Monday, 5 May 2014

The Caesars (1968)

The Caesars is a six-episode British historical drama series set in ancient Rome, made by Granada in 1968. It covers more or less the same time period and the same events as the BBC’s much better-known 1976 I, Claudius series, but deals with these events in a somewhat different way.

The Caesars was written and produced by Philip Mackie, a television writer who had a very distinguished career from the late 1950s up to his death in 1985.

The Caesars has been overshadowed by I, Claudius because it had the misfortune to be the last large-scale historical drama series filmed in black-and-white. As a result it has fallen into obscurity although it is in fact an exceptionally interesting and subtle series.

The most notable difference as compared to I, Claudius is that The Caesars takes a very much less sensationalistic approach. I, Claudius was based on two novels by Robert Graves and while Graves was a very great writer of historical fiction it does need to be remembered that it really was historical fiction that he wrote, with as much emphasis on the fiction as the history. Graves certainly knew his history but he had his own hobby-horses his own agendas to pursue and his approach to history, although brilliant, was more than a little eccentric. 

Graves was also a writer who delighted in historical scandal. Of course he was in good company, given that many (if not most) of the great Roman historians who are our main sources for the period also loved a good juicy scandal. Suetonius, who wrote in the early second century AD, was particularly addicted to scandalous gossip. Basing a work of historical fiction largely on his work makes for splendid entertainment but it’s a bit like basing a history of modern Britain on the tabloid newspapers.

Philip Mackie took a more conservative approach. That does not mean that The Caesars is dull. Far from it. It just isn’t possible to make a dull television series about ancient Rome.  

Like I, Claudius this earlier series also benefits from superb performances from some very fine actors, most notably AndrĂ© Morell as Tiberius, Ralph Bates as Caligula and the criminally underrated Freddie Jones as Claudius. Viewers approaching this series for the first time will inevitably be comparing Freddie Jones’ interpretation of the role to Sir Derek Jacobi’s iconic performance in I, Claudius. The comparison is by no means unfavourable to Jones.

Having been made in 1968 this series is, unsurprisingly, rather studio-bound and has the characteristic shot-on-videotape look of 1960s British television.  In some ways this is a plus rather than a minus. It means the focus has to be on the writing and on the characters and their very complicated relationships, and in these areas the series scores very highly indeed. Don’t go into this series anticipating spectacle. There are no epic battle scenes. This is intelligent and subtle psychological and political drama and the claustrophobic feel of studio-bound shot-on-videotape 1960s television enhances the tension. This is a drama about people trapped by their destinies, people who have in many cases been dealt a very bad hand by fate and whose very survival depends on their ability to play that hand for all it’s worth.

The drama of Mackie’s writing comes not just from the characters, but from the way various key characters understand, or fail to understand, one another’s motives. Mackie is confident that his audience will pick up the subtleties in these understandings and misunderstandings. One of the key moments in the first episode comes from a simple question Augustus asks of his grandson Agrippa Postumus. Agrippa’s answer to what he takes as a harmless question will have momentous consequences for Agrippa and for Rome. Tiberius’s assessment of the character and the likely behaviour of his nephew Germanicus (his most credible rival as Augustus’s successor), and Germanicus’s reading of Tiberius’s character and likely actions, are absolutely crucial and again Mackie trusts the viewer to follow both men’s reasoning and to comprehend their subsequent actions.

Philip Mackie is particularly interested in the psychology of power. The first two episodes are entirely devoted to the events immediately preceding and immediately following the death of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. They are dominated by the personality of Tiberius. Tiberius was a strange and complicated man. He was the natural successor to Augustus but he was by no means the only possible successor. Tiberius made a great show of being extremely reluctant to take on the duties of emperor and claimed to be anxious to restore the republican constitution which had been in practice (although not in theory) swept away by Augustus after a century of almost continuous political violence and civil war. 

What makes Tiberius interesting is that in some ways he was quite sincere in his stated beliefs on these subjects. At the same time he was certainly never lacking in ambition, and he was very much aware that democracy had proved to be a catastrophic failure. He was therefore a man who was quite capable of holding perfectly sincere opinions that were utterly contradictory, and at the same time intelligent enough to recognise the contradictions. He was in other words very much an enigma. Mackie’s intelligent script and Morell’s subtle performance combine to turn the enigma of Tiberius into riveting drama. Tiberius’s nephew Claudius sums him up rather neatly when he says that Tiberius moves so slowly that he appears to be standing still until you suddenly realise that he has somehow contrived to be miles ahead of you.

This is of course a drama about power, a subject that has been dealt with many times but Mackie approaches it with intelligence and subtlety. Augustus created a state in which immense power was concentrated in the hands of one man. That is a situation that is sustainable only in exceptional circumstances, when that power is in the hands of a man with not only the skill and the judgment to exercise that power, but also the personality to do so. There is an old Chinese proverb that states that the problem with riding a tiger is that it is impossible to dismount. This is the situation faced by Tiberius, a situation made more bitter by the fact that he only mounted the tiger against his will. Tiberius is a shrewd and conscientious ruler who finds that governing well does not ensure popularity. He tries to deal with his unpopularity by retiring to his villa on the island of Capri but even there he cannot escape. He must continue to exercise power, even if he does so indirectly. And if he does so indirectly he may not only become more unpopular but also become fatally isolated, making his situation both more dangerous and more unpleasant. Absolute power can become a prison.

Mackie uses the reign of Caligula to illustrate other dangers of power. In order to exercise absolute power you have to have someone to enforce that power. In order for them to exercise that power on your behalf you must give them a great deal of power. As a result your power is no longer absolute. Caligula has his Praetorian Guards to enforce his power but it does not occur to him that their power has now become potentially greater than his own. Caligula also discovers, too late, that you cannot oppress everybody. If you want to tyrannise the poor you need to maintain the favour of the rich, and if you want to tyrannise the rich you had better make sure not to offend the poor. Tyrannise everybody and you will find yourself with no support base at all, and even the most absolute power will not help you then.

Ralph Bates gives an extraordinarily chilling performance as Caligula. It is not Caligula’s madness or his savagery that is truly terrifying; it is his capriciousness, his horrifying unpredictability. It is possible to endure even the most extreme tyranny as long as it is predictable, but Caligula’s unpredictability makes it unendurable. The terrors of living under unpredictable tyranny are conveyed with remarkable effectiveness. Bates does not resort to ranting; it is the cheerfulness of his viciousness that chills us. Other fine actors have attempted the role, with some success, but I don’t think anyone has surpassed Bates’ performance. 

While this series is somewhat less sensationalistic than I, Claudius it does not back away from the more lurid aspects of the era of the first emperors. In fact it must have pushed the edge of the envelope very far indeed by the standards of 1968. There is a great deal of violence, some of it quite horrific (although the horrific nature of the violence often comes more from the implications than from what we actually see). And there is plenty of perversity, sexual and otherwise.

Network DVD have released the complete six-episode series in a two-DVD boxed set. Tragically the source materials are not in very good shape, the picture being at times very grainy and occasionally just a little muddy. Despite the problems The Caesars is so good (and makes such a fascinating companion piece to the BBC’s I, Claudius) that it is an essential purchase for any serious fan of television historical drama at its best. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post; halfway through episode 2 now...
    Looking forward to the journey with I Claudius (and Suetonius) always as a beloved guide

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