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Archive for the ‘television’ Category

Publication: ‘I am Master of Nothing’: Imperium: Augustus and the Story of Augustus on Screen

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 2, 2012

I got an email late last night to say that an article about screen portrayals of the emperor Augustus which I wrote last Christmas has now been published. It’s always great to see another publication finally emerging into the daylight, but this one is particularly satisfying because it has been published in an online journal, so that anyone with internet access can read it for free!

The paper is entitled ”I am Master of Nothing’: Imperium: Augustus and the Story of Augustus on Screen’, and its official abstract runs as follows

The story of Octavian / Augustus’ life follows a rather problematic narrative trajectory. Reduced to its basic elements, it is the tale of a man who overthrew the Roman Republic and installed himself as an absolute monarch, yet enjoyed widespread contemporary acclaim and died peacefully in his bed. Lacking the moral complexity of Julius Caesar’s story, or the prurient thrills offered by proper ‘bad’ emperors, this narrative has rarely been tackled in full by western story-tellers. Instead, in the 20th century, Octavian / Augustus appeared most frequently on screen as a secondary character in the stories of others – particularly as a villainous foil to Antony and Cleopatra – while only a handful of novelists attempted a fuller biographical approach. Nonetheless, a popular appetite for screen portrayals of Roman history in the early 21st century has kept producers and screenwriters returning to his story, and one TV mini-series, Imperium: Augustus (2003), has now offered the first ever screen biopic of this contradictory character. This paper examines the narrative strategies used in this production and their degree of success in making the story of Octavian / Augustus palatable to contemporary western audiences. Making strong claims to historical accuracy, Imperium: Augustus builds on approaches already established in biographical novels, but also deploys characteristically filmic devices such as the flashback to help create a compelling drama. Audience responses suggest that it was only a partial success, but Augustus’ story still offers ample opportunities for exploring modern concerns such as the crafting of political personas or the relationship between security and civil liberties. These could perhaps be better satisfied in the medium of the documentary, and we can fully expect such treatments to appear in connection with the bimillennium of his death on 19th August 2014.

If you’d like to read more, you can find the full paper at New Voices in Classical Reception Studies 7: see the second item in the table of contents.

Posted in augustus, classical receptions, films, roman emperors, television | 2 Comments »

“You should have paid more attention to your history books”: The Highlanders and the end of an era

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 15, 2011

The Highlanders (1966-7) is very much a watershed story for Doctor Who. It isn’t actually Patrick Troughton’s first appearance, but it is Frazer Hines’ – and given that Hines is absent from only one Troughton story (The Power of the Daleks), his arrival seems to herald the true beginning of the Second Doctor era. That impression is strongly reinforced by the fact that this is also the last of the great ‘pure’ historical stories – a regular feature of the show since its beginnings in 1963.

In fact, this story’s approach to history reveals a lot about why the pure historical ran to ground here on these Scottish moors. Back in the show’s first season, William Hartnell’s Doctor was portrayed as aloof and self-serving – interested in other cultures only as scientific curiosities, and becoming involved with them only when he was (temporarily) unable to get back to the TARDIS. His approach to history fitted perfectly with this. When Barbara decides that she wants to try to save Aztec culture from destruction, his response shows that he basically thinks she is an idiotic dreamer:

“But you can’t rewrite history – not one line! Barbara, one last appeal: what you are trying to do is utterly impossible.”

Of course it was, because part of the fantasy which Doctor Who has always shared with its viewers is that its stories are on some level taking place in the same universe which we inhabit. It’s fun to imagine that at any moment we could turn a corner and stumble into the TARDIS. But if the Doctor or his companions change Earth’s history as we know it, that illusion crumbles. We all know what happened to the Aztecs, and if something different plays out on our screens, we have to conclude that the story is not taking place in our world.

That wasn’t a problem for the early Doctor. He didn’t want to change history anyway. But by the end of the show’s second season, he had started to develop some distinctly heroic traits – particularly obvious in The Time Meddler when he comes up against a villainous opposite number. Faced with the Meddling Monk, the Doctor takes on his now-familiar role as defender of the established time-line. But, paradoxically, this sort of behaviour was also turning him into a historical liability. The more audiences got used to him overthrowing oppressors and righting wrongs in future / alien settings (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Daleks’ Master Plan, The Ark, The Savages), the less it made sense that he wouldn’t also do so in Earth’s past.

And indeed he did. In The Gunfighters, he demands that Pa Clanton should call off “this ridiculous duel” – better known to history as the gun-fight at the O.K. Corral. In The Smugglers, he feels duty bound to save the Cornish village from the pirates. And by The Highlanders, the new Doctor and his companions seem to find it entirely obvious that their role in the story should be to save the rebel prisoners from slavery – not simply to escape at the first opportunity.

For the fantasy that Doctor Who is taking place in our universe to be maintained, these plans either had to fail, as in The Gunfighters, or take place around the edges of recorded history, as in The Smugglers and The Highlanders. Historical characters and events are referenced in these last two stories (the pirate Avery, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the battle of Culloden), but the TARDIS crew don’t get involved with them directly. Instead, they interact only with unrecorded people, and experience unrecorded events.

We’re basically working here with an implicit distinction between ‘history’, which has been recorded and cannot be changed, and ‘the past’, which hasn’t and apparently can. Obviously, this doesn’t make much sense to modern audiences used to the idea that any small action can have huge unforeseen consequences, and these days it seems to be covered instead by the idea (first expressed in The Fires of Pompeii) that some events are ‘fixed’ while others are ‘in flux’. But either explanation does the same job of providing room for creative manoeuvre in a historical setting. It leaves the field wide open for whatever the production team want to do – including portraying the Doctor as a moral hero.

Ultimately, though, that can be done even better without the dramatic constraints of a historical setting at all, and I think that must be one of the main reasons why the pure historical story had run its course by this point. I know most commentators focus on poor audience feedback and growing production-level hostility when explaining its demise, but to me the development of the Doctor’s heroism is a major contributor. The time was ripe for the pseudo-historical, in which he could instead fight for recorded history by saving the Earth from an unrecorded alien threat.

Meanwhile, it’s clear from The Highlanders that the original educational remit of the historical stories has been all but abandoned. When Ben asks what is wrong with attracting every English soldier within miles, the Doctor simply exclaims, “You should have paid more attention to your history books, Ben!” The broadcast of the Culloden documentary two years earlier probably meant that those audience members who cared were better-informed than Ben, leaving the script free to concentrate on romps and heroics instead. But not all historical eras could enjoy the same level of audience familiarity. The potential for lengthy explanations to get in the way of action and adventure must be another reason why the historical format was becoming undesirable.

The Doctor’s comment provides another index of changing approaches, too. He implies that history books are mainly useful as a survivor’s guide for time-travellers caught up in politically-sensitive situations. But compare Barbara’s exasperated comment to Ian during their argument over which side was ‘right’ in the French Revolution: “You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve!” This reflects a quite different vision of history – not simply an adventure to be survived, but a moral laboratory, where different ideologies can be weighed up against one another. For Barbara, history books don’t just provide practical survival tips, but offer a balanced viewpoint on issues which are hard to assess in the heat of the moment.

To me, Barbara’s approach allows for more satisfying drama. It’s noticeable that another thing we don’t get in The Highlanders, but did in The Reign of Terror, is much opportunity for the contemporary locals to voice their beliefs and motivations. Polly, for example, has some quite long (and pleasingly Bechdel-compliant) conversations with the Laird’s daughter, Kirsty – but she doesn’t show any real interest in Kirsty’s life beyond the immediate events of the story. They talk a lot about things which Polly has experienced and Kirsty hasn’t – matches, dog biscuits, fillings, women in trousers, money, piggy-backs. But Kirsty’s life experiences – cattle raiding, royalist exploitation, family servants – emerge only in passing and are never pursued by Polly. It’s taken as read that her family are fighting for the Jacobite cause – but why? What does it mean to them? In The Reign of Terror, clashes of ideology were central to the story, and the perspectives of both sides were explored. But in The Highlanders the clash has come to feel a lot more like a mere backdrop to a goodies vs. baddies adventure story.

Still, it’s all very well to sit here over forty years later and imply that Doctor Who should have stuck to doing intellectual historicals, rather than ripping good adventure yarns. I see why the change was made, and I’m sure it was vital to the continuing success of the series. But I can’t help wishing that Doctor Who had carried on for a while longer paying just a little more attention to those history books.

Posted in doctor who, history, reviews, television | 2 Comments »

Jonathan Miller and The Drinking Party (1965)

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 17, 2011

Oh dear – this blog has become rather neglected. My last post was in January – not good! I don’t even have a very good excuse, either. I mean, I’ve been busy writing papers and marking essays, but then academics are always busy with those things. I must do better in future!

Anyway, I spent last weekend at the National Media Museum in Bradford attending the 10th Annual Fantastic Films Weekend, a hugely enjoyable event which I try to get to every year. The emphasis tends to be on classic horror films, but the definition of ‘fantastic’ is deliberately kept broad, and I often find that one of the most enjoyable elements of the weekend is the screenings of little-known gems from the museum’s archive of vintage TV recordings.

This year, one of the headline guests was writer, director and medical doctor Sir Jonathan Miller, who was interviewed for the festival audience by no less a figure than the academic and film critic Sir Christopher Frayling. To get us in the right mood for the interview on the Sunday evening, the festival line-up included three of the television dramas which Miller had directed in the 1960s: his 1966 Alice in Wonderland, his 1968 Whistle and I’ll Come to You, and (most exciting for me as a Classicist) a 1965 piece entitled The Drinking Party, which is an adaptation of Plato’s Symposium.

The Symposium is perhaps Plato’s best-known dialogue, presenting the conversation from a symposium (all-male social gathering over food and wine) at which each speaker was asked to give a speech in praise of Love. It’s hardly the sort of thing I would expect to see being used as the basis for a 50-minute TV drama these days, though. Miller’s adaptation actually took the form of an episode from a mid-’60s arts documentary series called Sunday Night, and sadly isn’t widely available, but this YouTube extract gives a good sense of the whole:

The basic set-up is that a group of young men gather on the terrace of a neo-Classical building (actually in the grounds of Stowe School), for a formal dinner in honour of their Classics master, played by Leo McKern, during which they adopt the roles of the characters in Plato’s dialogue, and deliver their speeches in a re-enactment of the original symposium. Both the script and the direction are the work of Jonathan Miller, and date from very early on in his career. But it is a very clever adaptation, knowingly and playfully translating to the world of the Oxbridge tutorial not only Plato’s words, but also the dramatic structure of the dialogue and the cultural setting of the Athenian intellectual elite. Not everything matches perfectly, of course – particularly the central concern of the original dialogue with (what we would now call) homosexual love. But I felt that even the mismatches were handled in a way that was true to the character of both the original dialogue and the 1960s Oxbridge setting.

Narrative distance

One of the most striking features of Plato’s original dialogue is that its description of the symposium is presented at several removes. Plato as author purports to be writing down an account of the evening told to him by Apollodorus, who was not actually at the symposium himself, but heard about it from another friend, Aristodemus, who was present at the original gathering, although not strictly as a participant since he didn’t give a speech. Furthermore, the climactic speech delivered by Socrates also introduces another level of distance – while the other speakers express their own views on Love, Socrates instead reports what he had learnt from a woman named Diotima.

On one level, The Drinking Party can’t help but be far more direct than the original dialogue, since we see the characters making their speeches in live action on the screen. It’s actually perfectly possible that Plato, too, wrote with the idea that his dialogues would be performed orally, rather than simply read – but that isn’t how most people approach them today. They have become above all texts, and seeing this one delivered as a physical performance made for a very different experience. For one thing, it really allowed the performers to bring out the contrasting character of the different speeches. So Eryximachus the doctor’s speech is delivered drily and awkwardly, reflecting his very scientific approach and his obvious discomfort with both public speaking and the very theme of Love. And Aristophanes’ very famous speech about how human beings originally had two conjoined bodies, but were split in two by Zeus, and that is why we are all searching for our soul-mate, was delivered very much as a parody played for laughs – as appropriate for a comic poet. What’s more, presenting the dialogue in live-action form also allowed room for the reactions of the other diners, as the camera panned around to show them either listening with rapt attention, laughing, or looking bored as appropriate. It meant that The Drinking Party could function as a commentary on Plato’s dialogue, as well as a performance of the dialogue itself.

For all this vivid directness, though, The Drinking Party does offer its own sense of distance – but one created using techniques appropriate to the medium of TV, rather than the hand-me-down narration technique used in Plato’s dialogue. The dramatisation begins with a narrative voice-over, introducing the gathering, and explaining that this group of friends meet annually to read the Symposium together. In part, this was probably necessary to orient the original audience, but it also serves the same purpose as Plato’s introduction (explaining how he has come to hear about the symposium and its speeches) of reminding us that we are an audience witnessing a work of artifice, and not actual participants in the event. The speakers are also self-conscious about their own roles as performers, recreating the dialogue at second-hand – or indeed, third-hand, given that they are actors, playing the part of diners, playing the part of Plato’s original characters. They don’t simply behave as though they actually are the participants in Plato’s original dialogue, but stand there in their dinner-jackets with texts in their hands, sometimes needing to consult them and sometimes not, and slipping in and out of character to discuss their own performances, the meaning of the dialogue, and textual issues such as conflicting translations (at one point, one person’s text reports that Aristophanes has the hiccups, while another’s says that he is burping). Meanwhile, Aristodemus is present on screen, but, true to his role in the original dialogue as a medium between the original symposium and Plato’s report, he is described in the opening narration as the group’s photographer. And while Socrates is reporting Diotima’s wisdom about Love, he turns and faces away from the other diners, and away from the television audience, nicely conveying the extra level of remove which Plato uses for his speech.

Greek love

And then there is the dialogue’s profound concern with love between men. This must have been a prominent issue in contemporary public debate, given that the adaptation was broadcast in the wake of the Wolfenden report (which recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality), and only two years before its recommendations were put into practice. (Not, as Terence Lockyer reminded me, the same year, as I had initially believed.) The narrative voice-over at the beginning sets the scene for this, establishing the alien cultural context of the dialogue by explaining that in ancient Greece, women were marginalised, and love between men was seen as the highest form of human affection. This is a time-honoured technique for dealing with cultural differences between the past and the present – essentially saying that they must be addressed because it is part of the historical truth of the past culture, but that to do so does not necessarily imply approval. But already the camerawork is gently subverting what the voice-over is saying by offering us suggestive angles on a distinctly homoerotic sculpture of two naked wrestlers placed at the centre of the table – and thus perhaps implying that homosexuality is not such a remote and alien concept after all.

The speech of Pausanias the lawyer (played by the ever-wondrous Michael Gough) discusses the same issues of cultural difference in attitudes to love between men – just as the original speech does in Plato’s dialogue. He sets out the legal and moral framework for such relationships in Athens, draws explicit comparisons with other cultures where love between men is accepted (Elis, Boeotia) or condemned (Ionia and barbarian regions), and particularly emphasises that the focus of debate in Athens is not the fact of romantic relationships between men per se, but the manner in which they are conducted and the motives of the two partners. Meanwhile, we are once again treated to a very nice view of the sculpted arses of the two wrestlers in the centrepiece. :-) Later on, while Agathon the tragedian makes a very romantic speech all about the youth and beauty and happiness of Love, we also see Pausanias / Gough looking rather maudlin, and casting Significant Glances towards Agathon over his wine-glass – perhaps signalling some kind of unrequited passion.

But it is when Alcibiades arrives that the issue is most explicitly addressed from a contemporary perspective. Plato’s dialogue at this point is all about the relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates, which (in the proper Greek style as set out by Pausanias) clearly mingles romantic and sexual attraction with the bond between pupil and mentor. Miller seems to have considered that this was a little too much for a 1960s audience to take if played straightforwardly, so this is one of the points at which the diners drop out of character to comment on the dialogue, rather than recreating it, allowing the young man playing Alcibiades to object that it is all rather ridiculous. But again, the alternative point of view is carefully, gently put forward too, as Leo McKern (now very much in the guise of the Classics master rather than Socrates as such) suggests to his pupils that Plato knew what he was doing, and was cleverly raising important questions – is hero-worship so ridiculous after all, and perhaps it is natural to show affection for another man whom you admire? It isn’t exactly positioning itself as a clarion-call for decriminalisation – and nor would I expect anything broadcast on the BBC in 1965 to have done so. But I felt that hints of a recognisable equality agenda were there if you cared to look for them.

Aesthetics and design

Meanwhile, all of this philosophising is set into the context of a very pleasing design aesthetic. I’ve already mentioned the grand neo-Classical setting, but not the soundtrack of baroque chamber music – perhaps deliberately matching the architectural style of the building and its contemporary use as a music studio? And the cameras are hard at work throughout, showing us not just the curved bottoms of statues, but dozens of lovely incidental shots of the small business of the dinner-table – wine being poured, waiters being beckoned, drinks being savoured, and so forth. Both the dinner and the speeches are also interrupted by torrential rain at the end of the third speech, which drives the whole party indoors. I happen to know from having spoken to Jonathan Miller afterwards (see below) that this was completely unplanned – but it is used to beautiful effect, giving rise to lots of fantastic shots of the rain dripping off umbrellas left propped up over the dinner table, and of the diners listlessly milling around within the building, waiting for the rain to stop so that they can continue with their evening. It also prompts the use of a different setting for the fourth speech by Aristophanes, which is delivered under the shelter of the colonnade, rather than around the table like the rest. If I didn’t know that this had been an unplanned response to an act of nature, I would suggest that it was a deliberate comment on the tendency for this particular speech to be excerpted from the rest of the dialogue, and treated as an independent text, separate from the rest. But, just for once, I know for sure that that is only my reading – not part of the original design.

So all in all, The Drinking Party was a real pleasure to see. But as I said above, the whole reason it was being screened in the first place was as part of the warm-up for the real climax: a live interview with its director at the end of the festival.

Screen-talk: Sir Christopher Frayling in conversation with Sir Jonathan Miller

This was absolutely fantastic. I’ve been a fan of Christopher Frayling for years anyway, so I would probably have paid the price of admission to see his knowledge and intellect applied to just about anything. But Jonathan Miller really did make a particularly rewarding subject, coming across as incredibly clever and erudite, but also immensely good-humoured and quite happy to have a laugh at his own expense.

Most of the conversation focused around Whistle And I’ll Come To You and Alice in Wonderland. We learnt all sorts of fascinating details about how Miller had approached both of them as stories, and what techniques he had used to bring them successfully to the screen. For example, he spoke about how he had deliberately sought to recreate a Victorian look for Alice…, using crumbling period buildings and replicating the look of contemporary photographs. Or how he felt unable to use any of M.R. James’ prose directly in Whistle…, because it was too dry and academic, and he needed his central character to be less sceptical, so that he could plausibly be frightened when he encounters the possibility of a ghost.

But along the way, we also learnt a great deal about the themes and ideas which he felt he had kept returning to over the course of his career – things like the grammar of dreaming, which puts commonplace elements into an illogical sequence; the difference between events (like one ball hitting another) and human actions (like a person wielding a snooker cue); the Victorian fascination with spiritualism and mesmerism; the importance of small, negligible details like people’s unconscious gestures while they are talking; and his fascination with the folds of drapery. Many of these interests, of course, relate back to his work as a medical doctor with a particular interest in cognitive and psychological disorders, which has obviously profoundly influenced his work as a writer and director. The term ‘Renaissance man’ doesn’t half take some abuse, but with feet so firmly planted in the worlds of both the arts and the sciences, Miller surely qualifies for it if anyone does. He seemed eminently capable of mastering almost anything he chose to put his mind to – and yet genuinely not arrogant or pompous with it, as his willingness to do impressions of chickens and Oxford dons during the course of the conversation made quite clear!

We were all quite entranced already listening to the two speakers on the stage, but after an hour Tony Earnshaw (the organiser of the festival) reminded them they they should leave some time for audience questions, too. Various people asked questions about Alice… and Whistle…, but I decided that, having enjoyed The Drinking Party so much, I should seize what would probably be my only ever opportunity to ask its writer and director a question about it. So I asked to what extent Miller had felt that he was contributing to the contemporary debates around the issue of homosexuality by making it at the time when he did. Actually, he didn’t say anything all that illuminating in response – only really that he felt homosexuality was a tacitly accepted part of Oxbridge culture anyway, so he hadn’t really needed to think too hard about it. (As should be clear from my review above, I think that answer belies the very careful handling of the issue which I believe is actually visible in the adaptation, but never mind! He did make it 45 years ago, after all, so I can forgive him for having forgotten the details of whatever judgements he might have been making at the time.) But he was clearly very pleased to have had a question about it, and said a few more things about how the production had come about, the setting he had used for it, and what he had been aiming to achieve.

Afterwards, too, as we were gathering our things and making ready to depart, he and Christopher Frayling were standing nearby, so I thought it would be polite to acknowledge how much I had enjoyed the evening, just by saying “thank you!” in their general direction. I wasn’t expecting anything more than that, but in fact Jonathan Miller responded by coming right over to me, and asking if I was a Classicist – a possibility to which he had apparently been alerted by earlier conversations over a fag with my chum Jennie Rigg (another indication of how friendly and unpretentious he is). So I replied that I was (though not a Hellenist), expressed enthusiasm for how much I’d enjoyed being able to see The Drinking Party, and took the chance to ask another question which I’d been pondering over – had the rain in it been something he’d planned on, or was it pure serendipity? And that is how I know that the rain was simply the work of nature – and indeed something that his cameramen had been cursing over, but which he had managed to turn into a positive boon.

I can only hope that The Drinking Party makes it to DVD some day – perhaps as a nice double-feature with a follow-up, also by Miller, from the same series entitled The Death of Socrates (if that even still exists). In the meantime, I am just very glad that I had the opportunity to see it.

Posted in classical receptions, greek history, philosophy, reviews, sexuality, television | 13 Comments »

Doctor Who and the plastic plastic Roman

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 21, 2010

One of the things I liked best about the last season of Doctor Who were the Roman soldiers from The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. Obviously, as a Classicist, my default position is to be happy when anything from the ancient world shows up in a modern medium – and that goes double when it’s happening specifically in the context of my favourite TV programme. :-) But these soldiers went one step further for me. By encouraging us to accept them at first as ‘real’ human beings, but then gradually revealing that, even within the terms of the story, they were in fact fakes (plastic Auton replicas, to be precise), Steven Moffat whisked us off into the realm of the meta-referential – yet another thing which I absolutely love. The suspension of disbelief is all well and good, but better still is an author who occasionally draws attention to the fictional nature of his or her narrative, reminding the audience with a nod and a wink that what we are actually doing is indulging in the pleasure of a really good story. Yay!

A good meta-reference should say rather more than just “Oh, by the way: none of this is real”, though – and I thought that Moffat’s Roman Autons lived up to this. In the context of his story, they made a major contribution to the very important plot-development task of establishing the power of Amy’s memory, since their whole existence turns out to have been extrapolated from the picture books which she read as a child, and the costume which Rory wore to a fancy dress party:

The denouement of this story, and of the entire season, depends on this concept, so it really does need to be properly established in advance. Meanwhile, beyond the story, the Roman Autons also worked for me as a great piece of commentary on the way that we in the present relate to the Romans of the past – and particularly the role Roman soldiers usually play in screen portrayals of the ancient world. We cannot ever encounter real Roman soldiers directly – much as time-travelling fantasy shows such as Doctor Who would like to pretend that we can. So all they can ever be to us are words and pictures in books which we bring to life with our minds – just as Amy does here. And one of the contexts in which we have collectively done that is in our screen portrayals of the Roman war-machine marching off to conquer and subdue – just like thousands of little battlefield miniatures:

Every director who has ever master-minded a Roman battle scene has known that he (or she) is fundamentally playing with life-sized toy soldiers. And now here is Steven Moffat, making that gloriously explicit.

Anyway, with all that swirling around in my head, you can imagine my delight when this little fellow appeared as part of this season’s line of Whovian merchandise:

This takes what was already a fantastic joke to a whole new level. Now instead of watching human actors playing plastic Roman soldiers on my television, I have my very own model of one of those soldiers which is actually made of plastic. A plastic plastic Roman. What could possibly be cooler than that?

That’s not all, either. Because while my new toy was still in his packet, it was perfectly clear what he was. It says so on the front: “Roman Auton”. But out of the packet – well, what is he now? Stripped of his label, he suddenly looks exactly like any other plastic Roman – the very toys that Moffat’s whole clever joke was based on in the first place. It’s only my subjective experience of having seen him in the packet first that makes him remain a plastic plastic Roman for me, as opposed to just an ordinary plastic Roman. I am constantly endowing him with a whole extra level of identity just through the power of my mind – much like Amy in The Pandorica Opens, in fact. :-)

In all fairness, I should probably add here that my little legionary is not the first plastic plastic Roman on this planet, and nor was Moffat the first person to put living toy Romans on television. That path had already been carved by Night at the Museum (2006) and its sequel (2009). In those films, the character of Octavius is a miniature museum display figure who comes to life every night – and he was released as a plastic toy figure in 2009 by none other than McDonalds:

Mind you, I think there’s no contest over which is the higher-quality figure, there.

It’s also worth noting that Character Options, who make the Doctor Who toys, have a track record of releasing somewhat tongue-in-cheek products. These are the people who offered up not only a Cassandra action figure to go alongside the season 1 episode The End of the World, but also a ‘Destroyed Cassandra’ for the season 2 episode New Earth. Yes, that’s right – an empty plastic frame sold in a packet with the words ‘Poseable Action Figure’ printed on the front:

They have, in fact, also released an ‘Underhenge Stone Roman Auton’, from the scene when those alien entities standing near to the Pandorica become fossilised as their home planets wink out of existence all around the Earth:

This time, he isn’t actually made of stone – what a swizz! But then again, should we expect him to be? Maybe when an Auton turns to stone, it takes on the appearance and consistency of stone while still remaining fundamentally plastic at a molecular level: just as it does when it takes the shape of a human being? And in any case, like his equivalent in the original TV episode, he does still constitute yet another lovely comment on the nature of our relationship with the ancient Roman world. Because of course another way in which we’re used to interacting with the remnants of the Roman past is via surviving stone images of soldiers and generals:

These are quite literally “after-images – fossils in time”, which is also what the Doctor calls the stone aliens in the Underhenge.

I’ve managed to resist actually purchasing a plastic stone Roman for the time being. I’m happy enough with the plastic plastic one for now. But I’ll also be keeping half an eye out for the day when Character release an empty packet with the words ‘Dematerialised TARDIS’ written on the front. You know they’re thinking about it…

Posted in classical receptions, doctor who, films, television, toys | 6 Comments »

Clash of the Titans (1981), dir. Desmond Davis

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 29, 2010

Today in Leeds, our department will be hosting a colloquium on Clash of the Titans. Our event will focus on the 2010 remake, but part of the inspiration for it was the news that an archive collection of the work of Ray Harryhausen, who produced and did the model work for the 1981 film, has recently been pledged to the National Media Museum in nearby Bradford. So I decided to take this as a prompt to sit down and watch the 1981 film properly.

Although I’ve seen substantial chunks of it before during random channel-hopping escapades on Bank Holiday weekends, this was the first time that I had watched Clash of the Titans from start to finish. And while on one level obviously it is cheesy and nonsensical and burdened with some truly terrible dialogue, I found a lot to enjoy here as well. Clash comes very much from the same stable as Jason and the Argonauts, with both using not only Ray Harryhausen’s model-work but also a screen-play written by Beverley Cross. So it is no great surprise to find that the basic structure of the heroic adventure at the centre of each film is very similar, or that they share particular characteristic motifs such as the direct portrayal of the Olympian gods playing games with the lives of men.

The story for Clash of the Titans is based on the legends of Perseus, but as has been pointed out elsewhere, it has a pretty strained relationship with any of the known ancient versions of Perseus’ story. That’s perfectly OK with me, though, because of course the entire point of mythological stories is that they are fantastical. There is no such thing as an ‘accurate’ telling of an ancient myth – poets and playwrights changed them constantly to suit the needs and interests of their audiences, and there is no reason why modern script-writers and directors shouldn’t do exactly the same. Indeed, Clash of the Titans actively revels in those creative possibilities, treating Greek mythology as an infinitely-flexible fantasy otherworld in which anything and everything can happen.

The visual aesthetic makes this very clear. The conventional approach to Greek mythology is to try to set it in a context which looks at least vaguely in keeping with a Bronze Age Aegean setting: that is what Troy (2004) did, for example, though they missed the mark on some points. But the world of Clash of the Titans is an unashamedly multi-period, multi-cultural fantasy-world, drawing freely on whatever takes its fancy. Even within the broad cultural parameters of the Greek world, it roams wildly though time: Minoan paintings from Akrotiri decorate the royal palace at Joppa, while a Classical-period theatre lies on the outskirts of the city. But that is as nothing next to the Egyptian obelisk outside the witches’ lair, the Assyrian winged bulls in the town of Joppa, and a modified version of the Roman Ara Pacis relief in the temple of Thetis:

Meanwhile, the market scenes in Joppa featured a lot of generically oriental (part Turkish, part Indian) costumes and characters, and the ferry-man Charon was a straight-forwardly medieval cloaked skeleton Death. I found that the whole mish-mash suddenly cast a whole new light for me on one of my favourite ’90s fantasy TV shows, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, which operates in much the same sort of blurry, culturally-plural otherworld. Hercules rubbed shoulders with Greek heroes one week and Julius Caesar the next: to say nothing of Druids, Sultans and the infant Christ. And it isn’t just the aesthetic that the two have in common, either. The behaviour of the gods in Clash of the Titans is so similar to the ones found in Hercules that you only have to change the names for the portentous opening narration from the Hercules series to apply just as well to this movie:

“This is the story of a time long ago – a time of myth and legend, when the ancient gods were petty and cruel, and they plagued mankind with suffering. Only one man dared to challenge their power: Hercules. Hercules possessed a strength the world had never seen. A strength surpassed only by the power of his heart. He journeyed the Earth battling the minions of his wicked stepmother, Hera, the all-powerful Queen of the gods. But wherever there was evil, wherever an innocent would suffer, there would be: HERCULES.”

In fact, there are quite a few signs that the producers of Clash of the Titans thought of it as an SF/Fantasy film much more than a Classical epic: the hey-day of which had already passed two decades earlier, anyway. The use of stop-motion animation obviously does recall one earlier epic – that is, Jason and the Argonauts. But it has a much more firmly-established pedigree in the SF/Fantasy genre, through films like King Kong, the Godzilla movies or most of Ray Harryhausen’s other films. The climactic scene in which the Kraken rises up out of the sea to devour the princess Andromeda even contains direct nods to King Kong: not only do we have the basic device of an enormous monster menacing an attractive young woman, but he also bats at Perseus flying around him on the back of Pegasus, just like the giant gorilla had batted at the aeroplanes buzzing around him on top of the Empire State Building. I am not the first person to notice the striking resemblance between Bubo, the mechanical owl who communicates in clicks and whirrs that only Perseus can understand, and R2-D2 from Star Wars, either – whether coincidental (as Harryhausen claimed) or otherwise.

It is also a distinctly meta-referential film. We see Zeus directing the affairs of mortals by placing clay figurines in a scale model of a theatre, like a director masterminding his scenes – or, in this case, like Ray Harryhausen placing his own models. Meanwhile, in the ‘real’-world equivalent of the same theatre, Perseus meets a poet-cum-playwright, Ammon, who has already written a poem about his miraculous escape from a watery death as a tiny baby – scenes which we as the audience have witnessed at the beginning of the film. It is Ammon, too, who gives Perseus his ‘mission’ for the rest of the film (itself a classic SF/Fantasy trope) by telling him about the beautiful princess Andromeda and her plight – thus providing in-story direction for the main character. And when Perseus has finally fought off all the monsters and got the girl, Ammon happily comments, “This would make a fine heroic poem, you know. Or perhaps a play.” Or, indeed, perhaps a film. It’s too long since I have watched Jason and the Argonauts for me to remember how prominent this sort of content was in that film – although I certainly do remember its famous scenes of the gods playing games on Mount Olympus which are then enacted for real on Earth. It’s interesting, though, and perhaps something which the film’s rather tongue-in-cheek fantastical character provides extra room to play around with.

A couple of other clever features which rather tickled my fancy included the use of real ancient sites, merged with set-dressing and long shots of scale models to create an appropriate setting for the action. I was especially impressed by the use of one of the temples from Paestum to serve as the home of Medusa on the Isle of the Dead. Here, the ruined state of the temple becomes not a flaw to be hidden with clever camera-work, but something that is positively apt for the isolated, crumbling lair of a terrifying monster. So for once we have ruins as ruins, rather than seeing them trying to masquerade as recently constructed, yet inexplicably poorly-maintained, contemporary buildings.

I also thought that the scene where the statue of Thetis in her temple at Joppa comes to life and begins speaking directly to the terrified crowds was a great way of conveying how people understood and interacted with cult statues in the ancient world – very much as avatars of the deities whom they represented, with the god or goddess inherently present within them. It reminded me, too, of a rather similar scene with a statue of Zeus in Disney’s Hercules (1997) – so that’s another version of the Hercules story which may very well be drawing on the legacy of Clash.

Then again, there were things to be disappointed about, too. I couldn’t help but notice that Perseus’ great quest essentially consists of him stomping about the place vanquishing women (the Stygian witches, Medusa), people with deformities or disabilities (Calibos, the Stygian witches) or animals (a budget Cerberus with only two heads, Medusa, the scorpions, the Kraken). And OK, so most of that is just imported directly from Greek mythology. Greek men do seem to have spent an awful lot of time inventing Others whom they could then loathe, fear and condemn – and if you try to rule that out of modern re-workings of their stories altogether, you end up with precious little left. But in the case of Calibos in particular, I felt that there was some distinctly unpleasant contemporary politics-of-otherness going on as well. Because his monstrosity is not represented not just via horns, a tail and a stooped posture, but also through dark skin and tight curly hair.

In other words, this particular monster is distinctly Afro-Caribbean-looking. So the heroic white man gets to be racist as well as misogynistic and ableist. Fun times! :-( Realistically, I don’t ask cheesy entertainment-fests like Clash of the Titans to actively challenge and tackle attitudes like that. But it would be nice at least if they could manage not to add gratuitous new negative stereotypes where they aren’t already inherent in the source material.

Posted in classical receptions, films, greek mythology, ray harryhausen, reviews, roman art, television | 7 Comments »

The Latin in Murray Gold’s ‘Vale Decem’

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on September 9, 2010

On Monday evening, I watched the one-hour cut-down version of the 2010 Doctor Who Prom broadcast on BBC3. It was a great programme, hosted in effervescent style by Karen Gillan, featuring lots of behind-the-scenes interviews with Steven Moffat, Murray Gold and the cast, and complete with an in-character cameo appearance by the Eleventh Doctor. He did this really sweet scene with a small boy chosen from the audience, who had to help him ‘defuse’ an alien explosive device using invisible psychic wire – and the look of rapture on the boy’s face was absolutely fantastic to see.

The highlight for me, though, was the performance of ‘Vale Decem’ – Murray Gold’s composition to mark the death and regeneration of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, and indeed the whole of the Russell T. Davies era. There are a lot of things to love about this piece for me. I am an unabashed Tenth Doctor fan, so it seemed only appropriate to me that he should be sent off accompanied by the full emotive impact of swirling strings and choirs of angels. I was also very impressed by Mark Chambers, a countertenor who sang the main vocal line with enormous presence and musical sensitivity.

Perhaps best of all, though, the lyrics he was singing are in Latin – and from my perspective as a Classicist, that’s a very cheering example of the language’s ongoing relevance today. In fact, in its original context as soundtrack music for part two of The End of Time, ‘Vale Decem’ was heard by around 10 million people, while another 5000 witnessed the live performance at the Prom in the Albert Hall in July, and 0.5 million watched the same broadcast as I did on Monday evening. It’s also soon to be released on a ‘Specials’ soundtrack CD, taking it into people’s homes and letting them listen to it over and over again. So this is definitely reaching a wide audience.

What’s more, fans across the internet clearly loved the piece from its first airing, and have wanted to engage actively with both the music and the Latin lyrics. At first, this resulted in some rather nonsensical attempts to transcribe the lyrics orally, and then translate them, all apparently done by people who didn’t actually know any Latin. But then Murray Gold himself very thoughtfully posted the sheet music up as a series of Twitpics here, here and here in June. Eager fans were then able to transcribe the actual lyrics, and again have a go at translating them. (There may just possibly be video clips of the Tenth Doctor’s death scene with the same transcription and translation on them out there too, but obviously I am not going to link to those because of how distributing copyrighted material over the internet is Bad and Wrong). But the translation still seems to have been done mainly with the aid of Google-fu and a bit of lucky guesswork:

Murray Gold’s lyrics Fan translation
Vale Decem
Ad aeternam
Di meliora
Ad aeternam
Vale Decem
Di meliora
Beati
Pacifici
Vale Decem
Alis grave
Ad perpetuam memoriam
Vale Decem
Gratis tibi ago
Ad aeternam
Nunquam singularis
Nunquam
Dum spiro fido
Vale…
Farewell Ten
Eternally
Heaven send you better times
Eternally
Farewell Ten
Heaven send you better times
Happiness
Peaceably
Farewell Ten
Heavy with wings
To the perpetual memory
Farewell Ten
I give thanks
Eternally
Never alone
Never
While you breathe, trust
Farewell…

Part of the problem facing would-be translators, even if they do know Latin, is that Murray Gold’s original lyrics don’t actually entirely make sense anyway. Now that they’re available to read, it’s obvious that he (or possibly a lyricist whom he commissioned?) composed them by drawing together a collection of appropriate sayings and phrases to create the right sort of mood, but without really aiming for grammatical accuracy or a coherent narrative thread. The result sounds fantastic, and definitely conveys the right sort of epic, tragic feel that was needed for Ten’s death scene. It’s got all the right sorts of words in it: words that we expect to hear in a piece of soaring choral music, like ‘aeternam’, ‘beati’ and ‘perpetuam memoriam’. But those words and phrases don’t really add up to a meaningful set of lyrics.

There is at least one straightforward mistake in there: the phrase “Gratis tibi ago”, should be spelt “Gratias tibi ago” (meaning “I give you thanks”). More common are phrases which might once have made sense, but seem to have had words chopped off (probably for rhythmical reasons), and no longer do. A good example is the line “Alis grave”, which seems to be a truncated form of the saying “alis grave nil”. That would mean roughly “nothing (is) painful / burdensome / heavy (for those) with wings” – an appropriately consolatory sort of phrase for a character facing death. Except that it’s already a bit epigrammatic, and without the ‘nil’, it pretty much loses its meaning altogether. You just end up with two words meaning “heavy with wings”. Either that’s a clever paradox – or it just doesn’t really mean anything.

Similarly, the line “Ad aeternam” appears to have something missing. ‘Aeternam’ here is an adjective, but it has no noun to modify. The phrase as it stands means “to the eternal” – but we are left asking, “to the eternal what?” Perhaps Gold really meant “to eternity” here, but if so, the Latin he actually wanted would have been “ad aeternitatem”. That would have needed a different rhythmical setting, though, as it’s an extra two syllables – and I’m guessing that a generally appropriate sound mattered more to him than achieving grammatical closure!

Anyway, allowing for the oddities in the original, I thought I would try to have a go at offering a slightly better translation than the ones which have appeared on the internet so far. I’ve done an entirely literal one for those who want to know exactly how Murray Gold’s Latin would actually translate. But I’ve also done a much looser one which captures something more like the mood I think he was actually aiming for, is more meaningful and grammatically coherent, and furthermore could still (more or less) be sung to the same tune:

Murray Gold’s lyrics Literal translation Mood-appropriate translation
Vale Decem
Ad aeternam
Di meliora
Ad aeternam
Vale Decem
Di meliora
Beati
Pacifici
Vale Decem
Alis grave
Ad perpetuam memoriam
Vale Decem
Gratis tibi ago
Ad aeternam
Nunquam singularis
Nunquam
Dum spiro fido
Vale…
Farewell, Ten
To the eternal
(May the) gods (grant you) better (things)
To the eternal
Farewell, Ten
(May the) gods (grant you) better (things)
Blessed
(Are) the peacemakers
Farewell, Ten
Heavy with wings
To perpetual memory
Farewell, Ten
I give you thanks
To the eternal
Never alone
Never
While I breathe I trust
Farewell…
Farewell, Ten
On to eternity
The fates be with you
On to eternity.
Farewell, Ten
The fates be with you.
Oh, blessed he
Who brought us peace.
Farewell, Ten
Lay down your burden
We will remember you forever more.
Farewell, Ten
We give you thanks.
On to eternity
You are not alone
Never
Trust to the last
Farewell…

The one-hour cut-down Prom from Monday is available on iPlayer now, but a fuller version will also be shown on BBC3 on Friday at 7pm. I’d highly recommend watching it – but have your tissues handy for ‘Vale Decem’…

Posted in classical receptions, doctor who, latin, music, television | 54 Comments »

 
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