Saturday, 13 June 2009

I, Claudius: Waiting in the Wings




'Waiting in the Wings' starts with Old!Claudius looking for something and comically (at least, I assume that was the intention) bashing his head on his desk as he crawls all over his study. It turns out he is looking for an old letter Livia sent to Tiberius.

Tiberius, last seen trying to get away and being banished for hitting Julia, has apparently got bored of sitting around on a beautiful Mediterranean island and is whinging that he wants to go back to Rome. The letter has been brought by his astrologer, Thrasyllus, who is consistently predicting that good news is coming, and carefully makes sure to interpret whatever actually turns out to be in the letter as good news. Since Tiberius is threatening to throw him off the cliff if he doesn't prophesy something good, this is unsurprising.

Next we see Julia, whose behaviour is apparently the biggest scandal in Rome, and Antonia, who is planning to leave so that Julia can enjoy her extra-curricular activites in private. Julia's eldest son has died in mysterious circumstances, and she is having her way with a close friend of her second son (among others).

We see the younger generation, bickering and squabbling, and establish who fancies who (apparently none of them will change their affections from the age of 12 onwards). We see that Claudius' mother is thoroughly ashamed of him because of his limp, stammer and apparant stupidity (which, it is suggested, is actually difficulty hearing, not lack of intelligence).

An eagle drops a wounded wolf cub into Claudius' lap and an old astrologer who has randomly stopped by says it means he will care for a wounded Rome. This bit reminds me most of Jon Pertwee's doddery old soothsayer in Carry on Cleo to be honest ('sooth! sooth!'). Antonia sends Livilla to her room without supper - note the Foreshadowing! This is our first view of the adolescant Claudius - scared and covered in blood, but quite fond of the wolf cub.

Livia manipulates Lucius' friend, Julia's lover, into keeping a record of all Julia's indiscretions (a tall order) and even encouraging her.

Finally, we see Augustus again - greyer and utterly grief-stricken over the death of Gaius. He takes out his frustration on a groups of 'knights' (presumably equites), telling them off in no uncertain terms for not getting married and having legitimate Roman children, though he does himself no favours by grabbing Claudius as an example of 'a fine product of a proper Roman union'.

Livia fails to persuade Augustus to let Tiberius back, and he challenges her to produce proof, if Julia has done wrong. She is more successful in getting her granddaughter (through Drusus) Livilla engaged to her grandson (through Tiberius) 'Castor' (really another Drusus, but Graves sensibly thought that would be too confusing) instead of Postumus (Julia's third son).

Orgy time! As orgies go, this one is pretty tame though, just a bit of kissing, a flute, and a woman undressing in shadow, and the camera pans away. The orgies will get more elaborate later in the series - this is an Augustan orgy, and therefore more tasteful.

Next we are introduced to Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, who executed Herod Agrippa's father, his son, shortly after Agrippa's birth. Herod is a bit of a suck-up and is instantly liked by everyone.

Lucius' friend produces his list of Julia's lovers and Livia tells him she has another, less pleasant job for him. Livia manages to manipulate Lucius himself into showing it to Augustus, who had been completely oblivious of the whole thing. Augustus is, to put it mildly, not impressed, though Lucius manages to stay in his good books. We come to BRIAN BLESSED's favourite scene from the whole series - Augustus gathers a group of Julia's lovers together and asks them, one by one, if they slept with his daughter (some of them look pretty old and unattractive - Julia obviously has no taste at all). One of them manages to say 'not slept', apparently thinking this will help, but Augustus does not feel that having sex with his daughter standing up is any better. He stands in the middle of the room and screams,

'IS THERE ANYONE IN ROME WHO HAS NOT SLEPT WITH MY DAUGHTER?'

BRIAN BLESSED says on the DVD that he loves how the viewer knows these men are all doomed. Historically, Augustus probably banished them, as he does Julia, and some historians think that this is why Ovid was banished - because he may have been one of Julia's lovers, or perhaps because his poetry was considered a bad influence.

Head of Augustus, in the British Museum. He looks a bit shocked - maybe someone just told him about Julia...

There's some more screaming as Julia tried to persuade Augustus to talk to her, and she knows that Livia is ultimately responsible. She reminds Livia that she has 2 sons, who both come before Tiberius - a bad idea, as Livia is getting very good at getting rid of people. Augustus stays in his room with his hands over his ears until Julia is gone (sent to a tiny island with no company except the slaves who bring food). Augustus think he is cursed and Livia comforts him, Once again, she tries to get Tiberius back, but Augustus still blames him for abandoing Julia in the first place and refuses.

We cut to Tiberius and Thrasyllus on the island, and George Baker's favourite scene of the series (and mine!). Tiberius is consulting Thrasyllus' horoscope, because he has decided to throw Thrasyllus off the cliff if there is no good news on the latest boat from Rome. Tiberius says the horoscope is very bad and calls a large, heavy set slave to push Thrasyllus off the cliff. Poor Thrasyllus insists there will be good news and sits, clinging to his desk for dear life, as the slave tries to pull him away. Tiberius lets him stay until the imperial courier from the boat has delievered his news.

A soldier appears and gives Tiberius a letter. The letter informs him that Lucius is dead and Augustus has ordered him to return to Rome immediately. Tiberius and Thrasyllus look at each other and both break into peals of laughter, Thrasyllus throwing his hat in the air in joy. The completely baffled soldier says that all Rome is drowned in grief, as Tiberius giggles 'of course they are, its only natural!' The viewer infers from the soldier's report that Livia has hired Lucius' friend to drown him while fishing and make it look like an accident. The unfortunate messenger keeps eyeballing the other two the whole time, while Tiberius and Thrasyllus are barely able to control themselves.

Augustus, when Tiberius returns, is not so happy. He is now almost catatonic with stress and grief, and has obviously been forced to bring Tiberius back somewhat unwillingly, though he refuses to bring Julia back no matter how much the crowds demand it. Livia notes that he is starting to become confused, forgetting which Parthian king he is talking about.

Claudius and Herod find Postumus sitting in the courtyard, upset because Tiberius has been adopted by Augustus as well as himself, and because he misses his mother and brothers, and we pan back to Old!Claudius to end the episode.

The episode as a whole is a bit bitty and feels rather slow, but it does feature two of the best scenes in the series, and by the end of it, Livia has arranged two more murders (it is strongly implied that she arranged Gaius' death as well) and one banishment. There's not as much action as in other episodes, as both the murders and most of the sex happen offscreen, but BRIAN BLESSED wonderfully depicts Augustus as a man who is slowly losing it, Sian Philips is as satisfyingly evil as ever, and that scene with Tiberius and Thrasyllus is utterly hilarious and provides welcome relief from the generally gloomy atmosphere of this episode.

Thrasyllus, trying not to get thrown off a cliff

5 comments:

  1. Well, of course that's BRIAN BLESSED's favorite scene. He gets to do a lot of what he does best. SHOUTING! I think the only role he's ever had that let him shout more would be as the first Black Adder's father. Though I see he's gong to be playing Odin in the upcoming Thor movie. (He's also my pick to play Beorn in The Hobbit, but that's just something I'd like to see.

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  2. Oooh, BLESSED as Beorn... he's too short though, he'd have to be digitally, er, enhanced (hmm, there's no polite way to say that is there?!) to make him look like a really tall guy. I'd be tempted to say Sean Bean would make a good Beorn, but Beorn probably shouldn't look like Boromir!

    I love scenes where he juxtaposes the SHOUTING with the very very quiet controlled voice - as in the I, Claudius scene above, and the scene in Blackadder where he warns Edmund not to fail him as Archbishop.

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  3. Beorn is going to have to be digitally enhanced anyway. IIRC, there's a bit where Bilbo runs between Beorn's legs without brushing the hem of his shirt. I'm guessing at least Hagrid sized. I think Sean Bean is more the type for Bard the Bowman, though, again, he shouldn't look like Boromir.

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  4. Going slightly off topic (The Hobbit) but sticking with Brian Blessed, I recently saw the lovely shouty man himself hosting a very late night Japanese game show called 'Banzuke'. He was wearing weird plastic body armour and was called 'Banzuke Brian'. Of course it's entirely possible I dreamed the whole thing, but check it out if you can!

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  5. Brian Blessed and a Japanese game show - very weird, and yet I can see how that might work! Will have to find it...

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