A saga centered set during the last years of Julius Caesar's reign, centered on two Roman soldiers, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, and their families.
Rome wasn't built in a day
Spectacular, epic and opulent, the BBC's co-production of Rome depicts the power play of the republic's patriachs and plebians in dramatic detail. Is this lavish programme the future of UK television, asks Liz Thomas.
It has taken five years to develop and cost more than £60 million to make but the BBC's epic co-production Rome has finally hit screens in a whirlwind of sex, nudity and violence.
Set 400 years after the founding of the Roman republic and featuring an all-star cast, including Ciarán Hinds as Julius Caesar, Polly Walker as Caesar's niece Atia and James Purefoy as Mark Antony, the series is glossy, brilliantly shot and has all the feel of the feature film.
The show will undoubtedly have its critics but this is exactly the sort of thing the Corporation needs to be doing to engage wider audiences that are increasingly distracted by a vast array of programme choices available to them on an assortment of platforms. The reason viewers love US drama is, in part, to do with the look and feel of the production. Shows such as Lost, which cost around £30 million to make, have the glossy sheen of the big screen and it can be hard for those with far smaller budgets to compete. As Rome is a co-production with American company HBO, the BBC actually only put in close to £10 million for this series.
Jane Tranter, BBC controller of drama, said: "It felt like something that could have been developed by us and HBO felt like natural partners for the BBC. We knew they wanted to use British actors, some British directors and Bruno is British. It felt like a good thing for us to do - huge, epic and ambitious and not the sort of thing we'd ever be able to do on this scale on our own. We did commit a substantial budget but what you get on screen represents incredibly good value for money for the licence fee payer. I think the production values in Rome are extraordinary, they are as high as you would get in a feature film."
Executives at the Corporation are so certain that the 12-episode series, which culminates in the murder of Julius Caesar, will be a success, they have already commissioned another run. Creator Bruno Heller has said it will continue with the seeds of the struggle between Octavian and Mark Antony and that he would like to cover the entire period from the fall of the republic throught the heyday of the Empire, which could mean there will be a third series.
Award-winning ancient history documentary maker Jonathan Stamp, who was on hand to advise the show's producers, said Rome was very different in scale, scope and ambition to any other BBC:
"We know for example that UK drama is currently not fulfilling its international potential because all too often British drama is perceived as being parochial and lacking in international appeal."
It is clear leading industry executives think the UK is in danger of missing out in the international market place unless they can begin to match what is on offer across the pond.
Earlier this year Lorraine Heggessey, chief executive of indie Talkback Thames, warned that British television needed to imitate the US system of massive investment in programme development if it wants to create new drama with the worldwide appeal of Lost. The former BBC1 controller pointed out that Lost makers ABC and Disney spent more than $10 million producing the pilot alone. US networks commission around 150 scripts a year before choosing 100 to make into pilots costing around $300 million. Of these, only an estimated 30 shows are ever broadcast.
Heggessy admitted that the scale of money available in the USA for drama would be difficult to match but steps need to be taken to increase funds. Programme makers in Britain would have to look to new avenues of investement in order to be able to fund such a procedure but it was important to broaden the appeal. She said: "If we want the British television industry to grow as a global player, then we have to find new ways of investing more in research and development. That will involve a different kind of partnership between broadcasters and producers.
Drama and defended the adult scenses as a fair representation of the time.
He said: "The Rome that we see in the show is authentic - it's dirty, it's violent. The normal depiction is a sort of 'HollyRome', it tends to be this vision of white marble, looking at the lives of the mighty and powerful. This production encompasses the whole of Roman society at every level. Cicero once described the city as the 'shithole of Romulus', which is a great phrase.
"The production values of the programme are very different for a BBC drama, the bar has certainly been raised but that is what a co-production with HBO unlocks for you. I wouldn't rule out more collaborations of this type with HBO or others."
This might be part of the answer for cash-strapped broadcasters looking to outdo the enormous pull of shows bought in from the US but it is dangerous to rely on it.
Justin Bodle, chief executive of international production house Power, says that slick, feature film-style production values are becoming increasingly important in attracting television audiences but warns that the UK industry cannot rely on co-productions to boost its high-end drama output.
He explains: "The government needs to create the kind of conditions necessary to nurture bigger international ambition for original, homegrown UK television drama. As the demand for cheap to produce reality TV shows takes a downturn, there is an appetite once again for high-end international drama to fill the growing gaps in global broadcast schedules.
"What a dreadful noise plebs make when they're happy," observed a Roman aristocrat on his way to the forum, perhaps, to be ritually doused in bull's blood. BBC and HBO are attempting to keep the plebs happy over the next 11 weeks with Rome, the epic new drama which has arrived to bathe our screens in "blood, iron and mud". Crucifixions, floggings, stabbings, gurgling mucus and fountains of blood battle it out with lascivious impalements, pagan gods and fat whores in a fast, violent and highly entertaining history.
Episode one saw Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) return from Gaul after eight years, with the spoils of war. The streets of Rome looked like a 52 BC car boot sale. This was not a classical city of marble temples and whispering assassins; it was a filthy, pungent place teeming with "the piss-drinking sons of circus whores".
Caesar was being hailed as the greatest thing since sliced goat's testicle, but his rival, Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham) - described as having "the cunning of a sardine" - wasn't joining in the plebeian din. When the tattooed head of Pompey's unsuccessful hired assassin was returned to him by Caesar in a box, the stage was set for political mayhem.
Rome is a big, confident production, and the acting is terrific. The social elite populating the crisply cool interiors include a smarmily duplicitous Brutus (Tobias Menzies), a friskily ambitious Mark Antony (James Purefoy), and a scheming, sexy Atia (Polly Walker), all plotting and inflicting casual cruelties on the lower orders of their pagan society. It's fantastically heartless. Atia makes Lady Macbeth seem like Mother Teresa ("Bring him back safely," she says chattily to the soldiers guarding her son on his journey to Gaul, "or I'll use the eyes of your children for beads").
Sexual morality is thin on the ground too, with buckets of casually vigorous sex, all observed by exhausted slaves waving feathered fans around like human air-conditioning systems, or sleepily propping themselves awake over their macramé until it's time to change the sheets or offer their owners a post-shag milk-bath. If the debauchery and chaos get you down, expect no mercy - as Atia would say, your squeamishness is "not that a good leeching wouldn't cure".
Character: Julius Caesar
Co-stars: James Purefoy, Lindsay Duncan, Polly Walker, Kevin Mc Kidd, Ray Stevenson
Director: Michael Apted
Screenplay: Bruno Heller and others
Run-time: 0 mn
Release date: 28 Aug. 2005 (USA)
Caesar's looks and health
Even though it has been said that Caesar was a fair-haired and blue-eyed man, it's unlikely. The only physical depictions of Gaius Julius Caesar are in Suetonius and Plutarch:
He is said to have been tall of stature with a fair complexion, shapely limbs, a somewhat full face, and keen black eyes; sound of health, except that towards the end he was subject to sudden fainting fits and to nightmare as well. He was twice attacked by the falling sickness during his campaigns. He was somewhat overnice in the care of his person, being not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even having superfluous hair plucked out, as some have charged; while his baldness was a disfigurement would troubled him greatly, since he found that it was often the subject of the gibes of his detractors. Because of it he used to comb forward his scanty locks from the crown of his head, and of all the honours voted him by the senate and people there was none which he received or made use of more gladly than the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath at all times. (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, 45,1-2)
At all events, the man who is thought to have been the first to see beneath the surface of Caesar's public policy and to fear it, as one might fear the smiling surface of the sea, and who comprehended the powerful character hidden beneath his kindly and cheerful exterior, namely Cicero, said that in most of Caesar's political plans and projects he saw a tyrannical purpose; "On the other hand," said he, "when I look at his hair, which is arranged with so much nicety, and see him scratching his head with one finger, I cannot think that this man would ever conceive of so great a crime as the overthrow of the Roman constitution." (Plutarch, Life of Caesar, IV,8-9)
Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus
The two leading characters of the series are not entirely fictional. Julius Caesar himself praised the bravery of two centurions named Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus in his Gallic War but nothing more is known about them.
In that legion there were two very brave men, centurions, who were now approaching the first ranks, T. Pullo, and L. Vorenus. These used to have continual disputes between them which of them should be preferred, and every year used to contend for promotion with the utmost animosity. When the fight was going on most vigorously before the fortifications, Pullo, one of them, says, "Why do you hesitate, Vorenus? or what [better] opportunity of signalizing your valor do you seek? This very day shall decide our disputes." When he had uttered these words, he proceeds beyond the fortifications, and rushes on that part of the enemy which appeared the thickest. Nor does Vorenus remain within the rampart, but respecting the high opinion of all, follows close after. Then, when an inconsiderable space intervened, Pullo throws his javelin at the enemy, and pierces one of the multitude who was running up, and while the latter was wounded and slain, the enemy cover him with their shields, and all throw their weapons at the other and afford him no opportunity of retreating. The shield of Pullo is pierced and a javelin is fastened in his belt. This circumstance turns aside his scabbard and obstructs his right hand when attempting to draw his sword: the enemy crowd around him when [thus] embarrassed. His rival runs up to him and succors him in this emergency. Immediately the whole host turn from Pullo to him, supposing the other to be pierced through by the javelin. Vorenus rushes on briskly with his sword and carries on the combat hand to hand, and having slain one man, for a short time drove back the rest: while he urges on too eagerly, slipping into a hollow, he fell. To him, in his turn, when surrounded, Pullo brings relief; and both having slain a great number, retreat into the fortifications amid the highest applause. Fortune so dealt with both in this rivalry and conflict, that the one competitor was a succor and a safeguard to the other, nor could it be determined which of the two appeared worthy of being preferred to the other.(Caesar, Gallic War, V,44)
Typical Roman names had three parts (known as the tria nomina): the praenomen (given name) the nomen (gens or clan name) and the cognomen (family name, especially a descriptive nickname or epithet acquired through usage over a period of time; for example, Cicero means "chickpea").
The man we know as Julius Caesar was Gaius (his given name) Julius (from the Julii - the gens Julia) Caesar (a nickname of obscure meaning inherited from an ancestor).
Octavius was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus into an equestrian family. His father, Gaius Octavius, was the first in the family to become a senator, and his mother was Atia Balba Caesonia (85-43 BC - unlike what is shown is the series, she did not outlive Mark Anthony), sometimes referred to as Atia Balba Secunda to differentiate her from her two sisters. She was the daughter of Julius Caesar's sister, Julia Caesaris.
Gaius Otavius took the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian) in 44 B.C. after the murder of his great uncle who had made him his heir. Calling him "Octavian" in the first season of the series is a mistake.
Four years after Actium, a masterfully manipulated Senate gave him the quasi divine title of Augustus which was a slightly archaic word meaning "sacred" or "revered". Octavian's powers were formalized and Rome had given herself its first emperor. He called himself Princeps, or "First Citizen".
Cicero and Mark Antony
Mark Antony's parents were Marcus Antonius Creticus and Julia Antonia (another woman of the gens Julia). Antony's father died when he was young, and his mother married Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, who was summarily executed under the consulate of Cicero for having a role in the Conspiracy of Catiline in 63 B.C. This is assumed to have been a major factor in his hostility toward Cicero.
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