Monday, November 07, 2005

Rome in the papers

A couple of articles from the weekend papers about Rome.

First off, a news article from the Sunday Times, which reveals that Michael Apted, director of the first three episodes, was not consulted about the BBC's decision to edit those down into two. He seems pretty pissed off, and rightly so. Personally, I don't believe this nonsense about the Beeb deciding that British audiences didn't need so much background information. I reckon that some idiot executive watched the first couple of episodes, decided that they were too slow, and ordered the trims. If the driving factor was to cut out what's unnecessary, then Octavia's disrobing scene could easily have gone. It's already obvious that Atia is prostituting out her daughter to Pompey, and we don't need to see the lecherous old general watching her undress to get that. But that scene had some tit and arse in it, so can't be cut. All the sex and violence has been kept (because it sells), and as a result what gets cut is the story. As Apted says, the end product is something that is quite hard to follow. Let us hope that the British audience really are as educated as the BBC assume, as I can't imagine anyone without some basic knowledge of the fall of the Roman Republic being able to understand what is going on. A.A. Gill's complaint about the programme elsewhere in the same paper, that it was "a mess of confusing storylines. Almost every utterance had to move great marble slabs of plot. It looked like a case of too many producers re-writing editing and patching up," is partly the result of this editing.

It is difficult to imagine something this crass being done with I, Claudius. But that was in the days when producers made decisions about programmes. Now, in the post-Birtian BBC, all power lies in the hands of administrators, such as Roly Keating, controller of BBC2, who has defended the series against claims of prurience by saying "Ancient Rome was a very violent society with utterly different moral values from ours. The series has been written to give the audience an authentic and unsparing portrayal of life in that era at all social levels." Unfortunately, this defence does not work when some of the scenes are made up and never happened. Which leads us to ...

Robert Harris, writing in the Telegraph, delivers a historical critique of the programme, and explanation why that matters, with which I am pretty much in agreement. If a programme puts so much effort into saying how 'authentic' it is, then it's legitimate to point out that this is undone by including scenes that simply didn't happen, especially when such scenes have no purpose other than to get in a bit of gratuitous nudity. Atia is portrayed as she is in Rome not because there is any evidence that she was actually like that, but because Livia and Messalina were memorable characters from I, Claudius, and the writers of Rome wanted a someone to fill that role. Cato becomes a doddering old codger presumably because some one in casting has heard the term 'Cato the Elder' (though this Cato is actually Cato the Younger). The danger is that all the guff about authenticity will lead people to think that this is how it actually happened, and thus educational standards are set back even further.

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