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TV UK, 27 October

Gritty, garish and political: Rome is historical drama as it ought to be.

Dolan Cummings

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The opening episode of Rome (BBC2, Wednesday at 9pm) features the scene depicted at the beginning of every Asterix the Gaul comic book, when Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, precipitating the latter’s surge to power back in Rome. The drama’s opening titles remind us that the Romans were fond of comics too, and obscene graffiti in particular.

Rome is the BBC’s new high-profile collaboration with HBO, and it combines the violence and political intrigue of The Sopranos with the smut of Sex and the City, both of which shows are also produced by the classy American network. The BBC supplies the British cast and screenwriter, and I suppose the pedigree that comes of having made I, Claudius back in the 1970s.

Actually, these days it feels like a luxury to watch a historical drama on British TV without the interruption of the talking heads that indicate you’re not watching a drama at all, but a half-assed documentary in disguise (like Friday night’s Catherine the Great, for example). Rome is proper drama, unashamedly lavish, entertaining and engaging as drama, without the need for educational pretensions.

Many of the characters, Caesar, Mark Antony, Brutus, Pompey, etc, are familiar from Shakespeare, as is the historic aspect of the story. This is supplemented by the intriguing of those protagonists’ families – especially Caesar’s fantastically wicked niece Atia – and also the stories of a centurion Vorenus and his family, and Titus Pullo, a roguish legionnaire in his command. A TV production like this can’t compete with Gladiator for special effects, but the close-up battle scenes are every bit as impressive as the low-tech but effective military use of whistles shown in the opening episode.

Indeed, the drama’s particular appeal is its grittily realistic, not-quite-classical approach to Roman history. The city of Rome is not only covered in graffiti, but the walls and pillars are painted in garish colours instead of the clinical, time-bleached white shown in standard cinematic accounts. There is graphic sex and general vulgarity, especially from the uncouth Mark Antony (‘All right, Brutus, old cock?’). Come to think of it, Rome’s vulgarity might be considered educational after all. Take that graffiti: you don’t have to be an accomplished Latin scholar to have a stab at ‘ATIA AMAT OMNES’, or indeed ‘ATIA FELLAT’. Even the full frontal nudity might be considered educational, since we learn about the intimate grooming habits of Roman noblewomen.

As in I, Claudius, the women of Rome are no shrinking violets, but the scheming of Atia et al is firmly rooted in the political situation of Rome at the time, a troubled republic whose political turmoil is only the surface expression of deeper instability. It is perhaps overambitious of the writers to flag up class conflict in the opening text preamble, though, as inevitably in an eight-part drama the focus is more domestic and courtly. In the second episode, as the men of the 13th Legion steward Mark Antony (a laughably inappropriate ‘People’s Tribune’) through the streets of Rome to the senate to exercise his veto on behalf of Caesar, expecting opposition from supporters of Pompey, things look a bit more West Side Story than The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for a moment.

For the most part, though, Rome’s lavish grit is sufficient to hold the drama together, and there is enough historical substance to keep it from getting stupid. Best of all, in the first two episodes at least, there are no noticable smartass references to Tony Blair, George W Bush or the war in Iraq.

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