by Allan Fish
next up in the masterworks of TV series
(UK 1968 324m) DVD2
Removed from the ranks of mankind
p Philip Mackie d Derek Bennett w Philip Mackie book “The Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius m Derek Hilton art Peter Phillips cos Nandi Routh
André Morell (Tiberius), Ralph Bates (Caligula), Freddie Jones (Claudius), Sonia Dresdel (Livia), Barrie Ingham (Sejanus), Roland Culver (Augustus), Eric Flynn (Germanicus), Kevin Stoney (Thrasyllus), John Phillips (Piso), Suzan Farmer (Livilla), Nicola Pagett (Messalina), Charles Lloyd Pack (Crispus), Jerome Willis (Macro), Barbara Murray (Caesonia), Caroline Blakiston (Agrippina), William Corderoy (Drusus), John Paul (Cassius Chaerea), Donald Eccles (Nerva),
The series to which the BBC’s I, Claudius was compared by drama critics of the day lay unseen for the best part of forty years before its arrival on DVD in 2006. In truth, however, any comparisons are a trifle misleading. The later BBC series was based on a deliberately exaggerated melodramatic pair of novels which took as many liberties with Roman history as Shakespeare with 15th century Britain, and also covered a period of time three times greater. More importantly, it followed not fiction but fact, the historical work of Suetonius from which so much Roman history of the period derives. Consequently, I think it is no coincidence that, on comparison, The Caesars is the more scholarly drama, and certainly the least hysterical. Both are great TV serials for different reasons, but for accuracy, toss the Graves adaptation away, this is what you need.
Mackie’s intelligent scripts are based around six pivotal characters – Augustus, Germanicus, Tiberius, Sejanus, Caligula and Claudius – while sticking chronologically to an overall narrative. The series begins with Augustus (Roland Culver, more physically and orally accurate than Brian Blessed) trying to secure the succession, and sees him have to make the choice between his only unruly grandson, Agrippa Postumus (here treated again more accurately than by Graves, who painted him a victim) and his wife’s son, the enigmatic Tiberius. From here it details the entire reigns of the next two emperors, while also showing how their successor managed to survive to succeed them.
Mackie’s scripts rely not so much on the wit and black comedy of the later series, rather in some memorable discussions and sequences that encapsulate the very notion of not just Imperial Rome but absolute power. The most interesting character is the sardonic, taciturn Tiberius who, having been offered the throne, shows reluctance to take it; “you think that rule by one man is a splendid thing because you’ve lived under Augustus. I tell you that rule by one man is the most hazardous form of government ever invented. When the ruler has the power to do whatever his whim dictates then human life and human happiness hang by a rotten thread.” As accurate and succinct a warning against the terrors of his successor Caligula as could be offered. The most memorable discussion again involves Tiberius, alone on his island at Capri, being told some home truths by Nerva, in which the lot of all rulers is summised when Nerva observes “history judges not by intentions, but by results.”
Great scripts do, however, require great actors to breathe life into them, and this one is perfectly cast, with Ingham suitably devious as Sejanus – he even looks Roman – and Freddie Jones at least Derek Jacobi’s equal as the stuttering Claudius who has one mantra; “I just try to survive.” To this reviewer, though it’s Morell and Bates who stand out. The former is superbly dry and inscrutable as Tiberius, one of his very greatest performances, while Bates is truly sensational as Caligula, easily the best interpretation of Rome’s most insane ruler caught on screen, an imperiously contemptuous, despotic tyrant who claims to have invented ‘uncertainty’. It might not have the sexual fun and games of the later series – made in more liberal times – but it has every bit the intrigue, the black and white actually adding to the sense of unease, the shady politics and sense of treachery around every corner, hanging upon every word. It belongs with The Forsyte Saga as the greatest British drama serial of the pre-colour age, and worthy of a place in any small screen Hall of Fame. Ave Caesar!