Friday, 27 November 2009

Bonekickers: Follow the Gleam

I apologise for putting up two Bonekickers posts in a row, but this is the last one, so bear with me. I need to get the DVD back, I'd drafted the post, so I thought I might as well put it out there. After this, no more Bonekickers!

So here we are at the last episode of Bonekickers. Some general thoughts on the series follow the recap.

Usually, when I recap things, I recap while watching the episode, pausing the DVD whenever I need to note something down. It has been suggested to me that, since I haven’t seen Bonekickers before, I might enjoy it more if I watch it through properly first. So I’ve given it a go, and it does help to watch it properly – it makes the whole thing less stilted and the end seems less far away. The recap will be a bit less detailed though, as I have so many hours in the day to spend watching Bonekickers! Also, this one is really, really bonkers…

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: King Arthur did not exist. Nor did Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, Agamemnon, Achilles, Aeneas, Romulus, Beowulf or Father Christmas and I’d be very dubious about Robin Hood. But we’ve discussed this before.

We’re now really, really deep into fantasyland, even borderline horror in places. If you step back and imagine you’re watching an episode of Stargate SG-1 or an Indiana Jones adventure, it’s um, well kinda fun in a this-is-so-bad-it’s-funny sort of way. The problem with Bonekickers is that it acts as if it’s somehow plausible…

The opening credits sum up some of the history of the mysterious sword, which Taggart now names as Excaliber, and show a rather nice shot of a meteorite landing which kind of makes me want to watch Stargate or Buffy. While Taggart muses about the sword and Tennyson, Viv bangs on her door screaming ‘I’m your sister!’ over and over again. Yes, I think she’s got the message now. Gillian screams and throws a book at the wall. Credits.

Glastonbury Tor! I’ve been there! And it’s Dexter Fletcher as an archaeologist! (Dexter Fletcher was the star of Press Gang, an 80s kids TV show that was repeated on Nikolodeon in the 90s. He was also a pirate in Stardust).

An amateur is trying to join in on the Glastonbury Tor dig and Dexter Fletcher dismisses him. The amateur has a strong West Country accent. Come on, BBC, are we still living in the 1930s? Plenty of academics have West Country accents, just as plenty have cockney accents.

The poor unfortunate amateur is dismissed and ridiculed by everyone around him until eventually he gets gruesomely bumped off, a few scenes from now. I realise that this was made before the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, which was discovered by an amateur metal detector who was thoroughly sensible about the whole thing, alerted professional archaeologists (from our university!) to dig it like he was supposed to and will soon be a very rich man because of it. If you want to see a true story about an extraordinary Dark Age find discovered by a lucky amateur, the Staffordshire Hoard is it, and we’re all very grateful to him. (There are no mythical swords in the Staffordshire Hoard I’m afraid, but it’s genuinely an incredibly exciting find which may change, or at least sharpen, our view of Dark Age Britain, which I think is pretty exciting, with or without Arthur).

Taggart’s mother is still mad, and being cared for by a bizarrely rude and pushy nurse. Taggart insists she has neither a sister nor a quest, despite all evidence to the contrary.

NIJ and AL are stuck between Viv and Taggart, who keep sniping at each other, and they take it out on the amateur, but they do all go out to see what he has found at Glastonbury, though not before they’ve made a scene in front of a very confused media whore (who, when Viv asks if she can quit and still get a good reference, asks if NIJ has been bothering her – I like him).

The find at Glastonbury is supposedly part of a large round table with the name ‘Arthur’ on it (and luckily I am spared a great deal of historical whinging by having already seen the episode – luckily even Bonekickers isn’t that ridiculous).

Glastonbury Tor. Where I have been.

The media whore has an encounter with one of Taggart’s stalkers, who appears to have an actual Bristol phone number – I hope that’s not someone’s real number. The amateur is kidnapped while NIJ thankfully explains that they didn’t have circular meeting tables in the sixth century and Taggart insists it’s a fake, though bizarrely AL is the believer this time around. Also, Taggart and Viv are still bickering and Taggart fires Viv. Then the unfortunate amateur is brutally murdered for betraying some scary people to Taggart.

There’s a Tennyson flashback which introduces us to the ‘Disciples of Good Use’, who wander around wearing scary white masks and murder people. Taggart tells NIJ that she thinks ‘Henry Timberdyne’ is after her and he freaks out, explains that ‘Henry Timberdyne’ and the Disciples of Good Use are a secret society who were behind her mother’s madness, then tells her they’re really really scary and he won’t have anything more to do with any of it, and promptly leaves.

Dexter Fletcher and the scary man nick the table fragment and get Viv to tell them what she knows about it. Taggart has established that the table fragment is a fake because she’s found a ring pull buried underneath it, and says a student must have buried it as a joke, and that she did the same as a student. AL tries to kiss her but she’s distracted by Dexter Fletcher talking about the table on the news.

The scary man is really annoyed when he finds out (through Viv) that the table is a fake, and that Dexter has made them all look really silly, so he murders Dexter Fletcher by shutting him in a coffin marked ‘Henry Timberdyne’ with some very large rats. Hmm, interesting method. They all somehow know that Taggart and Viv are sisters too, don’t’ know what’s going on there.

Taggart shows AL her Crazy Room full of drawings of swords and he is a little taken aback. Then they discuss how the sword fits into every episode we’ve seen – forged from a meteor in ancient Mesopotamia, picked up by Alexander (Cradle of Civilization), taken by Romans looting Alexander’s tomb, taken to Britain by Claudius, picked up briefly by Boudicca (The Eternal Fire), it hangs around Britain for a while and is used by Arthur (this one), then – and this is where they really start to struggle – taken by Britons to France fleeing a Saxon invasion (and I feel duty-bound to point out that we’re not sure the Saxons did invade, they may just have settled in less populated areas), the Templar Knights get it to St Joan (Army of God and The Lines of War – this link with Joan of Arc is really odd and kinda pointless, as it goes nowhere, they’re just desperate to shoehorn The Lines of War in somewhere), the remenants of the Knights Templar then recovered it, moved to Portugal, then the Portugese traded it with the Ashante from West Africa, they ended up shipwrecked in the Bristol Channel (Warriors) and the sword was lost. Where everyone has been going wrong has been stopping with Arthur and not knowing all the stuff our guys have been finding out.

Taggart finds a random face on her wall , meaning someone has been in there, but AL just thinks she’s going completely crazy at this point, like her mother, and has drawn it herself, so they have a big fight and he storms off. Meanwhile, Viv is in a room full of the scary white masks. How and why did she get there? No one knows! Viv refuses to share information, so the scary men shut her in the coffin, but without the rats this time – they just want to torture/scare her into talking. They try to get Taggart, but miss her because she’s in her mother’s secret underfloor hiding place where she keeps baby photos of Viv. Wow, that’s an impressive nursing home/asylum, that comes with secret underfloor compartments!

The media whore helps Taggart go through her mother’s old letters and a bunch of information about Tennyson and his friend Hallan, who got himself murdered by the Disciples of Good Use for. They actually work really well together and are both rendered less annoying – this part made me want to watch another series with just those two in it. They find a coded receipt from which Taggart works out that a beachcomber found the sword, handed it in to Hallan, the Disciples got involved and wanted to take over the country and killed him, and he left it to Tennyson as ‘the gleam’ with the words ‘know that the quest is everything’, and Tennyson buried it.

Outside Viv’s tomb, NIJ comes out from the bushes, decks the guard and rescues her, introducing me to a new sensation – being pleased to see him. They go back to headquarters (where the media whore amusingly lets slip that he fancies Taggart). They all work out from Tennyson’s In Memoriam that Tennyson buried the sword with Hallan, and NIJ explains that he helped Taggart’s mother as an undergrad and spent some time in the coffin as a result. The grave contains a letter with another clue, sending them to Wells Cathedral.

The sword turns out to be underneath a lake – OK, well – near the cathedral – of course. NIJ and Viv go to the cathedral to nose around, which is a bad idea of course, as they get attacked by the scary men, causing NIJ to yell ‘Don’t mess with me, I’m an archaeologist!’ I think they’re trying to replicate the hilarity and tone of something like Rachel Weisz’s line in The Mummy, where she says ‘I know what I am – I’m a librarian!’ with great pride, but it doesn’t really work. Taggart goes under the water to find the sword and AL has to abandon her to go and help the other two, which he does by wielding a mace, which is very cool.

Our guys win the fight, of course, and rush back to Taggart, who emerges triumphant from the water, holding the sword aloft, just like the Lady of the Lake. This bit is actually genuinely cool in a really cheesy way. She hugs Viv and apparently all is forgiven.

Then it all gets even weirder. A white-haired scary man in white mask turns up. He takes the sword and attacked Taggart, and manages to totally break it. Taggart points out that after thousands of years it’s destroyed itself in his hands, and he promptly drowns himself. Hmm.

Sacry man in scary white mask with sword.

They take the broken sword to Taggart and Viv’s mother so she can hold the hilt, then chuck it back into the lake because ‘the quest is everything’. OK then. Though the chucking back into the lake part is genuinely nicely evocative of Arthurian myth.

And that’s it. Bonekickers is finished.

This episode left an awful lot of questions unanswered. OK, we know Viv is Taggart’s half-sister, produced while Taggart and her mother weren’t in contact for a year, but who was her father? How did they meet? Did Taggart senior have an affair, or was she single by then? Why does Taggart think Viv was lying when it was clearly just an omission of the truth? And so on, and so forth. All the backstory they’ve been hinting at all series didn’t really come to much, in the end, other than an excuse for Taggart to yell at Viv some more.

Also, we vaguely get the impression that Taggart senior was driven mad by the scary men’s coffin-torture, but a little clarification might have been nice. And what about Taggart and AL? How can I go on with my life without knowing whether they get back together or not??!!

I have to confess, though, I enjoyed this episode more than the others. Maybe my friends are right and I just needed to watch it properly and not type at the same time. Maybe the Arthurian subject matter allowed me to let go a bit and give up on actual history, and just enjoy the ride. Maybe the gruesome murders made it a bit more interesting, Maybe all of the above. Who can say?! Actually, in all honesty, I think it’s the fantasy thing. I knew that this episode was going to be pure fantasy from start to finish, so I relaxed and let it go in a way that’s not possible in a story which keeps getting its preachy act on about World War One, or Iraq, or slavery. When Bonekickers starts mangling serious issues, it’s problematic. When it just lets itself go on a flight of fancy, it can be quite fun.

The basic problem with the series is that they want to make something that’s plausibly about archaeology, but they also want every episode to put our heroes in mortal danger, and preferably they want each episode to have some kind of social or historical moral as well – and to be about something that is still a current issue.

Now I’m all for making history exciting, and for exploring the history behind current issues. But Bonekickers’ combination of over-earnestness and the need to include the danger element is disastrous for this side of things. The history of the slave trade and the long and distinguished ancient history of Iraq and Iran are important things to explore and to improve public awareness of, but attaching them to stories where people try to kill our heroes does no good whatsoever. And don’t get me started on their attitude towards religion…

The other problem is that it’s one thing to write a science fiction or fantasy show in which King Arthur and the Tablet of Destinies really exist and the it’s somehow possible to locate the True Cross, because we all suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. If Stargate wants to pretend that the pyramids are really spaceships, then fine. But Bonekickers very carefully avoids any element of either science fiction or fantasy (with the possible exceptions of the glowing True Cross and the meteor from space that Excaliber is forged from). If the show is not SF/F, then presumably it is intended to be plausible and reasonably realistic.

There are plenty of shows that take a real job – policeman, doctor, pathologist, surgeon – and take some liberties with reality to make it seem more exciting. Most hospitals do not experience helicopter crashes as often as the one in ER does, and most rural detectives do not work on a different bizarre murder case every week. But Bonekickers just goes way too far – it’s one thing to insert a bit of excitement, and quite another to insist on the reality of King Arthur and Excaliber in a supposedly realistic programme.

View from the top of Glastonbury Tor.

I suspect the main comparable thing is The Da Vinci Code, but I very deliberately haven’t seen the film or read the book, partly because I can’t be bothered spending time reading something that will just annoy me, and partly because I don’t want to spend every social event where I have to make small talk with strangers explaining the many, many ways in which it’s wrong. My big issue with it is that people think it’s real – I once overheard a woman in a restaurant proclaiming loudly that it was all based on ‘real historical fact’ and shuddered. I doubt anyone will think Bonekickers has any relationship with reality, but it doesn’t really help, and I would just enjoy something so silly much more if it threw in a few aliens or witches or something so I know where I stand.

I believe some of my friends are planning to get together and watch Bonekickers with some booze one evening. If I can possibly join them, I will, as I think that is the way to really appreciate Bonekickers. Try to take it seriously, and it’s a disaster. Drink, laugh, admire the sexy men, revel in the cheesy action moments and enjoy mocking lines like ‘use you archaeological imagination’ and it could be a really good evening in.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Bonekickers: The Lines of War


Two more episodes of Bonekickers to go, which I must get on with before Dave breaks into my house to steal his DVD back...

Someone runs across muddy ground in Verdun, France, 1431, while someone recites pretentious sounding prose about hope over the top. We are told this is ‘577 years before the Hypermarket’ – coz, you know, none of us can do maths ourselves. The man is a monk who arrives with something at a nunnery and says, in German, 'Ich habe sie' - I have it. Then the camera cuts abruptly to dead, staring faces in a World War One trench and we are told that this is ’91 years before the Hypermarket’ (so, 1917). It’s snowy and some soldiers are coughing in a sickly manner (one of them is the rather handsome James D’Arcy – good name). The we cut to some French builders in much sunnier weather (though still pretty cold judging by the trees) and are told it is now ‘8 months before the Hypermarket’. We get it, they’re building an hypermarché. Move on! The French builders find something in the ground that makes one of them look very shocked. Title sequence.

As an interesting aside, as our guys drive through France on the wrong side of the road, the subtitles (which I’ve put on so that I catch all the French) list the wrong song – they think our guys are listening to Bohemian Rhapsody. They’re not. I guess they couldn’t get the rights to it…

Apparently they've come because the Commonwealth War Graves Comission requires that a British team excavate a British find. They find a buried British tank (that, again, no farmer doing the ploughing, or, for that matter, soldier with grenades in World War Two found in the whole ninety years since it was left there) with 'Joan' written on it, which Taggart explains is because of a habit the British had of writing women's names on their tanks. AL reckons the tank has been deliberately buried, which is definitely a bit weird. Then we get a bit of random trivia about the history of tanks and Taggart is mean to Viv again. Taggart reckons the fact she's being stalked gives her the right to yell at Viv, partly because she seems to think Viv has something to do with it.

NIJ accidentally sets off a grenade. Oops. Except it doesn't go off. AL seems to think that a dustbin can will protect him from a grenade going off. And this man has at least two degrees??!! Do the French not have a bomb disposal squad?

There's a bunch of bodies, burned, in the tank and NIJ gives Viv a talking to about how this isn't history because it's too recent, so it still counts as an atrocity. NIJ identifies the bodies as British because he finds traces of marmite. In the burned out tank. Marmite = totally fireproof - who knew?!

There's some obligatory banter with a smartly dressed Frenchman about the French surrendering all the time. Clearly I am the only person in the world who thinks that that joke has gotten really old. A German woman arrives, who Taggart does not seem to like, and who insists that if NIJ comes near her, he must be muzzled - I like her. Taggart acts like a child on the playground, insisting that it's her dig.

AL points out that Verdum was a French/German line and the British shouldn't have been there, but Viv insists the marmite proves it, because apparently it's impossible for two allied sides to exchange tanks or yeast products. They also discover that a German shot at them in the tank, which Viv thinks is horrible - maybe someone needs to explain the concept of war to her (it's all horrible).

There's a whole bunch of antagonism between the Brits and Germans, which is ridiculous - football fans may behave that way, but classicists and archaeologists are generally all for greater contact across Europe and German was the language of Classics (and science) for years. If I had handed in a thesis with no French or German books on the bibliography, I would not be doing very well. Taggart tries to claim they only hate the one German (the woman, Becker, whom I will refer to as she-Boris from now on, after my favourite tennis player and first crush from when I was about five) but the whole narrative set=up is really pathetic. Taggart accuses the French and Germans of looking for glory - Taggart, meet this black kettle.

They get some skin off the corpses because it was preserved by peat (which is really gross) and finds a tattoo of the cross of Lorraine, a French heraldic tattoo. The soldiers were shot in the back of the head, execution style, so Taggart says they must be looking at a war crime.

She-Boris thinks history is a puzzle too, so she just went right down in my estimation. Viv finds a picture of the tank and some soldiers in an old issue of King and Country (recommended by Blackadder as 'soft, strong and thoroughly absorbatn') and oh my goodness, it's Owen from Torchwood. No offence to Burn Gorman, who I'm sure is a lovely person, but Owen (and the others, except Tosh and the lovely Captian Jack) annoyed me so much I've only ever bothered to watch two or three episodes of Torchwood. NIJ can apparently tell he was 'a nice fellow' from the photo though, so that's me told. One of the men in the picture survived the war and wrote for King and Country, which NIJ reminds us was propaganda, but Viv says this particular writer wasn't so into that.

Captain Jack, Tosh and Owen in Torchwood

AL tells she-Boris whats going on at last. Taggart's mother is sick, so she starts yelling at Viv again and says she can't go home and see her until they get the bodies back to England - which is utter nonsense, the others could do that perfectly well without her and she could head home on the next flight. Viv is reading the pretentious prose from the beginning, which it turns out was written by the lovely Mr D'Arcy.

In flashback, Owen tells the other soldiers in the snow that the French and Germans are both pulling back and there's no one else left, then Mr D'Arcy offers him some marmite brew - just in case we, the viewers, are so incredibly stupid that we haven't worked out that these are the soldiers we're dealing with. 'Joan' is apparently stuck in the mud and Owen doesn't like Winston Churchill. Owen carries a book he 'found' while doing a research thesis which apparently reveals the weapon that will end the war, which Owen reckons he has.

Back to Taggart, moping. A sinister shadowy figure tries to put us all out of our misery by setting her tent on fire, but she's rescued by someone from the MoD. Taggart thinks the Germans did it, while a French girl accuses AL of killing her dog (it was actually the shadowy figure) and NIJ insists that accusing someone of killing your dog constitutes a declaration of war. Seriously, who these people? I know all workplaces contain elements of the playground - little cliques, gangs, gossip, sadly sometimes bullying - but this lot are ridiculous. They seem to think they're all still in primary school, just with a slightly better knowledge of history. MoD guy, unsurprisingly, is the only sensible one. He's an archivist, come to document their findings. He's also the only person who doesn't keep hand-wringing about how terrible it all is and doesn't insist on jumping to conclusions at every tiny detail. I really like him.

One of the bodies is a German called Grüber - surely not Lieutenant Grüber??!! No, wrong war (though it is in a tank...). Our guys realise this might be a British war crime. (Why are they so obsessed with this anyway? There's no one left to bring to trial. It's interesting, sure, but not that nail-bitingly stressful. And why oh why isn't Taggart on her way back to Britain to her sick mother? She's not a soldier, she's an archaeologist - she doesn't have a duty to dead bodies!).

Flashback again. A body is hanging and Mr D'Arcy finds it. The we're in the woods and a German walks towards our guys, who turns out to be a dear friend of Owen. The two of them (and a third, who has a moustache) want to find a weapon that will 'stop the killing overnight' - what is it, the Ring of Power? More Viv reading the pretentious prose over film images from World War One, one showing a very slim Winston Churchill - I wonder if these are real? That would be cool.

Mr D'Arcy, it turns out, had been a corresspondant of Winston Churchill, and spent his life after the war in an asylum, possibly because he started wittering to Winston Churchill about the lost Weapon of Lorraine (not the Ring of Power after all). Owen and his friends knew each other at Oxford. The media whore just wants to bury the bodies, which makes him a pretty rubbish archaeologist, while MoD guy wants to take over the site to stop Taggart causing another war.

Too late - outside, the French and the Germans are fighting because someone has hung up what looks like a guy from Guy Fawkes night with a Lorraine cross on it. If that person is found, they will be sent to bed without any supper. Then she-Boris goes off on one about the Brits and the French seeing the Germans as monsters, so I think we've moved into a different war entirely.

NIJ is humming Flight of the Valkyries - how very inappropriate. Meanwhile, someone has got rid of all their evidence, and the media whore says they have to go. As they prepare to leave, Viv discovers that our guys, including Grüber, were archaeologists - I hope she remembers what early 20th century archaeology was like. Oh right - it was like Bonekickers, but without the excitement. They were all obsessed with Joan of Arc, so we get to see Joan being burned alive at the stake.

Engraving of Joan of Arc in battle from Le Brun de Charmette’s L’Orléanide poème national

Suddenly, we see the monk and nun again while Taggart and NIJ give us a quick history lesson on Joan of Arc, then declare, on the basis of no evidence, that the French and Germans conspired to move her bones to Lorraine. Apparently the incredible weapon that was going to end the war was.... some relics. Uh-huh. You can totally end a massive war with some old bones. Oh yeah.

AL finds Owen's book in the pigeon carrier in the tank (where else would you keep a pigeon carrier?!), which is written in medieval Latin but has some co-ordinates pencilled in, showing our guys where to go. And oh look - another hole in the ground that no one has looked into in ninety years, even while there was another war going on around them. The flashbacks are mingled with the modern stuff. The soldiers are all convinced that the bones will make the French surrender (I really, really don't understand why that would be the case) and Owen says he has saved his country, along with everyone else's from more slaughter, while Mr D'Arcy calls him a traitor for letting the Germans win. If only there was someone there to tell them that some ancient Catholic relics will not make the slightest bit of difference to the war. Mr D'Arcy thinks if Germany win they will annexe Britain - wrong war again. According to Mr D'Arcy, the war will be over but Britain will be crushed. What, the entire British empire? Which, at this point, covered about a quarter of the globe? They seem blissfully unaware that there were other countries fighting with Germany as well, but I guess that might be the result of British propaganda, so I should give them that.

Owen is suddenly convinced by this speech and starts looking very suspiciously at his German friends. Then everyone pulls their guns out, Owen shoots a German, Grüber swallows his nametage to enable identification of his body and Mr D'Arcy executes all the Germans.

Why on earth would tje bones of a heroine make the French surrender? No, I really shouldn't give it that much thought.

Our guys reach the tomb and find Joan (who really ought to be in a reliquary). And a British bullet. Then MoD guy turns up and it turns out he was sabotaging the dig to try to stop the story coming out (which is as surprising as a bear sh*****g in the woods, being as he was the only obvious suspect for the pyromania etc). The whole cover up was orchestrated by Winston Churchill, who was told by Mr D'Arcy and the military have been covering up ever since.

Then there's a bunch of political stuff about the current war, which won't make a whole lot of sense to future audiences. MoD guy thinks a ninety year old scandal will destroy the reputation of his regiment and decides to execute them, though he first explains to Taggart that three soldiers were shot in the crypt, three in the tank - Mr D'Arcy shot his own men to cover it up. Our guys think their number is up - so Taggart is finally nice to Viv - but MoD guy buggers off.

NIJ is all excited that he might have discovered Joan of Arc. Hehe. Taggart apologises to she-Boris. Back in the UK, she and Viv visit her mother, and Viv reveals that she is actually Taggart's half-sister. Taggart stomps off. The End.

Well, that was... that. Um. Burn Gorman's character was actually less irritating in this one. Definitely glad I didn't decide to watch this on Remembrance Day. I think the rest of it speaks for itself, really. Just when you thought you'd hit rock bottom with Bonekickers, you find another 50 feet of rubbish. Next time, thankfully, the last episode, which involves lots of blood (sadly not Taggart's) and, I am led to believe, King Arthur. Sigh.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Horrible Histories: The Rotten Romans


I don't usually cover actual history books on this blog, because I'm generally more interested in fictionalised versions of the ancient world, though there are many "factual" (to a greater or lesser extent) programmes and books that are undoubtedly designed to be "popular". I'm making an exception for these books though, because they were my first ever exposure to ancient history.

Back when I was in primary school and thought Romans were boring, two new books came out and were advertised to us via the book club the school subscribed to. Several people bought The Terrible Tudors, including me - I was always very interested in the Tudors, especially Henry VIII and his six wives. I enjoyed it a lot, so I started collecting the books (I continued to try to own all of them for years, until eventually I had to give up as the cost of children's books started to skyrocket). The Rotten Romans was the third book to come out, in 1994 (The Awesome Egyptians was released at the same time as The Terrible Tudors, in 1993).

The books consist of lots of different written elements - quizzes, cartoon strips, pretend newspaper articles and diaries, timelines and other bits and pieces - and cartoon illustrations. I loved them, and repeated their jokes ad infinitum (still do - one of my favourites was The 20th Century (published 1996)'s prediction that we would all drown in fridge suits in the year 2000, at least, those of us who survived Mad Treacle Disease). This is where I first learned that Caligula made his favourite horse a senator (which, actually he didn't - Dio Cassius only says that he thought about making his horse a senator consul but died before he got the chance), that Boudicca is buried under Platform 10 of King's Cross Station (no idea if that's true, though I suspect not - and according to Bonekickers, she's in Bath!) and that, when he caught her plotting against him, the emperor Claudius had not only his wife Messalina executed but hundreds of her 'party friends' as well.

(Edited to add: It has been pointed out to me that both Dio Cassius and Suetonius write that Caligula intended to make Incitatus a consul, not a senator - see comments. This is entirely true - but I have a feeling The Rotten Romans, I, Claudius or both say 'senator', which is why I always make that mistake. When I can get hold of them, I will return with the answer).

You can see some of the problems with the books from the examples above - there are the sort of inaccuracies you get with broad generalisations, as in the Caligula's horse story, the books rely a lot on 'fun' trivia regardless of likliehood, like the Boudicca story, and they have to be censored for a young audience - those 'friends' were Messalina's lovers. They also focus, as the title suggests, on the gory side of things, on the assumpion that kids love gore, though some children (like me - I used to cry all through assemblies where upsetting stories were told) don't actually like gore or enjoy hearing nasty stories. (Not that I think things aimed at children should be censored or have all the scary stuff taken out, it's only a problem if they're treated as an educational tool and children are forced to endure something that upsets them).

Overall, though, I think the books are a great introduction to history for children. They try to introduce the concept of historical enquiry - I remember one which explained the controversy over the death of Christopher Marlowe - and they get children interested in history. For years, all I knew about the Romans was gleaned from The Rotten Romans. I still enjoy the books and find them hilariously funny, and one of these days, when I win the lottery, I'll collect them all...

The image at the top of the page is the original 1994 book cover, which I have to say, I much prefer. This is the new cover, and apparently there's some new content in this edition as well.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Bonekickers: The Cradle of Civilisation


Obligatory opening bit filmed by the legendary cameramen of the ancient world: Babylon, 331 BC. Bother – I thought this episode was going to look at ancient Mesopotamia – as in, something from the nearly 3,000 years of history that doesn’t get mentioned often enough in popular culture – but it looks like it will be about Alexander the Great, or something related. Not that there’s anything wrong with Alexander the Great, of course. The next title says ’50 miles south of Baghdad’. This is probably necessary – I’m not sure how many people realise where these places actually were. (One of my favourite ways to make small talk at parties where I can’t think of anything to say is to point out that civilization began in Iraq. People are always surprised). Something weird happens involving a digital special effect. Huh?

Modern day – soldiers everywhere, obviously (this show is very recent, made in 2008). A press van is shot at and a journalist hides in a hole in the ground, where he finds a skeleton and a box with a vase in it. Which no one else had noticed before (like the random ship on Breen).

Back in England, Taggart is pestering her mother about a stolen notebook. The journalist (an American) has made it back that far and is still playing with the pot.

A delegation from Iraq are visiting a Babylonian collection in Bath (I’m pretty sure no such thing exists). They include an archaeologist. The show is referring to as many exciting Babylonian things as it can – the Ishtar Gate and so on – but since it doesn’t explain what they are, it doesn’t mean much.

The archaeologist is an old friend of our lot and stops by for a chat. They all talk a lot about how wonderful ancient Iraq was and about the terrible problems caused by war and looting – all of which is absolutely true and I heartily agree with, but it’s delivered so earnestly as to be very dull and not very engaging. The archaeologist (Kahmil) says he has a brick from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and AL insists they were mythological, but for once I don’t agree with him – they may well have been real. But it turns out that the real problem is that Taggart slept with Kahmil six days after AL dumped her, so neither of them is really focused on the archaeology. There’s also a debate running about the interest level of Neolithic toothpicks vs the wonders of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East, which would be more valid if Taggart hadn’t summarily dismissed Stonehenge as a rock garden.

The journalist sells the stuff to an old man who seems to be trying to sound like DelBoy but looks like the old guy from the Werther’s Original advert. He says the thing shows Tiamat, goddess of evil – and once again we chorus, No, No, No, No, NO! ‘Evil’ is largely a Judaeo-Christian concept and Tiamat was a goddess of the sea, of primordial chaos and, after being killed in a war of the gods by Marduk, her body made heaven and earth. All of which has nothing to do with the modern concept of ‘evil’. And the journalist can’t pronounce ‘cu-ne-i-form’.

Somehow, our guys track down the Werther’s Original guy – I have no idea how. Also, for some reason, every time they say Alexander’s name, they feel the need to say something borderline, sometimes actually, offensive about him being bisexual. I’m not denying that Alexander was bisexual, but the way they keep bringing it up all the time when it’s not relevant definitely borders on homophobic, especially given their tone.

NIJ explains to Viv about how rich and influential Kahmil is. Bizarrely, Viv thinks Kahmil is a lech but isn’t bothered by the ever-horny NIJ. NIJ also manages to find a link with Taggart’s bizarre ‘gleam’ thing, as he thinks meteoric rock could have made her magic sword. Taggart now thinks Alexander made it.

The digital effect is let loose on the Werther’s guy. Kahmil finds him and calls Taggart – Werther’s guy was bitten (fatally) by something (a snake, I’m guessing, judging by the low camera angle on the digital effect and I think someone mentioned a snake earlier). There’s more about Babylon as the cradle of civilization – again, true, but this is TV – show, don’t tell. Like the slavery episode, it’s falling over its own earnestness.

Taggart (talking to a small girl for some reason) thinks that history is a puzzle to solve. And I eat my own arm in frustration – history is not a puzzle you can solve, for pete’s sake, it’s a very long argument between academics trying to understand what the world might have been like in the past but without ever being able to ‘solve’ anything, at least until someone invents a time machine.

According to Kahmil, the ‘Followers of Tiamat’ are here and killed Werther’s guy. (He’s talking to someone in New York, represented by a fancy, modern looking hotel room!). Taggart refers to the possible Werther’s culprits as ‘cultists’ – huh? Who are these people anyway – I’m pretty sure the worship of Tiamat died out a good while ago. The journalist thinks Tiamat was ‘the serpent who enslaved the world’. Presumably they’re getting this from her association with sea serpents.

No, AL, Tiamat-worship is not like Babylonian devil-worship. No, NIJ, she is not ‘evil’. Grr, argh. Then there’s some stuff about the Enuma Elish and a tablet with a prophecy from a god. The Babylonian Ten Commandments, according to NIJ. Huh? They had the Code of Hammurabi… They haven’t even given the thing a good name – they’re calling it the ‘tablet of destinies’. We’re deep into fairyland here.

Neo-Assyrian 7th century BC cuneiform tablet telling the Epic of Creation

We get further in to fantasyland when Kahmil reveals that he thinks that the tablet predicts that he will reunite Iraq. Apparently he hopes that if people believe it, it will unify them, despite Taggart’s attempts to point out that they already have a religion, and it doesn’t involve Marduk.

Viv is watching a documentary about Alexander made by the media whore, but is dragged out to rescue Taggart by AL – which is good, as Taggart is being stalked – or slithered after – by the digital effect. And bugged. The digital effect is finally revealed to be, in fact, a snake – I’m not sure what kind (the computer-generated kind, mainly). NIJ gets it with a stick and it’s off to find the tablet of destinies – i.e., visit the journalist’s caravan. And break in. When the journalist returns, he pulls a gun on them, but is attacked by the snake (how did the snake get there? Who can say?). He shoots it, our guys get away, he dies. Taggart and Kahmil pick up the little girl, because the guy who’s supposed to be protecting her was following them, and I’m quite lost now but I’m afraid I don’t care enough to work out what’s going on!

The little girl works out from the documentary that the pot has the same markings as something else, and she can decipher it. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any more Harry Potter, they sneak into a museum to read it. Why on earth do they have to sneak in? They’re professional archaeologists! The little girl solves the ‘puzzle’ (they’ve taken the word ‘code’ waaaay too literally) and Kahmil is not impressed with the answer. Then Viv and the little girl are attacked on the way to the toilet – I bet that got messy.

A member of the delegation then attacks Kahmil for putting them all in danger and he is bullied into handing over the box, but our guys get it back. The there’s a melodramatic showdown involving the phrase ‘I live on thin ice, love’ and AL waving a phone around as Taggart talks about a voice from ‘on high’. Basically, Kahmil = good but prone to pulling guns on people when stressed, his New York based brother = bad, Alexander = bad for hiding the tablet to stop people having hope, delegation woman played by the actress who always plays politician’s aides = bad, Taggart = quite clever for once (albeit reckless with archaeology), kidnapped girl = rescued.

The Crescent, in Bath

Taggart turns down the chance to work with the tablet to go back to Neolithic tooth picks. Kahmil kisses Viv and says ‘I know’, which is very weird and presumably relates to her still-mysterious backstory. Someone leaves Taggart a note with a picture of a sword – it’s a bit like the episodes of Buffy where Angelus is stalking her. She plans to attack the intruder with an Etruscan spear – the woman seriously needs a knuckle-duster and some spray. But whoever it was, they're not there. End of episode.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Discworld: Unseen Academicals


I've just finished reading this, the most recent Discworld book. If you're spoilerphobic, be warned, thar be spoilers 'ere...


I was hoping for an excuse to blog about this book, and I wasn't disappointed - although the book doesn't have any particularly strong classical themes, there are classical references scattered throughout.

There's the 'orange and black' (i.e. either red figure or black figure, it doesn't specify) urn that reveals how ancient football is, featuring two nude men involved in a 'tackle' (it's not very Greek though - apparently, their masculinity is 'beyond doubt', but unless they're both manifestations of the god Pan, if it was really Greek, they'd be rather unimpressive in that department. Apart from vases actually showing people mid-doing-the-deed, but that's different). There's a description of ancient footballing traditions involving naiads dancing on the edge of the field, which the wizards confuse with Sirens (clearly, Unseen University does not have a Classics department). There's Pepe's description of the ancient combats that used to take place in the Hippo (i.e. the hippodrome - whcih is odd, since ancient hippodromes were for chariot racing, it was amphitheatres that hosted gladiatorial combats) which includes a reference to men with spears fighting men with nets (men with nets are retiarii, though they also had a trident and a dagger). All of these things remind us that, just as Discworld is a mirror of us, its past mirrors our past, that is, the classical past of Europe (there are many other influences from around the world on the Discworld, but Ankh-Morpork's history is essentially European. The Counterweight Continent, of course, is another matter all together).

Glenda, one of the protagonists, thoroughly disapproves of the Guild of Historians' attempt to reclaim the game of the streets for high culture, and it is implied that the discovery of the urn is rather excessively convenient. The idea is that it is easier to persuade people of the importance of something if it can be proved that it was done a long time ago. I hope no one tries this with some other ancient traditions... The goddess football was originally played for was Pedestriana. Tee hee. (From the Latin for feet).

The editor of The Times, William de Worde, also fancies himself as a classicist, and throws 'classical' (in this case, purely Discworldian, though throwaway references to random battles could come from anywhere really) references at will into his football report. Similarly, the University's Master of Music insists on composing football chants in 'Latatian', because it just isn't proper music if it isn't in Latin. All of these little snobberies on the part of the middle and upper class characters are totally lost on the protagonists (except Nutt) and on many of the wizards as well.

There are a few classical characters as well. There's a throwaway reference to there being a Medusa in the Watch. Of course, in ancient myth there was only one Medusa. By race, she was a Gorgon, but Pratchett names his awkward race, who must wear very thick sunglasses in public, by the name of the best-known example. More importantly for the story, Nutt is followed and harrassed by a group of Furies, employed by her Ladyship to keep an eye on him and protect those around him. In Greek myth, the Furies (or Erinyes) pursued their victims for the purpose of retribution, but in this case, the Furies are more like very loud, very irritating bodyguards. I'm not sure what inspired Pratchett to use Furies, but their apperance is nicely exotic and horrific (and I don't remember them being used in Discworld before) and - and perhaps this was the inspriation and the point - their birdlike voices keep squwking 'awk! awk!' when they mean 'orc! orc!'.

Erinyes, Apulian red figure krater, 4th century BC

Finally, a non-Classical reference, but one related to my work - when Nutt, in a moment that struck me as pure Movie!Gollum (and, to an extent, Book!Gollum as well, though it was the movie that came to mind) psychoanalyses himself, the pschyanalyst half of him speaks with a Germanic accent - a clear nod to Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis. (I look at Freud a lot in relation to dreams and to myth). Psychoanalyst!Nutt also has a distinct obsession with asking people about their relationship with their mother. I liked that bit!

There are lots of other things to talk about of course. 'Juliet' is so named because of a certain rather famous play, and her nickname is spelled 'Jools' most of the time, 'Jewels' when she's being a supermodel and, on one occasion where Pratchett's typist seems to have slipped up, 'Jules'. I spell it 'Juls', but that's a quirk of mine, from an old computer game that only gave you four letters for your name. 'Jules' is more common for girls and anyone who isn't Jools Holland.

Much as it doesn't seem very nice to point it out, this may be one of the last Discworld novels, so it was nice to see brief appearances by or mentions of lots of characters from Discworld history, even though the four chief protagonists of the novel were new characters. It was fun seeing Rincewind as a minor character as well - his books aren't among my favourites, but without him, there would be no Discworld so it's good to see him. I love books about the other wizards, too, and there are some very well-aimed jokes about academics, mostly revolving around big dinners and a reluctance to get involved in any actual lecturing. The attempt to create a football chant for Professor Macarona that include all his titles is very funny too.

I wasn't so keen on the new addition of Dr Hix, nor on the departure for pastures new of the Dean (though his rivalry with Ridcully is very funny), and this book contained quite possibly the worst-taste joke I've ever read, in Discworld or anything else (though I've seen worse on TV...). The use of an orc as a main character and major part of the plot is interesting - a bit cheeky, since I think Tolkien actually created orcs (though knowing Tolkien they come from some mythology somewhere) but very good, especially in its use for a nice story about nature and nurture. I'm not sure I'm quite on board with human/orc romance though...

I liked this book a lot - not up there with the absolute best of Discworld, but definitely one of the good 'uns. I especially loved how 'real' many of the characters felt - as if you expect to see them walking down the street before the next football match. Thoroughly recommended.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

The West Wing: Two Cathedrals



I'm currently in the middle of a conference (but it's in Birmingham, so I'm at home to sleep!) and I'm giving a paper on Latin in popular culture (which will hopefully eventually be published online in Rosetta, if it's accepted. Otherwise I'll post the slides or something!).

During my paper, I'll be mentioning this episode of The West Wing which is, according to me, The Best Single Episode of a TV Drama Ever Made. (In case you're wondering, The Best Single Episode of a TV Comedy Ever Made is either Blackadder Goes Forth, 'Goodbyee', or Yes, Minister, 'Party Games'). It is genius, pure and simple. Like my opinion on the awesomeness of Star Trek: Voyager, there is no moving me on this.

The main reason for it's wonderfulness (along with the last few minutes, which involve Dire Straits' 'Brothers in Arms') is that, halfway through, following an old friend's funeral, Bartlett stays alone in the National Cathedral and hurls abuse at God. In Latin. It's a wonderful, wonderful scene, brilliantly performed by Sheen and incredibly powerful - whether you're religious or not, the sight of Bartlett's very strong faith collapsing around him can't help but be moving.

The Latin, like the Latin in Joyeux Noel, is there because it is Catholic, and the point I am making in my paper is that one of the reasons that Latin is still quite strong in popular culture (compare the number of times my 'Latin' label gets used with the 'Greek' one!) is because it is the language of the Catholic Church, so if you have a Catholic character (or director - I will do a post on The Passion of the Christ at some point, when I get hold of it) you get random occurences of Latin.

Part of the reason for the Latin is also that it is simply awesome, for almost indescribable reasons - so much so that it is currently top of TV Tropes' Crowning Moments of Awesome for The West Wing. It's very hard to say why it's so awesome - perhaps we're all awed by Bartlett's ability to actually speak Latin, perhaps, because of the heavy influence of the Vulgate Bible (though the New Testament was originally written in Greek) it feels almost like Bartlett is yelling at God in His own language, perhaps we're so overwhelmed by such a devout Catholic yelling at God in the first place that he could do it in Klingon and we'd be impressed. Somehow, it is awesome.

I also wonder if it was hoped that Bartlett telling God to go to Hell would sound less potentially offensive if it's in Latin. I'm not sure about this, as he calls God a 'feckless thug' in English, so that might not have been the thought process at all, but the Latin in unsubtitled, so I wonder if it seemed that it would be less blasphemous and get past the censors more easily if some of it was incomprehensible.

The whole thing, with translation, is all over the internet, including here.

If anyone has any other ideas about this let me know - it'll be too late for my presentation, but might be useful for the written paper!

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Joyeux Noel (dir. Christian Carion, 2005)


It's Remembrance Day here in the UK. This is something that's somewhat hard to mark on a Classics blog, but I thought I'd say a few words about this film, which I'm rather fond of - and it looks forward to Christmas too.

Joyeux Noel is about the 1914 Christmas truce, in which troops from opposing sides famously went out into No Man's Land and played football. Well, famously in the UK anyway (it even gets a mention in an episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, in which Blackadder insists he was never offside) though apparently it's not so well known in other countries. It's a very sweet film - not without its flaws (I like Diane Kruger as an actress, but her character and her love interest both irritate me like nails on a blackboard) but generally very good and telling a story that isn't told much outside documentaries in a fresh way.

The film is made in three langauges - English, German and French - and follows three groups of soldiers - a group of Scots, principally their captain and chaplain, a French group, some of whom come from a place only an hour's walk away but the other side of the line (the most heart breaking story), principally their captain and his batman, and a German group, principally the annoying love interest and their captain.

What's my excuse for blogging about it? Well, during the first part of the truce, on the evening of Christmas Eve, the chaplain, who is Catholic, gives a Mass, and since this is pre-Vatican II, it's in Latin. The reason for the Latin is, obviously, because it's a Catholic Mass and not anything to do with ancient Rome (well, beyond the general history of the Roman Catholic Church) but the effect is interesting. Latin was a lingua franca across Europe for centuries (and still is in the Vatican) because it was a language that the biggest majority of people might be expected to be at least a little familiar with. Here, however, we have the opposite situation. Most of the soldiers, presumably, do not understand Latin, but they are united in their understanding, not of the language, but of the meaning of the service. Not the Christian meaning necessarily - it is at the end of the service that the German captain reveals that he is Jewish. The point of the service is for the soldiers to come together in a peaceful activity and take a moment to reflect (and listen to Diane Kruger lip-synching to an opera singer). After their enthusiastic but sometimes stilted attempts to communicate with each other (the captains all speak English and the German captain speaks all three languages, but the other soldiers frequently have trouble building a conversation) the chaplain's use of Latin brings them all together, not in mutual understanding of language, but in mutual incomprehension of language but understanding of meaning. As a use of Latin, it's fascinating (the film is based on documentary evidence but, as the Diane Kruger story demonstrates, is fictional) - loosely related to the use of Latin in magical spells, because it's usefully ancient and incomprehensible, but much more serious and packing a powerful emotional punch.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

I, Claudius: Zeus, by Jove!

This is the first of two episodes covering the reign of Caligula, and opens with an exhortation from Old!Claudius to believe everything, even if it seems incredible - which is ironic, as this episode strays the furthest from actual recorded history (reliable or otherwise).

We have to despatch with old Tiberius first though, which turns out to be more difficult than Caligula thought. Claudius skips through the last five years of Tiberius' reign, and we see Gimli leaning over Tiberius on a bed in Capri and telling Caligula that Tiberius is dead. Caligula goes outside and announces the sad event, along with a story about how Tiberius left him the Empire (which has actually been left to him jointly with Gemellus, his young cousin) when a slave who obviously has a death wish himself runs in to tell them all that he's alive after all, and wants his supper and his ring back. Gimli quickly returns to the room and smothers the old man to death (just when we thought a character from this show might actually die of natural causes!). So passes the last original (as in, one who has been in the series from the first episode) character to have been played by the same actor throughout the series. The senators who are present hail Caligula and his reign as the start of a new Golden Age, assuming that a son of Germanicus will be as popular, deserving and all round fab as they all thought Germanicus was.

(I like the Capri set, by the way. It's just the same as all the other courtyard sets, but with a painted blue horizon in the background. It's rather nice).

Back home in Rome, Herod Agrippa has returned, following the death of Tiberius, much to Antonia's delight. Gemellus, Caligula's co-ruler, is a sulky and rude child, who is grumpy because the Senate have said he cannot rule until he is older. Gemellus is Livilla's son, which leads to an awkward moment in which Antonia calmly reminds everyone that she killed the woman herself. Herod and Claudius hastily change the subject.

Caligula is making himself popular with the Senators by instituting holidays, reminding them all how much they liked his father, and so on. His sister Drusilla, a character we haven't yet met but who has been mentioned several times, stands next to him throughout, and when he has to reture due to a headache, she takes him away to her room. On the way out, Caligula anounces that Claudius, who has never yet held political office, will share the consulship with him, cheerfully telling him that Claudius can do all the work while he does all the thinking. He also pauses to complain about Gemellus' persistant cough and whinge about Claudius having more hair than him, and invites Claudius to live in the palace with him.

(Caligula is wearing an interesting tunic throughout this scene, with a massive red circle on the front of it with a laurel wreath around the inside of the circle. It's nice to see a bit of colour, but it looks a bit odd).

Caligula is once again distracted, despite his worsening headache, by wondering how much money Tiberius left - not much, as it turns out, but a lot of debts. To make him feel better, his sister Drusilla snogs him in front of everybody, then he tells Claudius how often he thought about murdering Tiberius, then he forgets what Lentulus has just told him. By this point the assembled senators are starting to wonder if they were right to be so pleased about his accession to the throne, but they remain cautiously optimistic. (I've talked before about Caligula's mental health and the possibility that he was quite healthy when he ascended to the throne, but we'll stick with I, Claudius' interpretation for now, which is that he was always cuckoo). The galloping headaches are clearly part of his illness here - I'm not sure what illness exactly they're going for with this interpretation but you can't help but feel sorry for poor Caligula as he collapses in pain.

This is the start of his near-fatal bout of illness, after which there was definitely something wrong with him. Eveyrone stands around looking worried and one senator tells Gimli to tell Caligula that he has offered the gods his life in place of Caligula's (this will turn out to be a bad idea). Claudius is eating with Herod when Drusilla bursts in telling him he must go to Caligula, who's asking for him, straight away, and say what he wants, as he just tried to kill her, claiming she didn't love him.

Drusilla's characterisation in this episode is really interesting. On one level, she seems to particiapte in incestuous activities with Caligula with contenment and evne some enthusiasm, and the various references to her in previous episodes suggest she may be fairly willing. On the other hand, when she begs Claudius to humour him, and to say whatever he wants him to say (but without, unfortunately, knowing what that is) she seems to be acting more as Claudius does, as a survivor, who only does these things in order to keep her head. Throughout the episode she walks this fine line between a victim and a perpetrator, and you're never quite sure which she really is. I tend to see her as a victim, who has been coerced into behaving the way she does by her mad and powerful brother, but it's not a balck and white portrayal.

Beth Morris as Drusilla, with Claudius

Claudius appraoches Caligula with due nervousness, and Caligula informs him that he has not been ill, he has been undergoing a metamorphosis. When Claudius asks what metamorphosis excatly, Caligula holds a sword to his throat and asks him if it isn't obvious, at which point Claudius stutters out 'you've become a god!' (hilariously followed by a quiet 'oh my god', delievered as the modern exclamation rather than a Roman prayer). I alwasy wonder at this point whether Caligula really thought this before, or whether Claudius gave him the idea, but I think we're supposed to assume he had thought of it already for himself. Caligula explains all his qualifications for godhood, including killing Germanicus and Tiberius and sleeping with all three of his sisters (Martina's idea, apparently). Caligula feels he is Zeus, specifically (and differentiates between the Greek Zeus and the Roman Jove/Jupiter, calling Jove a pale copy of Zeus, which is accurate, but really they're the same god under two different names). Claudius, at some prompting, reminds him of various stories of the gods, including one about Zeus ripping a foetus from his lover's womb and swallowing it whole to stop it from being more powerful than him, after which Athena sprang from his head (he may regret this later). Caligula tells him to go in peace - he was thinking about killing him, but he's changed his mind.

Claudius returns to the other room, matter-of-factly informing Herod and Drusilla that Caligula has become a god, that Drusilla is a god too, but 'we're not' (it's very funny). Claudius thinks this will result in the restoration of the Republic when everyone sees that Caligula is mad, but he is to be disappointed.

Gimli informs a gaggle of senators (hmm, what is the proper plural of senators I wonder? A parliament? A murder?...) of the Emperor's transformation. Since he's a big man with a big sword, they are forced to take this seriously, and Lentulus tries to defend it, since men can be made gods after death, so why not before? Caligula and Drusilla enter, with the trumpet blast that we haven't heard in ages, since Tiberius was away. His first act is to inform the sycophantic Lentulus that he must go and kill himself, having promised the gods his life for the Emperor's.

Antonia is less than impressed with this turn of events. She wants to know why no one was man enough to kill Caligula then and there, and Claudius points out that there are guards everywhere, thanks to Sejanus' old policies (these guards, employed to protect the Emperor, have a vested interest in making sure there is an Emperor to protect). Claudius adds that he's never killed anyone before and it does seem unlikely that he would win a straight fight, and Herod says everyone thinks the madness will soon pass, with Caligula either recovering or dying. Claudius feels sorry for Drusilla, who is now her brother's wife, insisting that she plays up to him because she's terrified. Antonia insists she would kill herself before doing such a thing, and Claudius tells her how Lentulus was forced to suicide, much against his own will. Claudius also reminds us that, despite the dubious nightly activities and total draining of the privy purse, because these are his late brother Germanicus' children (whom Antonia still refers to as the last of the Romans).

Caligula and Drusilla wander around a temple to Jove rejoicing at their wonderful godhead, and they both seem to be high on a bit more than life, Caligula having a long conversation with the cult statue and introducing himself and Drusilla as Zeus and Hera. During this conversation, Drusilla reveals that she is pregnant, emphasising the power of the child who will rule the universe a bit too much...

Giant head of Zeus, third century, from Tunis

Caligula had ordered Claudius to get statues of his brothers made, but only one is ready, so Claudius rather amusingly tells the sculptor that he knows where he can stick it. Caligula is not best pleased - he is in a very bad mood because he is still annoyed by Gemellus' cough, and when he finds out about the statues he is about to cut Claudius' throat, when Gimli appears with Gemellus' bloody head, deatched from his body. Caligula informs Claudius that he has cured Gemellus' cough and Claudius runs from the room in tears, as Caligula dismisses him as consul. Caligula also has an exciting plan to have all the heads of all the statues of the gods in Rome replaced with his own, and is obssessing over the worry that Drusilla's child will be more powerful than him, while Drusilla is out cold and wearing about as much as the 'oracle' in 300.

(The head of Gemellus is really gross - it's very well made, preusmably from a head case, and absolutely covered in blood, with eyes rolled up. Caligula asks Gimli to take it away, as it's horrible, and he's quite right).

Following the death of Gemellus, Antonia says they should count themselves lucky Caligula didn't celebrate the funeral with Games, but actually it is thoguht that Roman gladiatorial contests were originally part of early roman or Etruscan funeral rites, which is why they were often held in memory of the deceased. Antonia asks Herod to leave as she wishes to talk to Claudius alone, and tells him 'Goodbye' with that finality people on television have when they're about to die. Antonia tells Claudius she is going to kill herself, as with her grandson Gemellus gone she has no wish to go on living in the world. Harsh and heartless to the last, she assumes he won't miss her because she's always been so cruel to him, because he was such a disappointment, despite his weeping and beggin her not to go through with it. She explains that her good children and grandchildren have all been murdered, leaving degenerates and Claudius, and acknowledges that her own murder of Livilla was the worst. She reminds him to cut off her hand for separate burial, tells him not to mess up the funeral, kisses him once and leaves while poor Claudius breaks down in tears.

When Claudius reaches the place she chose to do the deed a few hours later, Antonia's slave tells him that she died peacefully, apart from crying out to his father Drusus to forgive her, possibly for keeping him waiting. In one final, cruel insult, Antonia asked the slave to cut off her hand for separate burial because she didn't trust Claudius to remember to do it. The slave reminds us that Antonia was the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, characters long gone, and with her death the last original character of all (she was played by a younger actress in the first episode), with the exception of Claudius himself, has gone too.

Drusilla is wandering around the palace, extremely drunk, high or both (she's been taking a 'potion' apparently), calling for 'Zeus', having missed her grandmother's funeral. This is enough to finally make Claudius angry, but she just answers that he plays the clown while she plays the goddess, then snogs him and tells him that Caligula is afraid that the baby will be more powerful than him. Claudius leaves in disgust.

Drusilla finds Caligula waiting for her, dressed as Zeus, complete with beard, having made the bed into Olympus (that is, he's put feathers all over it). He tells her this chariot will take her to heaven, but she's too high to be concerned by this. Caligula shackles her to the ceiling (or the bed post, it's not clear), strips her naked and cute her open, taking the foetus (or what he think is the foetus - Roman gynaecology being what it was, goodness knows what he might get hold of) and swallowing it. This is all tastefully shot form behind and the camera zooms away as he moves the knife across her, but we hear her screams. Claudius knocks on the door and Caligula appears with his mouth covered in blood, telling Claudius 'don't go in there'. Claudius, really foolish this time, does anyway and turns away in horror.

All of this last bit has virtually no basis in history, not even in Suetonius. Caligula did call himself a god and order the heads on the statues replaced, and there was gossip about his relationship with his sisters. However, the cause of Drusilla's death is unknown. As far as I remember (it's been a while since I read it) this bit isn't in the book of I, Claudius either - the book suggests that Caligula probably killed Drusilla but doesn't provide more detail than that. This section seems to have been added for two reasons - to explain Drusilla's death in more detail, and to do something really horrific and shockking, to show Caligula as utterly mad and much worse than even Tiberius was (since the suicide of Lollia had gone pretty far in depicting Tiberius as a monster too). It does seem a bit much (and is another moment where I have to mute the DVD, as the screams might disturb my housemates!) but it certainly gets its message across.

Herod, Antonia and Claudius, totally ruining the point I'm about to make about the costumes by all wearing white

The rest of the episode is much the same - basically accurate, as I, Claudius usually is, but really going all out with Caligula's madness, focussing especially on his claims to godhead. We'll see some more madness in the next episode, but it will be a bit less focussed on this one area, though Caligula maintains his godhead until his death. With the deaths of Tiberius and Antonia, the brighter lit, more fully populated court of Augustus is further and further away, and the series continues to get literally darker as the subject matter was - even the costumes are starting to use darker colours. Next time, more darkness, and what we've all been waiting for - a proper Roman orgy!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

One of my favourite jokes in THHGTTG is archaeological. It appears in the generally neglected second radio series. Hitchhiker's was a radio series originally, and the first radio series was adapted into the novels, the TV series, the computer game and, eventually, the movie. The second series, though, with some exceptions (such as the famous piece of advice involving towels) tends to be left out (though it's been a long time since I read the books, so this bit might appear there too - indeed, Wikipedia suggests some of it is in the second novel). It's my favourite, and I must have listened to it a thousand times, and it has some great stuff in it, such as the statue of Arthur throwing a cup that is held in place by Art, and John le Mesurer's performance as the Wise Old Bird.

Trapped on the planet Brontetaal, having fallen out of the artistic cup, Arthur meets Lintilla, an attractive young archaeologist who was presumably intended as a replacement love interest (Trillian didn't appear in the second series - I don't know whether they didn't want to recast, or just fancied a change). Lintilla is investigating a strange phenomenon in the archaeological record in Brontetaal - an entire archaeological layer of compressed shoes.

The Guide then explains (via a very entertaining if slightly disturbing interaction between a CompuTeach and a young student involving pressing exciting buttons) that, when a civilization is going downhill and everyone is depressed, they are all looking at their feet, so they go out and buy new shoes to cheer themselves up. Shoe shops start to take over the economy and eventually no other shops exist, and society reaches the Shoe Event Horizon and collapses, the survivors evolving into birds.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I am totally incapable of looking at the side of a trench in an archaeological site, or indeed at levels of geological strata in rockfaces, as I did the other day, without expecting to find an entire archaeological layer of compressed shoes. It's a good thing I'm not a practical archaeologist.

Monday, 2 November 2009

A Matter of Life and Death (dir. Powell and Pressburger, 1946)

A Matter of Life and Death is frequently voted one of the best British films ever made, and deservedly so. Of all Powell and Pressburger's best known masterpieces, this is my favourite - deeper than I Know Where I'm Going! and more optimistic than Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes. It was written following a request from the Ministry of Information for a film that would help to improve the relationship between the British and the Americans, especially those still in Britain following the war, but it does much, much more than that.

The plot of the film follows a young RAF pilot, Peter Carter (David Niven) who jumps out of his 'plane without a parachute and survives. He is visited by the ghost of a Frenchman, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), who tells him that he was supposed to take him to heaven, but missed him in the fog, and that he must come with him now. Peter objects on the grounds that in the extra 20 hours he spent on earth, he and an American girl form the Air Force (Kim Hunter) have fallen in love, and he should be allowed more life to enjoy with her. A trial is held in heaven to determine whether he should be allowed this privilege. As far as June, the girlfriend, and her friend Dr Reeves (Roger Livesey), a neurologist, are concerned, Peter is experiencing a series of hallucinations triggered by the fall from the 'plane, which require an intricate lobotomy to fix. The audience is left to make up their own minds; the heavenly Judge is played by the same actor as the neurosurgeon who performs the operation, favouring the medical diagnosis, but no one is able to explain how Peter survived his jump.

There's so much I could talk about in this film - the theology, the cinematography (the 'other world' is in black and white, while Earth is in Technicolour, leading Conductor 71 to comment that 'one is starved for Technicolour up there'), the poetry, the humour (as a group of American GIs enter heaven, one says 'Boy oh boy, home was nothing like this!' and another replies 'Mine was!') and the genius performance that is Marius Goring as Conductor 71, not to mention the film's original purpose of improving Anglo-American relations (the trial becomes focused around the suitability of Peter, a Brit, for June, an American). However, I'll stick to my usual theme and focus on the classical elements that appear every now and again in the film.

There are two main scenes that display classical influences. The first is the scene when Peter first wakes up after landing in the English channel without a parachute and floating to shore. Peter comes to on the beach, and assumes that he has died and this is heaven. He wanders around for several minutes without seeing anything except the beauty of nature, except for a sign forbidding entrance to a particular area, which takes him aback a bit.

Peter on the beach, a little confused

Still thinking he is in heaven, Peter comes across a dog who leads him to a young boy playing a pipe, surrounded by goats. I first saw this film as a young child and I have spent years trying to work out why on earth the boy is naked (in England! OK, it's May - just a few days before the end of the war - but I doubt it's that warm...). Here, I will attempt an explanation. The boy is obviously emulating Pan - the pipes and the goats leave no doubt about that. Pan doesn't have much to do with the underworld, as far as I remember, but he is associated with nature and countryside idyll, and that appears to be the sort of heaven Peter thinks he has landed in. Most importantly, he is otherworldly, with a sense of the divine and of an unearthly beauty. I presume that he is naked in order to emphasise this unearthly feel and his connection with nature - he sits there, literally as God made him.

Of course, all this is wonderfully undercut when he opens his mouth to answer Peter's question with 'eh?' and then, as a 'plane flies overhead and Peter asks where he should report, he says 'you mean the aerodrome?' in a thick southern British accent, not far off cockney.

The other substantial classical reference appears much later in the film. Peter is now seriously ill and delirious, and while June and Dr Reeves try to hurry things at the hospital, Peter is nearly tricked into going up to heaven on the famous staircase, after which the American title of the movie (Stairway to Heaven) was taken. The staircase is lined with statues of famous men (they are all men, sadly) and Conductor 71 is helping Peter to choose a defence counsel for his trial. Among his suggestions is Plato, and the following dialogue ensues:

Conductor 71: Plato! 'Ow would you like to be defended by Plato? Nobody knew more about reasoning than Plato.

Peter: He was 81 when he died, he might be too old to think love important.

Conductor 71: You think so? Any'ow, Plato 'ad very elementary ideas about love.

Peter: Besides, didn't he quote Sophocles when somebody asked him if he was still able to appreciate a woman?

Conductor 71: What did the old boy say?

Peter: Well, he said 'I'm only too glad to be rid of all that, it's like escaping from bondage to a raving madman'!

Conductor 71: Tut! These Greeks! Cold as their marble! Now, if he 'ad been French... Richelieu for exanple. Irresistable at 80! 'Ow about Richelieu?

Peter: No, I never liked him much in The Three Musketeers.

I am very much not an expert on Plato, but I do know that if you want to know about Plato's ideas about love, you need to read the Symposium, his dialogue entirely on the subject. The phrase 'Platonic love' comes, obviously, from Plato, referring to the non-sexual love between boys and men - but I believe there is some debate as to how 'Platonic' Plato's ideas about these relationships were, especially considering the Athenian tendency towards sexual relationships between older men and younger boys or young men. Either way, Peter is probably right to be hesitant about asking Plato to argue in favour of his love affair with a woman.

The stairway to Heaven, with statues

This is actually the second reference to Plato in the film - the first occurs at the very beginning, when Peter says he hopes thatthe next world starts where this one leaves off, or where it could leave off if we listened to Plato and Aristotle and Jesus. I'll refrain from commenting on the the theology of this statement (fascinating though it is) though I feel I should note that I would be wary of listening too much to a man who didn't bother to ask the nearest woman whether she turned mirrors brown at certain times of the month (Aristotle, On Dreams).

As you can probably tell, I absolutely love this film and would recommend it highly to anyone. Even the central trial, during which the issues of Anglo-American relations have to be gone into in detail, maintains interest with some wonderful moments - the audience reaction to British cricket commentary, the Pilgrim Fathers in general, the beautiful Technicolous final sequence. If you haven't seen it, go seek it out - it's worth looking for.
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