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BBC History: Rome

Simon Jenkins

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Question. How can one institution, the BBC, make something as good as Bleak House and as bad as Rome? How can the panjandrums who order these things preview their best-ever Dickens and their worst-ever toga saga and cry "Darlings ... wonderful!" at both? The place must be out of control.

Rome is a mystery. A rambling plot, weighed down by Troy-like dialogue and devoid of suspense, is interrupted - as if for commercial breaks - by inserts of copulation and throat-slitting. The director of the first parts, Michael Apted, has disowned the editing, said to have shortened what was merely bad to what was incoherent. If the BBC denies directors access to the editing suite, what price its much-vaunted artistic integrity?

But Apted and his producers must surely take responsibility for the plot, the script, the acting, the ludicrous sex and violence. The BBC suborned every outlet, even Radio 4's Today programme, to give Rome hyperbolic plugs, not least for claims to "historical accuracy". As Robert Harris has pointed out, it is as accurate as depicting Clemmie Churchill having sex with Ribbentrop and poisoning Chamberlain before the second world war. If this is what you get for a compulsory licence fee, give me subscription television any day.

Much has been made of Rome being a £60m co-production with America's HBO, to which the BBC contributed £9m. Something apparently went terribly wrong when the elephantine production went on location in Italy. Hannibal had the same trouble. But what is the virtue of a public service co-production if artistic control is abrogated, assuming it was? The fact is that the BBC blew millions on a turkey. Its executives are the highest-paid group in the public sector. If they were not protected by a charter, heads would roll. What with Up Pompeii, Caligula and now this, the Roman empire is taking a terrible revenge on us northerners for what the Goths did to it back in AD410. It must be time to call it quits.

Cut to Andrew Davies' Bleak House. It is as good as could be. Literary critics have nit-picked over turning 1,000 pages into nine hours of television. They have objected to Tom's accent, Skimpole's plausibility and the absence of fog. Philip Hensher, in the Guardian, refused to watch lest the pictures distort his imagination as conveyed by Dickens's prose. I assume he must also tear out the Phiz illustrations from his book.

It is hopeless to compare the form and content of a film against a Victorian novel. It may or may not evoke the original, but it cannot conceivably be "faithful" to it. Film is a different medium. Is Verdi faithful to Othello, or Shakespeare to his crib, Cinthio's Hecatommithi? Is Keats faithful to a Grecian urn, or Mendelssohn to A Midsummer Night's Dream?

I did not like Davies sensationalising Middlemarch, not for his lack of authenticity but for wrecking its delicacy. I recall him altering Lydgate's chaste kiss on each of Rosamund's tears into a jaw-crushing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Bleak House, so far, has no such fault. I can dispense with fog which was, to Dickens, a literary metaphor (and surely the longest passage without a main verb in fiction). The camera achieves the same claustrophobia with its nervy close-ups, dark sets and costumes and intense facial expressiveness. The pictures are fast and impressionistic. So is the novel. So was Dickens.

Each character on screen demands to be the focus of the plot. Tulkinghorn embodies something more awful than evil itself, he embodies the law. Esther Summerson is not just another Goody Two-Shoes but a moral fulcrum, and mercifully plain. Beauty was never so fallen as in Lady Dedlock. The lesser characters mesh in and out of gear, bringing clarity to a convoluted thriller by the sheer power of their acting. Burn Gorman's Guppy is beyond compare, as if he had all the mysteries of Chancery wrapped round his little finger.

Bleak House recalls the days of television excellence, the golden age of the BBC's Henry James adaptations in the 1970s and Granada's Brideshead. That the medium should be so parasitic on past genius for inspiration may be a poor comment on its creative juices. But as a genre, these works are superb. The quarry of English literature is not sacred. No damage is done by mining it for new interpretations and new enjoyment. Shakespeare has survived all the rocks hewn from his slopes.

I delighted alike in Mel Gibson's Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado. Deborah Moggach's recent version of Pride and Prejudice may not be the novel, but it has inspired a glorious film. Much that is "lost in translation" is gained in immediacy for those unfamiliar with the original language. I do not care if Dickens would have approved or disapproved of Bleak House. He is dead. But if his work can inspire entertainment of this quality - and drive thousands back to read his work - something of him lives.

Isense that the difference between these two sagas is the difference between two present-day BBCs. Rome is the first, frantically trying to ape Hollywood. It is all big hotels, Armani suits, Roman temples, bed-hopping and back-stabbing. It regards art as for Greeks. Real Romans eat ratings. Any critic of Rome is warned that 6.6 million people watched the first episode. Too bad if a thousand artists were thrown to the lions. Tessa Jowell, the Atia of culture, wants numbers. This BBC throws legions steeped in blood and porn into battle against Pompey and Sky, Americans and Gauls.

The other BBC is Bleak House. It is a place of murk as dense and meetings as interminable as Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Its executives inhabit a Chancery "mistily engaged in one of ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities". Gloomy corridors and dank basements are served by a myriad Guppys, Flites and Krooks. They will suck blood from Jarndyce and Jarndyce until the crack of doom, when the entire estate is eaten up by costs.

This BBC still has about it the cobwebs of a glorious tradition. On high are its governors, Tulkinghorns, Dedlocks and Chadbands. Below in Tom-all-Alones, a ragged girl called art does sometimes emerge terrified before a ghostly scheduling committee. She is allowed a moment, a desperate whirling dance before the lights, before returning to her hovel. This Chancery can still sponsor great work. But it is soporific with subsidy, groaning for money to build more Romes in a day. As Kenge loftily explained on the high court steps at the climax of Jarndyce: "If the public have the benefit, and if the country have the adornment, of this great Grasp, it must be paid for in money, sir."

Fair enough, but the one thing that this saga blows apart is the BBC's claim that British public-service broadcasting needs one overarching coordinating genius, one monopoly supplier, namely itself. If it can dole out public money equally to quality and tosh without a shred of critical control, who needs it? Why not give the same power, and the same money, to a broadcasting commissioner or a television council to distribute as it chooses? What is unique about the BBC, the "great Grasp"?


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Television programs on history have played an important role in my intellectual development. For example, the lectures of AJP Taylor and documentary series like The Great War (1964) and the World at War (1974). Who will ever forget that opening section on Oradour-sur-Glane, narrated by Laurence Olivier.

The Americans have also made great television history documentaries. I am thinking about people like Ken and Ric Burns: The Donner Party (1988) and The Civil War (1990). Then there was of course the fantastic Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize (1987).

Television plays directed by Ken Loach such as Days of Hope (1975) and The Price of Coal (1977) were also great vehicles for the teaching of history.

Sometimes I think that television is no longer capable of reaching these heights again. The Romans is the perfect example of how they get it so wrong. For example, compare it with I Claudius (1976).

The quality of the writing is one reason for this decline. Most of these new productions are written by “jobbing” writers. In fact, the writers are always considered to be the least important person in the production. It is the “stars” who put bums on seats.

Co-productions is another problem. Look how Horizon has declined since it joined forces with the Discovery Channel. The writing of Rome has been influenced by the fact that it is an American co-production. According to the director, Michael Apted, it had to be written like this because the Americans have little knowledge of history.

There was a good article by Bryan Appleyard about the quality of current television programmes:

“Television, in common with, if I am to be honest, the rest of the media, is currently making a huge mistake. This mistake is to think that, because large parts of the British population are demonstrably stupid. It is therefore safest to assume that everyone is stupid. This assumption leads genres such as TV history to pursue stupid people with the sort of devices stupid people seem to like. But, of course, stupid people are not going to watch a show on Helen of Troy or the second world war.. This is a serious matter, because television history, at its best, can be very effective. I know parts of my imagination were formed by Taylor’s performance and by those war series, and I shudder to think that childish imaginations are now being formed by some of the dross that is being put out.” (Sunday Times, 6th November, 2005)

The point is that well made history programmes can communicate with a wide range of different ability levels. When I was teaching the most successful television documentary I used to show my Y9s was Ken and Ric Burns The Donner Party. It is a very complex story that is mainly made up of photographs and voiceovers. There are no special effects used to hold their attention and it goes on for about 90 minutes. Yet they used to watch it in silence as if spellbound by its narrative power.

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