Jacobi might have made a reputation out of the speech impediment alone. But just as trouble with ‘W’ was only the central point of Olivier’s famous Hotspur (who, Tynan tells us, died informing Prince Hal that he was food for w... w... w...), so the stammers, tics, limps and drools were only the central point of Jacobi’s plumply rounded Claudius, which had large reserves of reflective stillness to draw upon whenever the Roman action was too grotesque for even the most experienced pontifex to do anything about except contemplate it open-mouthed.

It was all so unimaginably different, said MacNeice, and all so long ago. The different-ness and long-ago-ness were maintained throughout the series, less by trying to prove that the ancient Romans were unlike us than by assuming that they were just like us but living under different laws. Hence the monsters of evil were recognisable in their quirks — we all know a Sejanus and/or a Caligula — but astonishing for the scale on which the quirks were allowed to take effect. The bitches, in particular, were a treat, from Livia through Julia down to Messalina. In the last episode another one showed up, with a name like a fizzy drink: Agrippinilla. She married Claudius and did him in. It was all according to Claudius’s plan.

Agrippinilla hit the divan with Nero, her own son, thereby improving on the incestuous record she had already established by sleeping with her brother Caligula. But Messalina lingers in the mind as being even rottener, perhaps because her baby face was more innocent, until her top lip lifted at the scent of an orgy — a bared fang at the gang-bang’s tang. Top horror among the females, however, was undoubtedly Livia. Nothing proved the robustness of the series more convincingly than the fact that it was able to survive her passing, since she was as watchable as a cobra.

In the last few feet of videotape they all came back, doing a piece to camera as Claudius sat catatonic in the senate chamber. There were all the famous faces, stars of scroll, tablet and papyrus: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula (still camping it up in the infernal regions) and the girls. But the last face you saw was the Sybil’s, saying ‘It’s time to go, Claudius. The ferry man is waiting.’ Bung full of ideas and invention, ‘I, Claudius’ was popular art of a high order.

For a long time Puccini’s was considered to be high art of a popular order. He died execrated by almost every other composer in the world. But there could never be any real doubt that he was a man of genius. All you have to do is listen. Unfortunately the ‘Lively Arts’ presentation of Madame Butterfly (BBC2) made it hard to listen by giving you such foolish things to watch.

Since the whole deal was mimed anyway, there was no need to cast the singers as actors. Placido Domingo, world’s tallest pear-shaped man, just got by as Pinkerton, but Mirella Freni (Mimi in one of the all-time great opera movies, the Zeffirelli ‘La Bohème’) looked about as Japanese as Golda Meir. The production, by one Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, was crap. It takes a twit to imagine that Puccini’s duet for two people anticipating the joys of love can be brought up to date by showing them making love while they sing it. The freeze-frames of Pinkerton and Butterfly rolling in the misty grass must have set Puccini spinning like a gyro in his tomb. Butterfly, of all people! Wallowing in the water margin! Porca miseria!

Esther Rantzen’s series The Big Time (BBC1) wound to a reasonably successful end. Last week’s subject was a stand-up comedian being instructed, by comedians more famous that he, in the techniques of getting laughs. He improved a bit, but you couldn’t help feeling that decent obscurity was his true level. The show was often dodgy in that way. Except for the amazing woman jockey, it was usually apparent that the real reason the aspirants had never got anywhere was that they weren’t too good.

Dickens of London (Yorkshire) has been good viewing of an elementary rags-to-riches kind. So overwrought was I last week re not having seen Grundy meet the Sex Pistols that I forgot to mention how unexpectedly well the much-panned series The Immigrants (BBC1) ended up. The last episode, by Keith Dewhurst, was an acute study of a young man lost between two countries, Australia and Britain. Knew just how he felt. Angels (BBC1) was good again: it’s never not, really. On Tonight (BBC1), Roy Jenkins, departing for Brussels, told Ludovic Kennedy that he feared there was ‘a declining lack of faith in any dogma to solve our solutions.’ Have a nice rest, Roy. On Panorama (BBC1), Milton Friedman faced Thomas Balogh in a battle of the economists: the glib versus the deep. The glib won the debate, since the deep was incomprehensible.

The first of ‘Laurence Olivier Presents’ (Granada) was a diaphanous Pinterpiece, ‘The Collection.’ Helen Mirren’s patent abundance of flesh and blood only served to emphasise how her lines lacked both these substances. Alan Bates, Malcolm McDowell and Olivier himself all acted their heads off, but the play was never as interesting as the accompanying hoo-hah of publicity.

Derek Granger, executive producer of the Olivier series (‘Country Matters’ was his baby), is a master of PR, but there is such a thing as overkill. The two-tone invitation to the preview was a masterpiece. I didn’t go, believing that the tube is where the big projects get cut down to their true size. But I’ll be watching ‘Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’ tonight. After all, Olivier is Olivier, even if Tennessee Williams is Tennessee Williams.

The Observer, 12th December 1976