First, an apology. I’ve watched lots of good films over the last week (Hot Fuzz, Capote, Kingdom of Heaven a-bloody-gain), and one that left me with a big daft grin on my face (From Dusk till Dawn, the double-disc set of which I picked up for an incredibly cheap £3.99 at Tesco). There was no shortage of material that could have been turned into a soul searching, factually dodgy thousand-word tract here, indeed I’d jotted down a wealth of ideas about Capote, which I saw for the first time since its cinema release and enjoyed even more this time around. Of course, it was Oscar time, and another chance for me to knock one out over the way the Academy never seems to honour the best films, but rather those that make some sort of political sense i.e. The Departed winning, which has nothing to do with it being so much better than anything else out there (it wasn’t), and instead came across as a belated apology to Martin Scorsese for disdaining him all these years. I have no problem with this as such, yet sucking up to ‘Sykes’ means the really good stuff from 2006, like United 93, The Prestige and Pan’s Labyrinth, are out of the running entirely. Some mistake, surely.
Still, I could ramble on about this for pages, and might yet some day, but for now some words on the thing that has dominated my viewing recently, the boxset of HBO/BBC’s Rome Season One. This is a show I was always going to watch. I’m a sucker for those old epics of the 1950s, just as I am for a good yarn, and the tale of the Roman Republic’s bloody demise as it shifted into imperial gear makes for one of the past’s greatest stories. Back when I was doing my History degree, any units concerning Rome were no-brainer choices. To be fair though, getting the jist of it wasn’t easy. In order to fully appreciate how the Republic was undermined, you need to understand the complicated system of government that ran it; even more important was the network of patronage and clientele that kept the longstanding upper classes in positions of power for centuries. To a degree, the corruptions inherent within the Roman Republic can be found all over the world today, but for a long time they were an acceptable part of life. People might not have liked the way they were kept under the thumb, the methods that ensured they knew their place and rarely had an opportunity to move out of their social order, yet that was how it was. Deal.
Once I got to grips with all this, the rest slotted into place neatly. I saw how the likes of Sulla, Pompey and Caesar all played their parts in chipping away at the Republic’s constitution and strata until it became ultimately untenable. But it took time, and this is the main challenge facing the makers of Rome. Sensationally, the BBC decided to chop the three first episodes of the series into two, believing that British viewers knew more about the subject than they might in America. It’s fortunate that I was desperate enough to see this not to wait for the mangled version screened over here, instead getting the Stateside editions virtually as they premiered. I think the Beeb’s logic simply makes no sense, and would choose to go with the counter-argument - that they opted for the liberal amounts of gore and sex to put out an affair that would no doubt boost viewing figures and court controversy. This it might have achieved in the first instance, but Rome was a flop overall in terms of viewing figures in the UK, barely scraping into the top 100 shows of the year. There are various reasons for this, of course, but a factor must have been the nonsensical mess that constituted those two opening episodes, cutting out vital information about the Republic’s political and social framework that underpins the entire series. Add to this the apologetic lack of publicity (constrast Rome’s promotion with, say, Doctor Who, and you get a real idea of how some programmes get a raw deal) and you have a show that was always going to struggle. Considering the amount of money ploughed into it by both the BBC and HBO, Rome’s handling in the UK seems to have only one foot in reality.
Had Rome been a load of old tosh, all the above might be understandable. But it isn’t. As with most HBO productions, it’s lavish, authentic, clever, witty and extremely adult. Major studios ditched the production of antiquity-centred epics years ago because they cost too much money, and untold millions were ploughed into this also. You can see where those dollars went, because Rome looks great. The forum, recreated at Italy’s Cinecitta’s studios, was the largest film set ever built, and it’s a riot of colour, columns, smoke and grime, as this is supposed to be a working town centre that has been in place for a long time. The backstreets, stuffed with people and the non-stop sounds of daily life, are like being back in the suburae of two thousand years ago. Its costumes are just as spot on. With designer culture taking over today’s society, it’s not always easy to spot the rich from the working class, but you would definitely have been able to tell the difference in those days. From the nobles at the top of the food chain, through to street beggars, everyone looks wholly authentic. To all intents and purposes, once you start watching Rome, you’re there. It’s not like the pristine marble columns of a 1950s movie - this is a lived in place, where the streets are maps of cracked pacing stones, a wall rarely passes without graffitti and an undercurrent of unknown threat exists in every shadowy street corner.
The story takes place between the years 52 - 44 BC, and is largely set against the power struggle between Pompey and Caesar for hegemony over the Republic. Both men aim to be Rome’s ‘First Man;’ each is in a position to manipulate things to help secure his succession. Gnaeus Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham) is older, an established top dog, whose last name - ‘Great’ in Latin - has been bequeathed to him by a grateful state. Though not originally from Rome itself, Pompey has the backing of the Senate as he aims to overcome Caesar’s rising star… Or is it the other way round? For all the subservience dealt to him, Pompey seems far happier spending time with his family than dealing with the servile politicians that surround him. Tired of ‘the game’ that is Rome’s political sphere, it appears the constant bigging him up as a figurehead of traditional values is the only thing keeping him involved. Gaius Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds), on the other hand, is the epitome of energy and charisma, and as blue-blooded a Roman as they come. At the start of the series, he’s wrapping up a wholly glorious campaign that has gifted Gaul to Rome. His legions of soldiers love him. Rich he has become on the spoils of war. Caesar is also an arch political manouverer. Knowing full well that his career is building up to conflict with Pompey, he is content to sit and wait for the latter to do something, anything, against him. Once that happens, he can strike, justified that he didn’t make the first move.
In Caesar’s camp is Mark Antony (James Purefoy), a boorish soldier, nowhere near as clever as his leader but with just as much will to dominate. Arrayed against them are such infamous Senators as Porcius Cato (Karl Johnson), who’s desperate to preserve the traditional order of power, Marcus Tullius Cicero (David Bamber), expert orator and outright coward, and Marcus Junius Brutus (Tobias Menzies). The latter, from one of Rome’s oldest families, waivers between a personal friendship with Caesar and the burden of history. In reality, he’s led through the nose by his mother, Servilia (Lindsay Duncan). In her, we see the position women play in Roman society. Far more important than may be believed, Servilia does nothing less than shape Rome’s history after she is shunned by Caesar and subsequently curses him to death. It is she who will lead poor indecisive Brutus to go down in history as the man who literally stuck the knife in… Servilia’s true enemy is Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker), voluptuous, sexed up and an utter snob. As history proves, however, Atia happens to be the well placed mother of Gaius Octavian (Max Pirkis), who one day will emerge from this as Rome’s first Emperor, but here is presented as a fey book reader who rarely gets the chance to use his massive intellect.
A tale of the movers and shakers that played decisive role in the Republic’s future would be enough, but Rome has more to offer. In telling us the story of common men, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), the series explores what life was like for the underclasses and how they coped in a city where paid jobs were being mopped up by slave labour. Badly is the answer. Once Vorenus and Pullo have left the army following Caesar’s entry into Rome, both fail largely in their civilian ventures. Family man Vorenus has an unresponsive wife, and children who barely know him following his eight-year campaign in Gaul. At least he has a home, whereas Pullo gets into one scrape after another, coming out of them somehow (nearly) intact and learning not a thing.
Rome is a city ruled by its passions. Sex is performed openly, often and with as many partners as possible. Murder is commonplace. Life in this place is cheap, and people live as fully as possible, as shown in numerous scenes that has earned the series a rather obvious 18 certificate. However, the performances are fantastic throughout, especially from Stevenson and McKidd. The latter, with his craggy, hooded face and serious countenance, is fast earning a reputation for reliable standout performances, as witnessed previously in Trainspotting, Dog Soldiers and Kingdom of Heaven.
A superb series, Rome has been criminally underused by the BBC. The second season is currently at its midpoint in the USA, but as yet there are no plans to screen it here. No doubt it will be shuffled out at some stage later in the year. It deserves better. Rome performs a difficult balancing act in taking a complicated, unravelling story, and keeping things interesting. Watching it, you realise just how little you might have learned about Roman life from the likes of Gladiator and The Fall of the Roman Empire, good films in both cases but barely scratching the surface of their subjects. It’s not for the squeamish, or for those easily offended by scenes of a sexual nature, which take place all the time. However, for lovers of engaging drama with masses of story, complex characters (you might like Caesar, but you wouldn’t trust him as far as you could throw him), and lavish production values, it’s difficult to beat.
The DVD boxset of Season One, which is worth shopping around for, is amongst the best packaged I own. The sturdy box helps greatly, and some care has been taken over the imagery and consistent look of the cases and discs. With well used 5.1 sound and a crystal clear look, Rome is as good as any major new motion picture release in terms of its presentation. On the other hand, the extras are a little disappointing, lacking that extra effort with which the likes of The Lord of the Rings have spoiled us. For all that, viewers with a further interest in Roman history can access ‘All roads lead to Rome,’ which brings up further onscreen information during the episodes.