Saturday, 9 June 2018

The Eagle of the Ninth: Esca

Having covered Marcus Aquila's arrival in Britain in the first episode, it is this second episode that really sets up the characters we'll be following through the rest of the story as our hero meets and buys a British slave called Esca.

Both the book and the TV series cover Marcus' relationship with another Briton, before Esca, in detail. He first meets and befriends Caradoc, and goes hunting with him. However, Caradoc conspires with other British to attack the fort and the ensuing battle, in which Caradoc is killed, is when Marcus received his career-ending injury. The film touched on this, but the television series is able to devote the whole of the first half-hour episode to it, making it a separate point in itself. When Marcus meets Esca, therefore, he has much more reason to be wary of making friends with any Briton, and to worry about how their loyalty to other Britons may conflict with friendship with him. The series also drives the point home with flashbacks of Caradoc, just to make sure no one has missed the point, so there is much more tension between Marcus and Esca on both sides here.

Esca has a Northern English regional accent. The lack of RP, in the 1970s, presents him as lower class (at that time, newsreaders and other television personalities all used RP). His geographical origins are, of course, important to the story.

The series also includes Marcus' love interest, who was left out of the film to focus on the relationship between Marcus and Esca. Unsurprisingly, she looks a lot older than 13, as she is in the book! That would be creepy. Camilla/Cottia is from the Iceni tribe and has reddish hair, because heaven forbid we should get through a story set in Roman Britain without a reference to Boudicca! Unlike the other British characters, Cottia has an RP accent though, presumably to emphasise the Roman upbringing she is getting from her Roman aunt and uncle.

We get to see some gladiatorial combat in this episode, and the set for the small provincial amphitheatre is fairly impressive. All of our heroes, while not necessarily against blood sport in humans, are against animal cruelty, as modern literary Romans nearly always are. Audiences can accept that these people of a different time are okay with humans fighting and killing each other, but not that they are okay with animal cruelty. This is why the dog never dies in action movies.

This is where we meet Esca and in another unsurprising move, he's fighting a retiarius. There's something about the retiarius (the fighter who uses a net and trident) that really appeals to film-makers, presumably because it looks so different to more familiar forms of single combat from other eras, like sword fighting. A retiarius is clearly, absolutley Roman. I really like the way the Roman and Esca the Briton take completely different fighting stances here, not just due to their different weapons, but as a visual reminder that they have been raised in completely different ways, with completely different fighting styles.

The series continues to make good use of its budget in several ways. I'm impressed with the full on pool in the bathhouse (with everyone wearing shorts because child audience!). The apparently mechanical wolf in one scene is a bit distracting though.

This is still essentially set-up, as the episode is entirely devoted to introducing the audience to Esca and Camilla/Cottia. To a generation raised on Classic Doctor Who, this would have been entirely normal. Six-part Classic Doctor Who stories often spent two episodes introducing new places and characters and wandering around a bit, and even the four-part stories are sometimes half set-up, half pay-off. How well this would go down with a generation raised on 45-minute stories is hard to say! On the plus side, it gives the setting and characters room to breathe, and we have time to get to know them - and it replicates the structure of the book, which also spends a long time establishing the relationships between Marcus, Esca and Cottia before the journey that forms the bulk of the plot. On the down side, we're an hour in and the story hasn't actually started yet...

Saturday, 2 June 2018

The Eagle of the Ninth: Frontier Fort

The Eagle of the Ninth is a six-part television adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff's novel, better known to modern audiences from the 2011 film adaptation The Eagle.

The adaptation was made for transmission on Sunday evenings in six half hour episodes. For years, the BBC used to show adaptations of classic children's novels on Sunday evenings during the autumn or in the lead up to Christmas, including The Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers and Merlin of the Crystal Cave. I used to love them, and looked forward to them as a child. The previous year, in autumn 1976, the BBC has transmitted its phenomenally successful adaptation of Robert Graves' novel I, Claudius for adults (definitely for adults) so it is not surprising that their choice of children's novel for 1977 was a Roman-set one.

The use of accents, as in any show about Roman Britain, is interesting. The Romans here have proper plummy BBC accents. They all speak Received Pronunciation, which implies they are educated and associates them with the ruling classes. This goes for all the Roman troops, not just the commanders, which is unusual - even I, Claudius the year before used regional accents for lower ranking soldiers. The British, meanwhile, speak with a vaguely West Country accent (which is clearly being put on, badly, by the actors) in order to associate them with farming, with the land and with lower social classes (think Sam Gamgee's accent from The Lord of the Rings).

This series follows the book much more closely than the 2011 film (unsurprisingly), so this whole first episode is basically set-up for the main part of the story. In this particular case, that works rather well for the story, as it allows Marcus' initial experience of Britain to stand as a story on its own, before following him out of the army in the rest of the series.

I like the opening of the show, with a bit of black and white filming and a marching song that, while written to have vaguely Roman-appropriate lyrics, is clearly an old British-style marching song, all about leaving a girl behind and so on (see this rather wonderful Tumblr thread about different types of folk songs!). The Roman soldiers are therefore clearly presented to the audience as figures to identify with, singing the sort of marching songs British soldiers might have sung during the wars that were still very much in living memory (the children watching this in the 1970s may have had parents who fought in World War Two). The British, so far, are rather wilder.

Despite being aimed at children and families, this show actually has a lot more action than I, Claudius. It obviously had a much bigger budget, as it includes actual outdoor filming. The battle scene is brief, shot in close-up and bloodless (the result of both budget and being aimed at a child audience), but we do get to see the testudo in action and it allows the series to do a bit more showing and a bit less telling. On the whole, though, like I, Claudius, the series relies heavily on small, indoor sets featuring a couple of theatrically trained actors crossly providing exposition to each other.

I happen to be watching it now on an old, scratched, slightly fuzzy TV/DVD player that was a kind donation from my partner's cousins, that makes a weird clicking sound as the DVD plays. This is probably the closest modern way to replicate the experience of watching it in the 1970s! It's certainly far closer to our family TV from the 1980s than the elaborate projector screen system my partner has set up downstairs. Still, if modern eyes can get past the old-fashioned filming style and sometimes stilted delivery, the series is well worth a look.

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