21 June 2013

I, Claudius

I was busy in 1977; therefore I missed I, Claudius when it was first shown. Those were the days without video (uhh?), catch-up television (wot?). This was time before DVD box-sets, a time without +1 or repeats in the middle of the night (shut-up!).

I vaguely recall that Mary Whitehouse got involved, but didn’t she always? I was aware of the series, but didn’t see an episode, so when the BBC showed the first episode as part of their celebration/commiseration of the demise of White City, I tuned in (as we used to say, apparently).

Our eldest daughter wandered at one point and pointed at the black lines at either edge of the screen “that’s annoying”, pointing out to her that this was filmed before wide-screen television and it was in a 4:3 format didn’t impress her, neither did the make-up, or the acting. She wandered out again.

I watched the whole series in an unconscious nod to the past, I didn’t record it or watch it on catch-up, I turned to BBC4 at ten o’clock on Tuesday and watched the next episode. Then waited a week until the next.

The producers seemed to have raided the RSC and taken everyone standing and given them all a part, look there’s Patrick Stewart with hair before he became a spaceman. Every act was on a stage set, no outside scenes, there was one almost Morecambe and Wise moment when someone was looking out of a window and described the Imperial Guard marching up the hill with their swords drawn before half-a-dozen bit part actors burst in. Nowadays we are not allowed to use our imagination, the hundreds of guards would be on display before us, either with a long shot of epic proportions or via CGI. The murder and mayhem was either off-camera or hidden in robes, killings were inferred, our minds filling in the blanks, case in point is John Hurt as Caligula, blood around his mouth closing the door behind him and telling Claudius not to go in there. We knew what was behind the door, the two previous episodes had been leading up to it, but we didn’t need to see it. It was refreshing to be treated as an adult by television producers, ironically from an age when I was a teenager.

I don’t sit in a rocking-chair with my pipe and slippers, gathering the clan around me as I regale them with tales from the good old days, nostalgia is for the future, I remember the Seventies, they were ‘orrible, grey and boring. Until Steve Jones swore at Bill Grundy it was all miners’ strikes, power cuts and Prog Rock. However, I can’t see how something like I, Claudius would get made today, there would have to be a ‘big’ star involved, there would have to be lavish sets, sex, nudity, graphic violence, sex and an appearance by Olivia Coleman.

I, Claudius was literature on screen, after the last episode I went to my Kindle and downloaded I, Claudius and Claudius the God, I downloaded with mixed feelings, these books should be read from a dusty hardback or a battered paperback and I’ll be on the look out but in the meantime I’ll be reading Robert Graves’ version of Imperial Rome on a 21st Century invention.

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