Sunday, November 20, 2005


It's been a busy couple of weeks, which has kept me away for a bit. But back to work.

I deliberately held off on writing about Rome until after episode 3 aired earlier in the week. Or, as Americans call it, "episode 4." Because the BBC have treated this show very strangely. Despite co-producing it with HBO, they were not at all satisfied with the first three episodes. So they set about them with shears, cutting them down to two parts. In other words, they trimmed 33% out of the first three episodes.

Quite what the hell they were thinking remains something of a mystery. The BBC's official explanation, which is interesting in its own right, was that the first three episodes contained an awful lot of exposition which was necessary for stupid Americans, but not for clever, well-informed British people. I rather doubt that the viewers of BBC2 and HBO are that far apart when it comes to schoolboy knowledge of extremely basic Roman history. The director believes that the real aim was to focus more on the tits. And to be honest, that's a more plausible explanation than the idea that the BBC truly believes that Cato is a household name in the UK.

It may well be true that opening episodes in their original form were too slow. I'm under no illusions that HBO are flawless - I've sat through season 1 of Carnivale. But you can't just yank out a third of a show without crippling it. There are issues of pacing to consider. Not surprisingly, the first two UK episodes are virtually unwatchable, with characters seeming to teleport around Europe at a speed that would be surprising even today. Episode three (or four) is significantly better, which suggests that the BBC would have been well-advised to keep their shears off the earlier episodes.

That aside, the show has divided UK critics. In large part their reaction seems to depend on what they were expecting from it. The HBO name, and the concept of BBC period drama, carry certain connotations with them. A lot of people seem to have expected, if not high art, then at least the sort of middlebrow serious drama that makes Daily Mail readers feel good about themselves. To an extent, Rome delivers that when it's dealing with Roman politics.

But when it isn't dealing with Caesar and the big names, the show spends more of its time following the various fictional characters on the margins of history. And they're basically engaged in a historical soap opera. Some ropey acting from a couple of supporting characters doesn't help, but many of the storylines are straight out of the daytime soap 101 manual. Atia is written - and played - as a historical version of Joan Collins in Dynasty.

And, as a straight soap opera with a bit of amusing historical detail thrown in, it's quite entertaining. But even then, I find myself wondering at times what the point is. It does rather come across as though the creators liked Roman history, thought the details of the culture were entertaining, and then realised that (beyond the historical re-enactment) they didn't actually have much of a story to tell about it. Historical dramas connect with audiences because of the ways in which the characters are like us, not the way in which they're unlike us.

Rome doesn't really have that, because once you get past the historical dressing, you're dealing with two-dimensional characters in stock soap plots. The only character who comes close to feeling real to me is Marc Antony, and that's almost entirely due to James Purefoy's performance rather than the script. In fact, the script generally can't make up its mind whether it wants to write real people or go for over-the-top melodrama.

The production values are undoubtedly impressive, and the genuine historical politics make for entertaining television. Otherwise, though, everything we've seen so far has been a disappointingly lightweight piece of drama.