Wednesday, 29 December 2010

I, Claudius: Claudius (radio adaptation)

For fuller details of the plot, see the TV reviews.

We pick up where we left off, with Caligula's continued descent into madness. The obsessive compulsive in me still really wishes the beginning and ends of reigns would come at the beginning and ends of episodes, though I can see why, with six episodes and four emperors, that could be quite impractical. Also, I presume that scenes and incidents were selected for inclusion according to their importance, rather than the episode schedule, and there would be almost no way to rearrange the material here so that reigns ended with episodes without losing half the series.

As with a number of outdoor scenes or crowd scenes, Caligula's attack on Neptune works rather well on radio, Claudius' narration and the sounds of splashing and soldiers starting to giggle providing an effective mental image of the ludicrous sight. Unfortunately, with the memory of the TV version strong, the scene of Caligula's dancing performance to a terrified Claudius and two fellow ex-consuls is not nearly as effective on radio, though Samuel Barnett's singing voice is good. The problem is that you just can't match John Hurt's fabulous expression and rather memorable costume from that scene in the TV series when you've only got voice to work with. It couldn't be left out, though, since this scene is also Claudius' introduction to Messalina - to poor Calpurnia's distinct chagrin.

Interestingly, it is Caligula's dangerousness, and his increasing tendency to execute people on the flimsiest of pretences that is really emphasised as the reason for his assassination here. The scenes leading up to the assassination in the TV series focus on the more absurd elements of his madness - the dance and the silly passwords he gave to Cassius to humiliate him. Here, however, it is the danger of his madness that, it is implied, leads to his assassination, making the assassins look rather more noble and wise and rather less cruel. Particularly effective is the very fast-paced scene in which Caligula nearly has Claudius executed for having too much hair, but Claudius convinces him that he said he wanted his hair chopped off, not his head. Barnett's delivery is perfect, escalating in tone, pitch and speed as he becomes genuinely confused.

Cassius' motivation, however, is still directly stated to be his humiliation at the passwords and nicknames, making him, as in previous adaptations, seem especially harsh. Claudius, meanwhile, feels extremely sorry for himself, both for having been left out of the plot and for having been on the death list as well (his tone sounds a bit like Cicero's letters to the conspirators against Julius Caesar, in which he whinges repeatedly that he wishes they'd invited him to the great feast on the Ides of March - though Cicero's main gripe was that he would have killed Antony too, and Claudius would hardly have suggested killing himself!).

Caligula's death itself is over rather quickly, and he cries out nothing but 'save me!', making him seem both more and less pathetic than if he were to cry out 'You can't kill me, I'm a god!'. Claudius' discovery in his hiding place is rather nicely done - it's hard to tell from the voices, but I think the implication is that the same soldier Claudius had earlier warned of Caligula's intention to decimate the army discovers him and recognises him as Germanicus' brother. Messalina's presence is also effective, providing a clear reason for Claudius' accepting the rule of emperor, though he still needs to be talked into it by Herod Agrippa as well. Best of all, though, is his sudden realisation that, as emperor, he could make everyone read his books - simultaneously very funny, exactly what all of us struggling writers would do given the chance, and a subtle foreshadowing of Nero's later use of the imperial rule to advance his theatrical career. It was with this rather touching bit of humour that Graves finished the novel - the rest of the series is drawn from the sequel, Claudius the God, which dealt with Claudius' own reign.

The process of Claudius' confirmation as emperor is, however, quite drawn out and we hear a lot of the Senate's wrangling and arguing on the subject. In fact, a full quarter of the episode is concerned with the fall-out from the assassination - Claudius' confirmation as emperor and his dealing with the conspirators. Towards the end of the episode, we see the beginning of Claudius' own reign and the way he leans on Messalina, though he does observe that he doesn't actually want her to be 'his Livia'.

What I was really surprised to find missing from all this was Claudius' speech to the Senate, in which he convinces them that he is not an idiot, observing that what a man says is more important than how long he takes to say it. I was so surprised, I went back to see if I'd missed it while looking at something else, and I still have a nagging feeling that might be the case. It's a very long time since I read Claudius the God, so I can't remember whether this speech appears in the book, or whether it was written for the TV series - obviously, if it was written for the TV, that explains its absence here. You do feel it though, since now there is no opportunity for Claudius to really sell himself to the Senate as emperor.

Claudius' arguments in favour of Livia's deification, to fulfil his promise, are rather nice and the episode ends with the parting of Herod and Claudius, both amusingly drunk, but Herod giving Claudius the very serious and important advice that he should trust no one - though here, he ends by saying 'forget I said it, I'm drunk'. Claudius ponders it though, and that's where the episode ends - with Claudius on the verge of being betrayed by both Herod and Messalina in the next episode.

This is an effective ending-point for the episode, setting up betrayal as what will presumably be a major theme of the next and final episode. I missed some of the particularly effective lines from the dying Caligula and new emperor Claudius from the TV in this episode (a wholly unfair criticism of an entirely separate series, but I can't help it), but Caligula's escalating madness was very effectively portrayed, particularly through his increasingly fast and high pitched delivery. Messalina, so far, is completely sensible-sounding (and doesn't have the soft, little-girl's voice she was given on the TV - she sounds much like the other women in the show) and there is no hint of the craziness to come apart from Herod's drunken warning, which really applies more to himself than anyone else (the implication being that he is already contemplating rebellion). I would imagine the final episode will be another episode in two clear halves, one half Messalina and the other Agrippinilla and Nero, and it will be interesting to see how the radio (at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, we should remember) will deal with some of Messalina's activites, if at all...

John Hurt's memorable performance as Caligula in the dancing scene in the TV adaptation

Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas Silliness

My all-time favourite Christmas movie is The Muppet Christmas Carol. It's the most faithful adaptation of A Christmas Carol I've seen (seriously - two Marley brothers notwithstanding) and there's something about A Christmas Carol that works much better with Muppets than with just people. It's a really, really sugary sweet fable that needs to be treated as a story, rather than given the more 'realistic' treatment we usually employ for movies and TV, and Gonzo as Charles Dickens the narrator is the perfect way to achieve this. Also, it's completely hilarious ('Even the vegetables don't like him!).

During the schoolroom scene, when Scrooge is taken to see his younger self by the Ghost of Christmas Past, we pan across a shelf full of gorgeous Muppet busts of Aristotle, Dante, Moliere and Shakespeare (with Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat on the end, of course).

The beautiful Muppet bust of Aristotle

Inevitably, the shelf collapses and the busts go for a burton

It's an interesting selection of busts, in which Aristotle rather stands out, being a philosopher rather than a writer of more imaginative literature - though he makes a good pair with Dante, of course. I think personally I'd have been inclined to go for Plato or Socrates, or for a writer, maybe Virgil, but Aristotle works as a representative of the Classical world, and the selection definitely needed some Classical representation!

That's not really why I wanted to talk about this though. I actually brought this up so I could share a silly observation I made earlier this year. When I moved to Oxford a few months ago, I took a few tourist-type photos around the town, including these of the busts that sit near the entrance to the Museum of the History of Science on Broad Street.

View across the street from Blackwells book shop

A closer view of the busts - click to enlarge further

Don't the Oxford busts look weirdly like like the Muppet ones?! It's their weird googly eyes that mainly reminded me of the Muppet versions. I can't remember who they all are, but this is outside the Museum of the History of Science, so it's a pretty safe bet that Aristotle is among them.

If you haven't seen The Muppet Christmas Carol, go forth immediately and get hold of a DVD or find when and on what channel it's showing this Christmas. You won't regret it.

A few more Christmas/Saturnalia posts from the archives:
Joyeux Noel
The Roman Mysteries: The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina
Chelmsford 123: Peeled Grapes and Pedicures
Discworld: Hogfather

Happy Christmas everyone!*

*Or whatever holiday greeting you prefer.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Vicar of Dibley: Winter

The Vicar of Dibley was a BBC sitcom that ran intermittently between 1994 and 2007, following the introduction of a female vicar to a very traditional village in England (a new and controversial move in 1994 when it began). It was written by Richard Curtis, co-writer of Blackadder, and starred Dawn French as the vicar Geraldine, and had a beautiful theme song (The Lord is my Shepherd, set to music by Howard Goodall).

British TV series often have strange schedules and there is something of a tradition of doing really exciting plot developments during a one-off Christmas special, but The Vicar of Dibley got even stranger than most and this episode was one of four stand-alone seasonal specials. Although it's called 'Winter', it's actually the Christmas special and centres around Geraldine's attempt to do something really special with the annual Nativity play for the millennium.

The Nativity Play is a British school and church tradition, in which all the kids put tea towels on their heads and pretend to be living in Roman Bethlehem, and re-enact the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph are the leads (all the little girls want to be Mary), other speaking parts go to the first and second innkeepers (who have one line, 'No room!'), the innkeeper who provides the stable, three shepherds, three 'kings' or wise men and Gabriel. (The Magi are most often portrayed as kings, despite the historical inaccuracy, partly so they can sing 'We Three Kings' and partly so they can wear paper crowns). The other kids all have to make sure they have white sheets and stand at the back playing angels and singing 'Away in a Manger'. It's a brilliant tradition, which is great fun and which has occasionally been lampooned elsewhere, most notably in the play 'The Flint Street Nativity' and in Curtis' own Love Actually (where the nativity play, for some reason, includes at least two lobsters). I always got stuck as the incredibly boring Narrator in school, but I did once get to play Mary in a church procession.

The Love Actually Nativity was a bit *different*. An octopus was also involved.

In this episode, Geraldine's incredibly dim verger Alice actually comes up with a genuinely brilliant idea, which is to stage the Nativity play in an actual stable on a local farm. Complications ensue when the heavily pregnant Alice insists on being cast as Mary and goes into labour during the show. Hilarity and sweetness ensues.

Since the point of the outdoor Nativity is to be more realistic than usual, historical accuracy (or lack thereof) becomes something of an issue during the preparations. No one suggests the Kings should actually be Persian priests, because no Nativity is likely to bother doing that - we're all far too attached to the paper crowns etc. In fact, at one point Jim and Frank discuss whether they're wise men, who should help with the birth, or Kings, 'inbred cretins' who can't help with anything, according to Jim. But Geraldine does try to use historical accuracy to stop Alice from playing Mary, by insisting that Mary could only speak Hebrew (which isn't actually true, she would also have spoken Aramaic and possibly some Greek). Brilliantly, Alice responds in fluent Hebrew! This is a lovely moment, not to mention quite possibly the most intelligent thing Alice has ever done.

Geraldine's rehearsals follow the Mike Leigh method of improvising around the subject, which also leads to some interesting work. Alice suggests that 'loaves and fishes' is a family recipie, which is very funny, while she and the vicar both get a bit carried away improvising an argument between Mary and Joseph and the shepherds' improvisation seems to imply that everyone in ancient Bethlehem had access to BBC television.

The greatest amount of historical meddling, however, is down to David Horton, local politician, who wanted to be cast as God but has instead been cast as Herod (another speaking part often included as part of the Kings' story, though the massacre of the infants is not, in fact, commonly part of a Nativity play). David is not at all pleased with this and starts trying to suggest reinterpretations of Herod's character, insisting that history has misunderstood the man. His first suggestion to explain away the massacre of the infants is that some soldiers misheard what Herod said and misunderstood, which is a bit like Henry II's explanation for the murder of Thomas Beckett. (The soldiers in question appear to be dressed as Romans, even though Herod was a Jewish king and probably had his own guards - Romans are too much part of the cultural imagination of the ancient world to leave them out all together). During the play itself, he starts giving out sweets to all the children in the audience, trying to get them to like him (all this despite the fact his costume resembles that of Ming the Merciless). Best of all, he asks the soldiers to 'kill them gently!' The whole thing is entirely doomed - quite apart from his Biblical nastiness, the historical Herod the Great was a nasty piece of work with a tendency to have his own children put to death.

This is a lovely episode (albeit with one of those very clean sitcom childbirth scenes with hardly any screaming). The Vicar of Dibley is one of those nice, homey shows that always feels slightly Christmassy anyway and anything with Nativity plays in it always brings me right back to childhood Christmasses and the desperate search for some kind of blue headscarf to wear as Mary. I also genuinely like the idea of a farmyard Nativity, though historical realism can be taken too far - luckily Geraldine is at hand to reassure Alice that she hasn't, in fact, given birth to the Messiah.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

I, Claudius: Caligula (radio adaptation)

Having spent much of the weekend in Birmingham Airport, I'm back early and looking at the pile of work left by having a week off with some sense of trepidation.

Although this episode is largely about Caligula, it starts still a little way off from his reign, with Macro running Rome and Herod Agrippa getting into trouble with Tiberius. We hear the end of old Thrasyllus, which is nice, since he's been so important to Tiberius, and Tiberius starts having occasional attacks of remorse for all the murders, which are quite entertaining. We also hear more from Antonia in the opening sections involving Herod than we have for ages, if at all (even her role in the downfall of Sejanus was related through Claudius and his slave). This, presumably, is to remind us of her character and (bad) relationship with Claudius before her suicide during Caligula's reign.

Tiberius reaches the end of the road, and, it is implied, Thrasyllus' warning prophecy actually played a part in his death, since he caught a chill travelling in the east wind in an attempt to avert it. It is during this illness that Caligula and Macro get fed up of waiting for Tiberius to die and smother him themselves, rather gleefully (when Tiberius wakes up and says 'I'm feeling better!' all I can see is the old man from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail, being thrown on the heap of corpses while yelling 'I'm not dead! I feel happy! I feeeel happyyy!').

Caligula, of course, starts out bad and gets worse. We already know he drinks and has threesomes involving his sisters and is spending all the public money before his serious illness, and, as he reveals to Claudius, he helped to kill Germanicus, but he only declares himself a god after his 'brain fever'. Drusilla puts it perfectly succinctly; 'He's always been mad, of course, but now...' Claudius' reaction to the truth of Germanicus' death is very well played - not much shocks him at this point, but this does and you can hear the fresh grief in his voice. Thrasyllus' prophecy concerning the great god to come, clearly written by Graves to refer to Christ, is given more detail here, as Caligula matches it to himself (he'd be quite convincing if it weren't for the blood-drinking part).

Drusilla is well played, sad and frightened and hoping that her new status as a goddess will protect her, but, as per Graves' novel, the exact circumstances of her sudden death are mysterious, though Caligula implies that a god loving too much can be fatal. The decision not to go for anything as mad and over the top as the TV series is certainly a wise one, though it seems a shame to dismiss her so quickly without so much as a suggestion about what happened to her, other than that Caligula has somehow, and for some reason, killed her.

Antonia continues to sound overwhelmingly cross and she almost seems to allow Caligula to goad her into suicide, resenting Claudius for his survival all the while and snapping a sharp 'goodbye' at him without so much as a kiss. Her bad temper obviously didn't win her many friends, as only Herod dares to come to her funeral, and he tells us what happened to Macro, which is nice - it's not that we couldn't guess what happened to him, but it's nice to hear these things rather than have people simply disappear to Mandyville.

Claudius gives a decent enough speech to a rabble about informers, which goes over well, and which involves him saying 'Friends!' repeatedly (thus making me expect the next lines to be 'Romans!' 'Psst! and Countrymen!' 'I know!'). Meanwhile, Caligula's rather innovative ways of making money include auctioning the clothes, literally, from Claudius' back, which if shown on television would be utterly humiliating, though on radio, without being able to see his nightmare, it's rather funny. This is followed by a very sweet scene in which Calpurnia reveals that she has enough genuine affection for Claudius to have saved enough money to keep both of them when Caligula bankrupts him, while Caligula's affection for Caesonia baffles him but is also equally genuine.

Even on radio, it's not a Roman drama without an orgy, and really, you can't actually tell the story of Caligula's palace brothel without one. Again, where a television adaptation is full of sensual people drugged up and enjoying themselves and tragically unhappy people trying to get away, the radio has to rely on sound effects, which are more comic than anything else. It works well enough though, and includes scenes you could not show on BBC television - although every adaptation describes Caligula sleeping with his sisters, here we have a full incestual sex scene (Rome came close, but if I remember right, we didn't actually see them in the act - I'll be getting to that episode quite soon I think).

We hear Claudius thrown in the river, where again the radio benefits from not needing stuntmen or an effects budget. We also get to hear Caligula's changing views on literature which include a very low opinion of Virgil; 'Tries to be Homer. Can't do it.' I like Virgil a lot, but I can't help feeling there's a teeny bit of justification in that... The pivotal scene where Caligula asks Claudius if he thinks he's mad is well played, though since it's separated a little from the river incident, and Claudius is so insistent that he is not mad, you almost think Claudius is a little bit of a coward for not taking the opportunity. It's there that the episode ends, so Caligula's tormenting of Cassius Chaerea and sticky end will have to wait until next week.

This was another excellent episode, effectively telling Caligula's descent into complete madness while keeping us up to date with Claudius himself. There were a couple of unintentionally funny moments, but this was really the only way to do this story on radio. There's a part of me that would love to see a reinterpretation of Caligula, which assumed that Suetonius and all the others were working from ridiculously hyped gossip and he really wasn't that bad or that depraved, but I think that is probably a bit of a stretch, and you'd leave your audience thorougly disappointed. It certainly woulndn't be Graves' Caligula; Graves' Caligula is very well represented here.

Thursday, 16 December 2010


Hi folks! I had planned a proper post for today but am stuck in bed with flu, and need to recover enough to drive to the airport tomorrow, as I'm away this weekend. I'll be back next week with the next episode of I, Claudius and something Christmassy!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Imperium (by Robert Harris)

I have a new article on Latin in popular culture up at Rosetta - this is the one I think I've mentioned a few times as forthcoming on the blog!

I enjoyed this book a lot – so much so, I even started to like Cicero a little bit. (Just a little bit). The book is perhaps slightly too long and spends a wee bit too much time on the trial of Verres, which brought Cicero to prominence and which, fascinating though it is, goes on until the book’s halfway point. This leaves the seizure of supreme command by Pompey (one of the many steps towards the institution of Emperors) a little less space, and the fight for the consulship between Cicero and Catiline (which led to Cicero winning the highest political office in the Roman republic) relatively little space at all. I would, I think, have been fairly happy to see the book conclude with the trial of Verres and save the rest for the next volume, though that might prevent the series from falling into a nice neat trilogy (and, in one of my many less bright moments, I spent half the book thinking that this was a one-volume story of the life of Cicero, and was wondering how on Earth Harris was going to fit it all in). The level of detail is great to see, though, and Harris tells as absorbing tale.

The book is packaged to attract readers of Harris’ work on more modern politics, chiefly his Fatherland, an alternative history set in a world where Hitler won Word War Two. Politics throughout the ages is clearly Harris’ main interest and he uses American political terminology to describe Roman politics throughout. Words like ‘canvass’, ‘campaign’, ‘ballot’ ‘the ticket’, ‘running mate’ and many more frequently made me feel like I was watching an episode of The West Wing rather than reading about Roman politics and the section about how the first century to vote felt terribly proud of the honour sounded exactly like the way the inhabitants of New Hampshire feel about the New Hampshire Primary (according to The West Wing, anyway, which is the source of all my knowledge of American politics. That and Dave). For the most part, these phrases work rather well – they instantly present the reader with something recognisable, with a familiar set of patterns and expectations to work with, and they prevent readers from spending half the book trying to work out what’s going on, though I think ‘bills’ with ‘amendments’ is going a bit far – we’d all recognize the words ‘law’ and ‘change’ and too much Americanisation/modernisation will, eventually, take the reader out of the story and become a distraction. The one word that really stood out as incongruous was ‘hagiographical’. I don’t doubt for a second that Harris is fully aware that this a Christian term, relating to a Christian genre which could not, therefore, have been in use sixty years before the birth of Christ. He uses the word for effect in the same way he uses ‘running mate’. But for me, like the ‘St Bernard’s Pass’, ‘hagiographical’ is just a step too far and it takes me right out of the narrative.

Harris’ narrator is Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, the inventor of shorthand, and you couldn’t wish for a more useful character as narrator – Tiro’s job was to make notes on Cicero’s work and he did write a Life of Cicero, which was unfortunately lost. Sometimes, Harris actually tries a little too hard to reassure us that Tiro really could have been present at various important meetings – since Tiro is a secretary and note-taker, I can believe in that particular narrative device quite happily without the characters having to have a conversation about it every time. On the other hand, this tactic does pay off somewhat at the end of the novel, when Tiro is, for once, excluded, and so the revelation of Cicero’s latest deal is delayed until a dramatically appropriate moment. I’ve always had a thoroughly silly liking for Tiro anyway, purely because he was portrayed in a very sympathetic manner in the first of Steven Saylor’s Gordianus books, so I’m more than happy to sympathise with him as a lead character.

Harris does sometimes fall prey to the same tactic as Massie did in his Caesar, in which just about everything Caesar ever said or did was really the idea of Massie’s protagonist, Decimus Brutus. Here, just about every major speech Cicero was vaguely associated with was written by him and he came up with all the cleverest ideas to advance Pompey. Harris has rather more justification here than Massie did though, as I suspect a lot of it is true, so he gets away with it. Pompey himself reminded me of Captain Kirk more than anything else – a supreme military commander who’s not that great at anything else and gets bored when not with the army. Caesar comes off as much sharper, politically.

The most refreshing thing about this book was the sex – there was hardly any of it! Caesar, of course, is having sex with just about every woman in Rome, as usual, but rather than calmly accepting this, Tiro is horrified when he catches Caesar sleeping with Pompey’s wife in Pompey’s own house. Tiro himself is so apparently asexual another character comments on it and Cicero appears to have sex mainly for the purposes of procreation. It is wonderful to see a portrayal of ancient Rome that does not assume that all Romans thought nothing of people getting blow jobs from slave boys in half-open tents or getting their slaves to do all the hard work for them while conducting serious discussions. I did roll my eyes when I got to the accusations concerning Clodius and Clodia sleeping together – the reason for my longstanding dislike of Cicero is that I read the Pro Caelio, in which he defends Caelius by attacking Clodia, as a borderline misogynistic attack on a woman’s character with only peripheral relevance to the case at hand. I am skeptical that either were as bad as the later tradition, which was not kind to them, makes out and I doubt they slept together – but this case won’t come up until the next book, so I’ll have to wait and see what Harris does with it. Harris does write Cicero's wife, Terentia, the only significant female character in the book, very well. Their relationship is tense, affectionate without passion, occasionally loving without being in love, often falling apart - a touching and believable account of an arranged marriage of convenience that lasts for thirty years in a culture that was entirely open to quick and frequent divorce.

Overall, this was a brilliantly written, engaging book about a fascinating character (though I still don’t actually like him – but I like Tiro). All the necessary background to Roman politics is explained and the whole thing sweeps you along nicely. A few sections start to resemble a history book as Harris fills in information between events, but for the most part this is a novel revolving around a strong set of characters, chiefly the central trio of Cicero, Tiro and Terentia. I look forward to reading Volume 2!

David Bamber as Cicero in BBC/HBO's Rome

Sunday, 12 December 2010

I, Claudius: Sejanus (radio adaptation)

I did an interview this week for the excellent art history blog, Three Pipe Problem; if you'd like to read my thoughts on the Browne report and the Greek dramatists, among other things, pop on over and read it here.

As usual, I haven't recapped all of the plot here because I've already done substantial recaps of the TV series adapted from the same book.

At the opening of this episode, things finally blow up between Livia and Tiberius over the death of Germanicus and the trial of Piso and Plancina. The trial is whizzed through very quickly, within ten minutes, so that the episode can focus more on Tiberius' increasing insecurity and his reliance on Sejanus. Livia is finally shoved aside by Tiberius, but continues to make her presence felt as Claudius and Agrippina discuss the dubiously close relationship she has formed with Caligula.

Last week, Claudius expressed no sorrow at all over the death of his son in his narrative, but this week, Flashback!Claudius weeps over his son, and all the others, to his courtesan, Calpurnia. Perhaps the narrating Claudius wants to deny any affection for his rather unpleasant offspring, while Flashback!Claudius cannot deny his sorrow to his lover, and he suggests that he is feeling the deaths of a lot of people at once, not just his son. As in the first episode, we hear much more of Claudius' personal life in this series than we ever saw on the television version, continuing the series' focus on the figure of Claudius himself.

Sam Dale's Sejanus is a fascinating choice of voice - whereas Patrick Stewart went for the same sort of confident, commanding voice he later used for Captain Picard, Dale's Sejanus has an all together softer, sneakier voice. He pitches his voice fairly high and speaks in an almost whispering tone, surprising Claudius by apparently sidling up to him in a busy street.

Claudius' wife Urgulanilla's voice is even more interesting, almost masculine, presumably partly to emphasise her size and partly to make her sound scarier, as she quite terrifies poor Claudius when he makes the mistake of coming to sleep in their marital bed. She also reads a Greek romance novel aloud to herself in bed (very slowly and very badly, as described by Graves in the novel), which is very interesting. Many scholars argue that everyone in the ancient world read books aloud at all times, whether in company, where one person would read aloud to everyone else, or to themselves. I haven't studied this question enough to have an informed opinion, though instinctively, I imagine that books were often read aloud to a group, but read silently when reading to oneself. Of course, Urgulanilla might just be doing it to annoy Claudius.

The episode includes the full details of the final end of Claudius' and Urgulanilla's marriage, which Graves presents as wonderfully complicated. Sejanus wants Claudius to marry his sister, so he sends Urgulanilla a male slave who is the spitting image of her female lover so that she gets herself pregnant and Claudius has to divorce her - and, meanwhile, Urgulanilla herself ends up murdering her sister-in-law and pinning the blame on her brother. It's nice to hear all these details of Claudius' own life, and this particular story is, of course, thoroughly connected to the main plot, so it makes much more sense to use this story to illustrate Sejanus' nastiness at work than something relating to someone else - though it is perhaps a shame than Castor is killed off very quickly, and Livilla's speaking role reduced a bit from what one might expect.

Hearing Livia compose her invitation to Claudius to dinner is very funny - she adds the word 'dear' on the second draft, having never been so affectionate before. The difference between Claudius' respectful 'Grandmama' and Caligula's offhand 'Granny' during this scene is well played. Harriet Walter also ages her voice very effectively, and her confession to the multiple murders is cross and abrupt and perhaps even a little embarrassed. She displays no regret over any of them, not even Claudius' son or Augustus - not showing remorse fits her character, but considering Livia and Augustus' fifty-year marriage, I think the scene misses a sense of at least a little regret and sorrow over his death. The dialogue (straight from the book) supports this interpretation, as she explains that she has remembered the forced suicide of her father, which was Augustus' doing, all her life and therefore had no problem murdering Augustus. (The following scene also reminds us that she and her first husband and the young Tiberius also had to go on the run from Augustus at one point). It's logical enough, but I found the television's portrayal of a marriage that was genuinely loving but ended by Livia's ambition for her son more interesting.

There's a lot of very welcome humour in this episode. Livia's final scene with Tiberius is hilarious, as she tells him to make sure he wears a vest in the cold, though there is a touch of tragedy in Tiberius' riding off in a huff without saying goodbye. Livia's subsequent death sends Tiberius over the edge and results in the ruin of Agrippina, and we return to the story of Sejanus and Livilla. We hear Graves' detailed description of how Antonia brought Sejanus down through a conversation between Claudius and a family slave who tells him everything out of loyalty because although Antonia runs the household, Claudius is the man of family and his master. The conversation between Claudius and his slave is rather sweet and also very funny, as Claudius has a complete panic and starts to wail.

We meet grown-up Caligula when Tiberius makes him his heir, and his voice is wonderfully snide and slimy. As Sejanus meets his end, we hear the letter condemning him in full but his death is narrated by Claudius. We then hear Antonia insist on executing Livilla herself, and we hear Livilla's screams while Claudius narrates Antonia's actions over them, which is very effective. We also hear Claudius pleading on Livilla's behalf and Antonia starting to weep as she refuses, on which the episode ends.

This was a particularly successful episode. Claudius' personal story no longer feels like a separate strand from the political machinations going on, as he has become part of the political world, much against his will. Although Livia's death occurs three quarters of the way through the episode, which might risk robbing it of some of its drama, this arrangement works because her death is explicitly linked to the increasing horrors of Tiberius' reign and Sejanus' rise as Tiberius withdraws to Capri. The episode as a whole therefore holds together as a single unit more tightly than the previous episodes have. The episode was followed by an edition of the Radio 4 programme Open Book which discussed the novel, which was also a nice added bonus for anyone listening live!

Harriet Walter as Livia.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (dir. Michael Apted, 2010)

There's a fine line between adapting a story for a different medium, and telling an entirely different story that happens to share a few characters and locations (and neither has much to do with quality - some things are vastly improved in the course of serious alteration). I'm honestly not quite sure which side of the line this falls - and I'll need a second viewing to work out how successful I think it is (I spent too much of the first viewing with a 'what?' expression similar to the moment when Hector kills Menelaus in Troy). Spoilers follow.

I apologise to anyone not familiar with the book - skip the next couple of paragraphs and head to the bit about minotaurs!

The film has tried to represent Lewis' central theme of faith, mostly with fairly obvious conversations about believing in things, but it rather misses the point several times. Lewis' more subtle use of Corakin's Island to represent facing your fear and Ramandu's Island to represent the choice between whether to believe or not, highlighted by Edmund's questioning of Ramandu's daughter, are swept under and replaced by somewhat more banal insistences that belief is somehow important (and instead of being wary of Ramandu's daughter as a possible witch, Edmund pants after her as badly as Caspian does, which loses the point entirely). The film also tries to get across Lewis' motifs of temptation from the novel by talking a lot about being tempted and tested, but again tends to miss the point - Edmund and Caspian's fight at Goldwater Island is transformed from an example of the dangerous power of monetary greed to part of an ongoing rivalry between the two over who's king (which is rather sexist anyway, since no one suggests Lucy should be part of this argument even though technically she outranks Caspian as well).

(As a side note, I've spent years trying to work out whether the Islands represent the Seven Deadly Sins - Goldwater as Greed, Dark Island as Despair and Coriakin's Island as Envy and Pride together, or Vanity, seem obvious enough, but then it gets tricky. Dragon Island could be Sloth, though mixed with a bit of Greed as well, the Lone Islands might be Gluttony, but that doesn't work overly well, and perhaps Ramandu's Island is Pride. Or Sloth. It all depends partly on whether one uses the modern Catholic Deadly Sins - which Lewis probably wouldn't - or Dante's Italian version, or the Latin version, or the Greek version, all of which can vary in their precise translation. Lust is, thankfully, absent, except perhaps in some of the unspecified nightmares on Dark Island).

Change is not necessarily bad and there is some lovely stuff here. Goldwater Island and Dragon Island being the same place, for example, has a certain logic to it and helps to stop the film from becoming too episodic. Eustace and Reepicheep are, as in every version, the highlight, once you get used to Reepicheep's new voice - Pegg is great, it's just weird hearing a different voice from the same mouse. Their relationship is given much more time here than usual, which is lovely, though poor old Eustace has to spend half an eternity as a dragon and his wings must get awfully tired. I went to see this by myself, due to time constraints, and one of the advantages of seeing a film by yourself is that you are free to cry as much as you like at a boy and a computer-generated mouse saying goodbye to each other. On the other hand, part of me was feeling frustrated that, due to the story changes, Reepicheep no longer has to go to Aslan's country, but just goes because he wants to, with no particular good coming out of it. Which means, essentially, that he commits suicide. Which is rather depressing and, I suspect, not what Lewis was going for (but then, I have similar issues with Frodo and the Grey Havens, so maybe it's just me that sees it that way).

The Classical stuff in the book of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader appears generally more in terms of themes than direct borrowings. Most obviously, Lewis can't have failed to be influenced by the Odyssey, but there isn't a lot of direct referencing to the Homeric poem beyond the fact there are some islands and a ship that visits them. (Dark Island could be the underworld or Ramandu's daughter a nicer Circe/Calypso but really I think that's pushing it). Pliny the Elder mentions some monpods, who might have inspired the Dufflepuds, but it's not really much of a connection. Greek and Roman mythical creatures tend to be restricted to the land of Narnia itself, so we don't see many of them on the islands.

I'd always pictured the Dawn Treader's crew as being made up of human sailors from Archenland and the nearer islands (because the Telmarines, despite their name and pirate origins, were terrified of the sea). But, just as Star Trek movies need some more excitingly alien crew members than the usual bumpy heads, Narnia movies need more fantastical creatures, so in addition to a faun crewmember, we have... another minotaur. Now they're sailors! I'm not sure if it's popular culture in general that has an obsession with minotaurs, or me, but they seem to be cropping up in the most bizarre places and in great numbers. I suppose there's no reason not to have a minotaur crewmember, really, but what does he eat? They have limited rations, after all. It must be something about the truly bizarre look of a minotaur combined with the fact they can walk around on two legs and, therefore, a person in costume can do the long shots, that makes them so popular just now.

Other good things: sea serpent vs dragon is undeniably cool; Edmund's torch returns; we finally get some actual Lewis right at the end (after disappointingly little earlier - much of Prince Caspian's best dialogue came from Lewis himself); the way you can see where the invisible Dufflepuds are by their breath; Aslan raking the sand to rip the dragon skin off Eustace; the whole thing is beautiful, especially Coriakin's map with its recreation of the first film's battle; the use of Pauline Baynes' colour illustrations during the end credits; Eustace in general, especially his bedroom set and his diary, and Will Poulter's fantastic performance. Eustace also wears English clothes throughout (when not a dragon) which is a very effective way of making him seem like someone who doesn't belong.

Other less good things: the bromance between Caspian and Edmund, which somehow manages to be even worse than the Caspian/Susan thing in Prince Caspian; the incredibly annoying and utterly pointless extra little girl, whom I just wanted to throw overboard (as if there aren't enough children in this story!); the painfully desperate set-up for The Silver Chair in the mention of Jill Pole at the end (who should still hate Eustace at this point); the mermaids are suddenly translucent for no reason; the whole business with the swords. Narnia is pretty high fantasy, but it's never been one of those stories which are all about getting the Sword of Blarg and putting it in the Stone of Thingy, or finding the Gem of Whathisname, and so on - Narnian stories have much more human goals and solutions (killing an evil Queen/King, finding a lost prince - twice! - curing a mother's cancer and, in this case, saving or avenging seven missing lords. The Last Battle is, um, different). The only good thing about that storyline was Eustace getting to save the day while everyone else was otherwise occupied.

I really do hope this film does well and that someone finances The Silver Chair, because I think these films are beautiful and engaging, and because The Silver Chair has great potential as a film (it's a simple, linear but not too episodic quest and it stars Eustace, what's not to like?!). And because I still nurse the hope that someone, someday will make The Horse and His Boy into a film (which is even more suitable for film, as long as Lewis' racism can be toned down - but I'm sure that's easily enough do-able, and focussing on Aravis as a girl escaping from a forced marriage could be really interesting). As for Dawn Treader itself, I think that it was really good. I certainly came out happy (and a little sniffly) and you won't see a more beautiful film this year. It'll take another viewing to get out of noticing what's different and appreciate the film for itself, but it's worth seeing for a mouse perched on a dragon's nose, if nothing else!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (dir. Andrew Adamson, 2008)

Prince Caspian is one of the hardest of the Narnia stories to adapt for film, second only to The Last Battle - which is why the BBC TV adaptation put it together with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and gave Caspian itself only a hour's screen time. The book features a complicated structure which introduces the titular hero via a story within a story, hours of wandering around, lost, in the woods and a Bacchic orgy (which, unsurprisingly, isn't in the film, but I discussed it in my Narnia article). None of these things are particularly film-friendly.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Adamson gets pretty creative in adapting the story for film. Some changes work better than others. I love the shot of the unnamed Tarva and Alambil at the beginning, but I really feel no children's movie should open with a childbirth scene, no matter how crucial it is to the plot. The extra castle sequence is rather good, introducing some nice dramatic tension between Caspian and Peter (who get on irritatingly well in the book) and, best of all, Edmund finally gets to skewer the White Witch. However, the less said about the hideous attempt at romance between Caspian and Susan, the better.

All the mythological creatures in Prince Caspian, from various mythologies, stand for religion and spirituality against the secular Telmarines. It is somewhat appropriate, therefore, that the eternally plural minotaurs are now on our side (they were bad guys in the previous film). Old emneties are laid aside and no creature here is 'good' or 'evil' - unlike the diametrically opposed armies of good and evil in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there is good and bad on both sides here (and the film has sensibly played down Lewis' unfortunate implication from the book that black dwarves and bad and red ones good). The minotaurs are also a potent symbol of the fact that monstrous does not equal bad and I confess, I actually well up when the one minotaur holds up the portcullis at Miraz' castle despite being full of arrows and sacrifices himself so our heroes can escape. I dread to think how many times Pasiphae had relations with that bull, though, to produce such a large group of minotaur progeny.

The bulk of the army is, once again, made up of centaurs and fauns, because they look the most human and can wear bits of armour. In fact, the centaurs seem to be largely in charge during the castle attack, since Peter and Caspian are competing for who can be more incompetent (love the use of Edmund's electric torch though). It seems a shame that the films insist that an army isn't an army unless it's got human-looking creatures in it, since you'd think an army of animals, all with different strengths, would be quite cool. I guess British woodland creatures aren't quite tough enough. The centaurs are also used to provide some family drama and add to the 'war is hell' motif. They've been chosen for this purpose because of their human-like looks, and because female fauns are pretty few and far between (if they exist at all - I've always imagined fauns and satyrs pair up with nymphs and dryads, and I think that fits with the original Greek versions as well). I think we could have been equally affected by, say, a bereaved family of mice or badgers or squirrels, but there we go, it works fine with centaurs too. Though I can't help feeling that child centaurs (boy or girl) should be given T-shirts or something, they don't look right, wandering around topless.

The architecture in the temple-like section of Aslan's How is rather good. It doesn't look to me like it's emulating any one particular style (unless it's one I'm less familiar with) but it gets across a general sense of ancient religion. The large reliefs of Aslan, in particular, and the random but cool sections of fire that light the place are very effective - to me, they are almost evocative of ancient Egyptian temple architecture, though without actually being very Egyptian. It certainly drives home the point that Aslan is the god of the Narnians and the Stone Table is his altar (I know this may seem obvious, but I had absolutely no idea that that was what it was supposed to be when I was a child).

When Lucy first sees Aslan here, the audience does not, and when she first meets with him in the woods, it happens in a dream, which creates a much more interesting dilemma for the other characters and the audience. If the audience is shown the same clear sight of Aslan that Lucy sees, the central point about faith is rather lost, since we know she's right - we saw it. By hiding Aslan from the audience, and showing him only in dream sequences, the film forces the audience to question Lucy's sanity/eyesight as well, and it makes the final, real meeting between her and Aslan that much more powerful.

The use of the river god is very effective and makes a nicely dramatic ending. It also makes me wonder, for the umpteenth time, how Achilles could possibly fight a river towards the end of the Iliad. After all, how can you fight water, except with a lot of fire?! (Presumably Achilles was fighting the spirit of the river in human form, it's been a few years since I read that part of the Iliad - it still doesn't make a whole load of sense though).

Prince Caspian is, perhaps, not quite as successful as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but it does a very good job with a difficult book and has some really brilliant moments (many of them involving Edmund and Lucy, the only two characters thinking straight for much of the story). The fleshing out of important minor characters like Queen Prunaprismia and Glozelle and Sopespian is rather good and the scene with the werewolf and the hag trying to call up the Witch, always a highlight, is fantastic. Warwick Davis suddenly turns from Reepicheep (in the TV series) to Nikabrik, which is confusing, but he's excellent as ever. Caspian's pretty easy on the eyes, too (he's far too old compared to the book, but I'm not complaining!). From the latest trailer for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it looks like that's been pretty heavily 'adapted' (i.e. totally changed) as well, so let's hope the adaptations are as successful.

Monday, 6 December 2010

I, Claudius: Tiberius (radio adaptation)

As before, I haven't explained the plot much here because I've already gone through it in detail in my posts on the TV adaptation.

I think the most interesing thing about this adaptation of I, Claudius and Claudius the God is the pacing. With only six episodes, it's inevitable that much of the two source novels will be a bit rushed, but the amount of space given to each emperor is surprising to me - halfway into episode 2, Augustus is already dead. Considering the length of Augustus' reign compared to those of the other three emperors featured (Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius - Tiberius and Claudius had decent enough innings but Caligula's reign was very short) it's surprising to lose him before the end of episode 2. I think this is mainly due, as I disussed last week, to the radio series wanting to focus a bit more on the figure of Claudius himself, who was born later in Augustus' reign, but having said that, much of the second half of the episode focussed on Tiberius, Germanicus and Caligula, not Claudius.

Augustus' death itself is announced rather abruptly by messengers to Claudius, which gives it a brutal feeling that would otherwise be hard to get across on radio, but does rather deny listeners a proper goodbye to Augustus, who is last heard insisting that he'll drink only water from the well and eat only figs from the tree. The specifics of how Livia poisoned the figs have not yet been revealed and will presumably be detailed in a later episode.
Tiberius, meanwhile, maintains at this point a surprisingly good relationship with his mother, though after Augustus' death we hear Sejanus start to plant seeds of rebellion in him. He's a bit slow to catch on to some things, not noticing that Augustus headed off towards Planasia, where Postumus was banished, until it is pointed out to him - though his question to Livia concerning whether her hired bandits she set on Augustus' friend were expensive is quite amusing. In general, Tiberius comes over rather weakly in his own episode, moves around as a pawn by Livia and Sejanus and bumbling a bit. He only really sounds authoritative in his scene with Claudius (which revolves around getting Claudius to look respectable but not actually giving him anything to do), because Claudius is nervous and uncomfortable in his presence. To everyone else, however, he is more or less a tool of his mother and Sejanus, who are fighting over him and through him (though without any scenes together - everything is done using Tiberius himself as a conduit).

While some aspects of the novels are whizzed through at speed, others get a fair bit of attention here, certainly more than in the much longer television version (all stemming from the novels, of course, which have no time constraints). Most interestingly, we are given a much fuller introduction to Cassius Chaerea, the man who led the plot to assassinate Caligula. Graves introduces Chaerea in the amphitheatre, fighting Germans, puts him in the Battle of Teutoberg Forest as one of the few survivors and then (more correctly) puts him in Germanicus' army, where he has Cassius as the soldier who leads Caligula and Aggripina away from the mutiny, encouraging the soldiers to back down. The radio adaptation includes all of these, so that we are quite familiar with Cassius and with his relationship with Caligula, well in advance of Caligula's reign and assassinationn (in marked contrast to the TV series, which suddenly introduces Cassius in the episode in which Caligula is killed and leaves us all wondering what happened to Gimli). All this preparation will pay off when we reach the assassination of Caligula, but at the moment the amount of attention paid to Cassius, and his remarkable ability to be involved in every major event going, is surprising - though, given the difficulty of telling characters apart on radio, probably a good idea, as it gives listeners a character and voice to recognise in these various situations.

It seems that we will be going into the death of Germanicus in much more detail than previous deaths and downfallsin this series (though Postumus got a bit of air-time). This episode lays the groundwork, in terms of his death itself and the motivations behind his murder. The actual murder is very effectively done, with the voice of a not-yet-identified Caligula whispering the letters of Germanicus' name as he writes them on the wall, one letter shorter each day, terrifying his father into fatal ill health (combined with poison). It seems that this will be what finally drives Tiberius and Livia apart as well, as they are still reasonably close at this point, Tiberius conspiring with her, though he is already using his own spies and paid informers, since she won't let him use hers. All this will be for the next episode, however, as this one ends with the death of Germanicus. It's an interesting choice - personally, I think I prefer the TV's method of putting Germanicus' death and Piso and Plancina's trial for his murder into one episode, and I would have given Augustus a bit more time, but it does act as quite an effective cliffhanger of sorts for episode 3.

There are some fun touches in the language; calling 'French' warriors 'Frogs' is doubly inaccurate (modern France was inhabited by Gauls at the time, and no one called them 'Frogs') but it is funny and gets a sense of reality across to a modern audience by making the dialogue sound more familiar. Cassius Chaerea's accent is a bit rougher around the edges than I'd expect, presumably to mark him out as a soldier and practical man, though in reality I suspect he was reasonably well off and wouldn't have had an overly strong accent (on the other hand, we don't really know what Roman accents were like, so it doesn't really matter!).

The best thing about this episode is the groundwork it lays for future developments - Sejanus is introduced and his methods become clear, Rome becomes dangerous enough that Herod leaves and advises Claudius to hide (which forms a nice structural circle with the episode's opening scene, which is Pollio's advice to Claudius to exaggerate his limp and stammer and appear foolish. He does this a bit too well around his mother, who dislikes him more than ever). Caligula is given a very thorough introduction and Cassius is introduced as well, so we will know lots about them by the time they reach breaking point. I'm not sure how some of this comes across to anyone who doesn't already know the story, but the scenes in the amphitheatre, and of the mutiny of Germanicus' troops, and of Germanicus' murder are exciting and effective so I doubt that's a problem. And, of course, the best thing about radio is that we can experience mutinies and Games and journeys across Germania with our characters, because there is no budgetry problem in depicting any of these things, allowing the adaptators to make choices based much more on what they think is most important and less on what they can afford.

Friday, 3 December 2010

True Blood Season Two (Part Two)

It took me a while, but I’ve really got quite into True Blood now – so much so that I’m most annoyed that season 3 will soon be coming to a channel I don’t get. I’m even starting to see the attraction to Eric, though he’ll never quite match up to Spike for me, and I prefer Sam, Hoyt and Jason. Especially Sam. (Edited later to add: Um, I may have changed my mind now. Season 3 plus the books = now I understand what everyone was on about).

We found out who and what Maryann was right after the halfway point, though it took all the season up to the finale to succumb to narrative imperative and put the cast in Daz-white, pseudo-Greek costumes complete with laurel leaf headdresses. We got two different explanations for Maryann, one (presumably less accurate) from her follower Daphne and one (presumably more accurate, though she dismisses it as bits of old folklore to Eric) from the vampire Queen (and by the way, I am totally confused by the vampire hierarchy on this show - the Queen is younger than Eric, and yet stronger than him?).

First of all, something that's been bothering me - Dionysus doesn't have horns. [Edited to add: there are a very few obscure references to him having bull horns - and one less obscure one from Euripides - but he is not depicted with horns in art and the idea is a rare one. See comments below]. The names Maryann calls him by are accurate, the story of his double birth and there being only a piece of his heart left is an unusual variant, but it did exist, even the eating of raw meat may have been part of Bacchic rituals, but it is Pan who is usually depicted with horns. The two are often associated with one another, since Pan has a clear relationship to Dionysus' satyr followers and Pan and the satyrs have goat horns, and Pan and Dionysus are often depicted together, but Dionysus himself is not usually 'the horned god' and Dionysus and Pan are two separate deities.

(The more usual version of his birth myth is that Dionysus' mother Semele tricked Zeus into appearing in his full glory in front of her, which killed her, so Zeus took the 6-month foetus from her body and sewed it into his thigh, from which Dionysus was born three months later - but the heart varient is known from the ancient world as well).

Daphne's explanation was that Maryann herself was as close to a god as a human being can be, and she compared Maryann to Isis, Gaia or Lilith. Isis is an interesting comparison - Maryann is a follower of Dionysus, the subject of an ancient mystery religion, and Isis was the subject of another mystery religion, so there's a vague link there that almost makes sense. The identification of one god with another is also, of course, common ancient practice and Isis was identified with a number of other deities including Demeter/Ceres (she was identified with others in that it was thought that they were all essentially the same deity, but unlike Demeter and Ceres who are literally the same goddess, there would still be differences in attributes and worship). Gaia, as a much more primeval goddess, would be much less likely to be indentified with a goddess like Isis and Lilith is a character from monotheistic Jewish mythology, so she's a different kettle of fish all together. It's an interesting mix of names to throw in, presumably intended to evoke the ancient Mediterranean to link with maenadism (Isis), ideas about the essential divinity of the earth and earth motherhood that the name 'Gaia' is more associated with now (Gaia) and Judao-Christian myth (Lilith).

Daphne also draws an explicit link between Bacchic worship and modern Christian conceptions of devil-worship, and these are drawn on again from time to time throughout the series. This is an interesting way to take the worship of Bacchus/Dionysus. The god was associated, in the ancient world, with all the wild behaviour he is associated with here, including sex, drugs and rock and roll. However, pre-Christian ancient religion did not have the same concept of sin that Christianity has and there was no devil. This sort of behaviour was uncivilised, improper and certainly not be encouraged outside the ritual (and the sexual behaviour, not outside mythology - no Greek man would let their wife or daughter behave that way) but it was not until Judaeo-Christianity became the biggest religion in the Late Roman Empire that such things could be thought of as sinful and the concept of the Devil is a much later development.

The association of Bacchus with devil-worship does work rather well for the series. The Christian image of the Devil was developed from Late Roman images of Pan (goat horns, tail, goat feet) and the identification puts this somewhere on the same spectrum as those episodes of science fiction and fantasy series which imagine the Devil as an actual, nasty space beastie or other monster (Doctor Who's 'The Satan Pit', various bits and bobs in The X-Files, possibly the First Evil in Buffy). In such a strongly Judaeo-Christian culture, it makes sense to bring in the idea of devil-worship, and the strong echoes of Catholic communion in Maryann's final rituals (notably the chalice) make the whole thing seem an inversion of Christianity (complete with stabbed, crucified victim who sacrifices himself for others in Sam). It does seem a bit of a shame, though, to present a pagan religion as devil-worship; it seems to perpetuate nineteenth-century stereotypes that probably ought to be left to die.

The Queen's explanation for what Maryann is goes a little further. She implies that 'Dionysus' (some kind of supernatural being worhsipped before the Greeks, but she uses the Greek name) exists, but 'he just never comes', which makes sense in context. The explanation for exactly what Maryann is is, perhaps, less satisfying - she believed herself to be immortal, so she is. If that was true, Caligula would still be alive today. The Queen also makes an odd comment about humans having a tendency towards puritanism, which I don't think is true - you get tendencies towards puritanism in some places, but I don't think mankind as a whole has particularly puritan tendencies. On the other hand, I'm not judging this on vampire criteria - to the Queen, I'm sure we all look like puritans, and that's probably the real point of this statement.
I'm still not quite sure why Maryann had poor Eggs murder Daphne, but the scene where she serves up Daphne's heart to (presumably unsuspecting) Eggs and Tara is very much like a Greek myth, where this sort of thing comes up a few times (Procne and Philomela serve his own son to King Tereus and Pelops was served up to the gods, and there are other examples as well). It doesn't appear to worry them that the pie is bleeding, though, so maybe they're just under Maryann's influence and think freshly served (almost)-human heart is a good idea, which removes this somewhat from the myths, in which the ignorence of the diner is the most important aspect (otherwise they'd never eat it). Interesting that Tara thinks human heart tastes like rabbit - chicken is the usual comparison, and it's actually a similar meat to pig (hence the name 'long pig' in some parts of the world - Will Turner and Captain Jack could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they'd known that).

The minotaur thing also turned out to be Maryann herself - she can dig her hands into the ground and pull out claws, and she still has the bull obsession (it's implied that Dionysus' horns are bull horns - this and the emphasis on blood has me even more convinced that the writers have melded together Dionysus and Mithras. See comments below on possible bull-horn links, but to me, mystery religion + bull = Mithras). I don't even know where that comes from. But I'm amused that Bill flies Anubis Air. And the Queen's palace looks distinctly Nilotic to me - like some kind of fusion between ancient Egypt and the eighteenth century. The Queen isn't that old, but I suspect it's supposed to invoke Cleopatra, considered to be beautiful, sexy, dangerous and ruthless in the popular imagination.

This is quite possibly the most bizarre shop display I've ever seen, from the Bull Ring in Birmimgham. At first I thought it was minotaurs, but it's actually animal heads on human dummys, like Egyptian gods. Why? No one knows...

I enjoyed the rest of this series, and Lafyaette is fast becoming my favourite character ('Jesus and I agreed to see other people, that don't mean we don't still talk' is possibly the best line in anything, ever). Bill and Sookie are both kind of annoying; Sookie goes very Lois Lane, screaming for Bill for help all the time, and Bill stands there and says that he thought maenads were a myth. While, you know, being a vampire. And 'glamouring' is just way too much like Twilight's 'dazzling'. But Sam gets naked a lot, so it all evens out. I'll miss Maryann's weird juddering thing when she does her stuff, which reminds me of the Judder Man advert. All in all, I'm looking forward to season 3, and hopefully the series will continue to do interesting things in the corners of mythology, bringing in fresh new ideas like rampant maenadism to the vampire genre, rather than just repeating vampires vs werewolves ad infinitum.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Radio Series 2

I have an article on staple tropes of science fiction and fantasy television out at Den of Geek this week; apparently there's a show called Fringe that I've never seen and need to, but all my favourite shows are represented there!

I first came across The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a book, but my favourite incarnation of this modern myth has always been the original two radio series. Series 2 has all sorts of gems in it that rarely get transferred to other media or that get thoroughly transformed in the process, mostly those revolving around the planet Brontetaal. My personal favourite is the Shoe Event Horizon (which I believe appears in one of the books, but I haven't read them in a long time), a 'rather sad' historical phenomenon which is under investigation by three attractive young archaeologists called Lintilla (they're clones).

Arthur runs into the Lintillas after an encounter with the Bird People, who live in the ear of a 15-mile high statue of himself (it's a long story). The Bird People refused to go anywhere near the ground, and have not touched it since they shook the dust from their 'things'. Lintilla, as it turns out, is investigating the reason for this odd behaviour and has had a stroke of luck; a deep shaft in the ground has suddenly appeared (caused by Marvin the Paranoid Android plummeting to the ground from 13 miles up) and revealed several archaeological layers. After a brief explanation of how archaeological layers are like layer cake, she points out to Arthur an entire archaeological layer of compressed shoes.

After a certain amount of running around being chased by Foot Warriors, the Guide reveals the true cause of this extraordinary phenomenon (in a sequence involving some mildly disturbing button-pushing and pleasure noises from a young boy and a computer). While in a thriving, go-ahead civilization, people are looking up at an infinite horizon, in a depressed, downward spiralling civilization, they are looking down, at their shoes. To cheer themselves up, they buy a new pair. Everyone does this. And so shoe shops start to multiply to meet demand. When demand starts to dry up, the shoe shops start making shoes that don't fit or pinch uncomfortably or fall apart very quickly, so that everyone has to keep buying more shoes. Eventually, no shops other than shoe shops can survive, the economy collapses and any survivors eventually evolve into birds and never set foot on the ground again. It's implied that this is the way Oxford Street is going (and if it was bad back then, in 1980, imagine how far along we must be now!). The whole thing is completely brilliant and, apart from the birds bit, frighteningly plausible.

Lintilla the archaeologist is very unusual for a science fiction and fantasy archaeologist because, unlike Indiana Jones, various characters from The Mummy or Lara Croft, she is not trying to find treasure, nor is she looking for some kind of powerful, mystical or alien artefact. She's actually just trying to find out about history. She gets caught up in various adventures with Arthur over the course of a couple of episodes, before vanishing from the story all together with the end of Series 2 on the radio, and her status as a clone becomes vital to the plot, but in her actual job as an archaeologist, all she does is dig and learn about history. Her closest counterpart is probably River Song, who is similarly engaged in actual archaeology in 'Silence in the Library'/'The Forest of the Dead', though without the digging part. (I have a vague memory of Captain Picard doing some actual digging at some point as well, but haven't seen that episode in about 20 years, and can't remember which one it was!). Lintilla is a breath of fresh air for fictional archaeologists. In fact, her job is usually so dull, she has a 'crisis inducer' to help her pretend there's some kind of adventure in progress when, usually, there isn't.

It's rather nice to hear an archaeologist just doing their job in a science fiction setting, complete with digging and everything - and to this day I can't visit an archaeological dig without half expecting to find 'an entire archaeological layer of compressed shoes'...

Sunday, 28 November 2010

I, Claudius: Augustus (radio adaptation)

BBC Radio 4 have just started a brand new radio adaptation of Robert Graves' I, Claudius, confusingly but brilliantly starring Derek Jacobi as Augustus. It co-stars Harriet Walter as Livia, who has just the right maliciously dripping tones for Graves' interpretation of Livia as poison-tongued serial muderess, and Tim McInnerny as Tiberius, a gruffer, more evil Captain Darling. Claudius is played by Tom Goodman-Hill, who is very good but sounds unnervingly like the young Derek Jacobi. Comparisons to the TV series are somewhat unfair, since this is a fresh adaptation of the novel and should be judged on its own merits, but I'm afraid they are also inevitable, and I'm going to proceed to compare them directly, repeatedly, for the next six weeks!

(My posts on the television series also cover the plot in detail, so I won't describe the plot too much here).

The television adaptation usually dispensed with Claudius' famous stammer for the narrative sections, since these are written, not spoken. Interestingly, the radio series chooses to include the stammer at all times, albeit in a milder form for the narration. There are advantages to this, since, without being able to see Claudius writing, hearing him speak as if in an interview or conversation is more effective and easier to follow. On the other hand, aside from slowing down the narration a bit, it does make it less clear when Claudius is writing and when he is speaking, which may become awkward later.

The Sibyl's prophecy which opens the book is well done. One of the conceits of the book is that her prophecy is genuine, and this interpretation walks a fine line between depicting her state of ecstasy through stilted delivery, but also giving it a strange, unearthly echo which could be an ancient special effect, or could be a sign of something genuinely spooky going on.

After the Sibyl's scene we get into the main flashback and the story proper. The series has chosen an interesting selection of incidents to highlight. It goes back much further than the television adaptation did, showing us Livia's divorce from her first husband and going into much more detail concerning her marital relationship with Augustus, even referring briefly to the civil war between Augustus and Antony which is already over by the time the television adaptation kicks in. Like the source novel, the radio adaptation embraces Suetonius' rather salacious, gossipy suggestion that the reason Augustus and Livia had no children together was because Augustus couldn't get it up for her, which is, of course, possible, but it seems to me there are other equally, even more likely, possibilities (they may have married for reasons not relating to wanting to sleep together, or they may have had perfecty healthy marital relations and just not been a good match, fertility-wise).

On the other hand, the series then skips ahead in leaps and bounds and covers two to three hours of TV material in 45 minutes (though this is, of course, necessary in a six-hour radio adaptation). Marcellus is introduced and killed in the same sentence and before half an hour has passed we've reached Drusus' death and Claudius' youth. Julia is missing a son, as well. None of the missing or skimmed over scenes are desperately missed, though there is a bit of an overall effect of temporal whiplash simply from moving through so many years so quickly. This adaptation does, however, include some really nice scenes from the novel which didn't make it onto the TV, especially Augustus' cautious questioning concerning Julia's fate after her banishment - though Livia's use of a powerful aphrodisiac to drive Julia to her bad behaviour in the first place is positively mythical.

We also hear a lot more scenes from the novel which describe Claudius' youth and his own private life, his education and childhood friends. This, I think, is the key to the differences in the adaptations. The TV series was a massive, epic production with a huge cast of theatrical big-hitters all doing their thing and taking thirteen hours to tell all their stories. The radio series has no less impressive a cast, but quite apart from having only six hours to tell its story, because radio is not a medium that lends itself to large, epic casts and sprawling stories, it needs to tell a more intimate tale. So the radio series focuses itself as much as possible on Claudius himself and on his personal story, telling as much of everyone else's story as is necessary but always bringing it back to the person of Claudius. This is an effective strategy, and its nice to hear so much of the detail of Claudius' childhood, especially his tragic betrothal to a girl called Camilla and the full horror of his later betrothal to his wife Urgulanilla.

As with almost all BBC adaptations, this is extremely faithful to its source material (BBC adaptations cut all sorts of things for time, but very rarely make substantial changes to the scenes they do include). It's a highly enjoyable adaptation and the actors are uniformly excellent. This first episode perhaps condenses a little too much into one short hour, and might have benefitted from following the TV adaptation's example and picking a slightly later starting point, but it isn't a huge problem, and future episodes will be able to cover Claudius' youth and adulthood in more detail.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Pangs

Today is Thanksgiving in the US, a festival I have celebrated several times over the last few years with American friends (we had a delicious dinner last year, my friend is an excellent cook!). I can't be with them this year, so I'm missing out on Thanksgiving, but I thought I'd at least do a celebratory post. As you can probably tell, I've been watching through a lot of old Buffy DVDs lately, so of course this, the only Thanksgiving episode of Buffy, seemed the natural choice.

'Pangs' is another classic comedy episode of Buffy, though it also features the first return of Angel since going over to his own show and a fascinating discussion about the problem of how we remember the past, something very close to my current research. Best of all, this is where Spike starts to become integrated into the main cast, albeit bound in a chair at this point (what on earth do Giles' neighbours think?!).

Early on in the episode, Anya calmly informs Buffy and Willow, who are aghast, that,

'To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice, with pie.'

She's more or less right. To really be a ritual scarifice, the animal ought to be killed on an altar and its bones dedicated to the gods, and ancient rituals varied in ther reasoning behind them, but Thanksgiving roughly fits the bill. Some ancient rituals did commemorate past events, but many were explained by myth and were more related to the natural cycle of the year than commemoration; the events they commemorated, being mythological, are closer to stories people chose to pass on and celebrate than to modern commemorations of much more recent events. At first glance, this might seem to separate them from Thanksgiving, but actually, Anya is not quite accurate in her summation. Although Thanksgiving does commemorate a past event, that's not its main purpose as a festival. Thanksgiving is a harvest festival, something we still celebrate in churches and schools over here in the UK (usually at the end of September or beginning of October) and this function, of marking the point in the year where the harvest is brought in and giving thanks for having food for the winter, is probably more significant for the development of the festival than the commemorative aspect, though the latter has become more significant in recent times.

Much of the episode is taken up by an argument between Willow and Giles over whether Buffy should slay the vengeful Native American spirit who is going around killing people and chopping off their ears. Leaving aside the specific argument about the vengeful spirit (I tend to take Xander's side there, who has been given syphilis by the spirit and is not happy about it) the question of how to remember controversial past events is always a delicate one. When the past event is still having an effect on the present, the cultural memory of it is much more than memory, and any attempt to remember the past will be completely dominated by present issues - Voyager's 'Living Witness' is an excellent fictional example of this.

The last word in Willow and Giles' argument, in the end, comes from Spike, whose argument has a number of advantages over Giles' attempt to, as he bitterly points out, make many of the same points. Spike is evil, so he can say potentially offensive or controversial things without causing offence, because we expect evil characters to say offensive things. Like Giles, he's British, which gives him a certain distance from the particular issue (not a lot of distance, granted, since many pilgrims came to America to escape persecution in Britain, but he still has slightly more distance than the American characters). But most importantly, Spike uses an analogy with ancient Rome to make his point, which allows him to highlight brutal truth without sounding too heartless.

Ancient Greece and Rome (along with Persia, Babylon and other Near Eastern places) hold an unusual position in our cultural memory, because we don't connect them particularly strongly with a modern political situation. We make a mental break at the end of the Roman Empire and you don't hear too many people in North Africa complaining about these pesky camels those Italians brought over, or people from the various Roman provinces complaining about how the Italians occupied our country - in fact, we tend to be rather proud of it. The Romans conquered and subjugated half the known world, but whereas more recent examples of this behaviour are condemned, we praise the Romans for it (probably because of all the roads and irrigation and stuff).

So when Spike needs to make a fairly brutal, but true, point about how history works, the Romans are the perfect example. Their conquering is usually considered in a fairly positive light, so by pointing out that more recent situations are no different (though I suspect the Romans were quite a bit more violent than the Pilgrim Fathers) he is able to demonstrate the problem without getting too wrapped up in past wrongs at the expense of the present. Also, they way he puts it is brilliant:

'You won, all right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. That's what Caesar did, and he isn't going around saying "I came, I conquered, I feel really bad about it". The history of the world isn't people making friends.'

(James Marsters' delivery of 'I feel really bad about it' is hilarious).

It's a harsh point, but also a true one, and using the Romans allows him - or rather, the show, since Spike is evil and doesn't care - to make it without directly offending anyone still feeling the cultural pain of historical wrongdoing (the Romans invaded my country, but I think I'm OK with it). Most importantly, though, it's really, really funny.
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