New Year hangovers aren’t simply physical after-effects characteristic of 1 January; 2023 so far still seems bogged-down by the headlines from last month, many of which were covered in the previous post a week ago. Lack of Winegum action has been in part due to spending a good four solid days on a new instalment of the filthily evergreen ‘Buggernation Street’, now firmly settled in its new home on my Patreon channel; but the aforementioned absence of fresh output on here can also be blamed on a general lack of inspiration arising from the news. Of course, alongside the catalogue of strike action and the annual ‘NHS on the brink’ story, the MSM has been mystifyingly in thrall to the vain, narcissistic, self-aggrandizing public therapy of a ginger whinger; as one half of a couple worthy of comparison to Posh & Becks or Peter Andre & Jordan in terms of class, the ‘spare’ has been flogging his ghost-written misery memoir across newspapers and TV channels that should know better for what feels like the entirety of 2023 to date. The tabloid quarter of Fleet Street professes to despise said twosome and routinely hammers this point home; yet it simultaneously stops at nothing to devote ludicrously disproportionate coverage to them. Both they and the MSM are engaged in an unedifying spectacle akin to watching a pair of pissheads scrapping on the pavement to get at a fiver they’ve just spotted hovering over a grate.
I don’t intend to add to the circus any more than I would write a post about the Kardashians, Amanda Holden or Carol Vorderman – other similarly uninteresting celebrities that the mainstream media appears to believe we all find endlessly fascinating. But I will just say that it was like attempting to extract blood from the proverbial stone getting my grandfather to talk about what he did during the Second World War; yet, had he claimed to have killed 25 Germans in one fell swoop, I doubt I would have believed him and may well have correctly concluded he’d probably spent six years in the Catering Corps, with his most testing time of the conflict coming when he had to feed a dozen hungry troops with just a couple of tins of Spam and a packet of powdered egg. If the stupidity of Henry Charles Albert David Windsor is such that his nauseating naval gazing blinds him to the fact that bragging about how many members of a still-active terrorist organisation he slaughtered during his stint serving granny & country isn’t necessarily wise, so be it; but that doesn’t necessarily earn him the ‘poor you’ sympathy he clearly craves from the self-indulgent victimhood of a wealthy, titled plank.
This has also been the week of an archetypal social media story involving a Police Force writing to a Twitter user and demanding he or she (or ‘they’) attend an interview – and presumably a ‘re-education’ lecture – concerning a Tweet that committed the apparently-blasphemous crime of criticising the prevalence of the ubiquitous rainbow flag; the fact doing so isn’t a crime in law – yet – didn’t prevent Inspector Knacker from behaving as though it is and evidently hoping the said criminal was unaware of the fact. Considering the current climate, which sometimes feels like waking up in a world you’d rather not be living in, what more opportune time to revisit the BBC’s landmark 1976 production of ‘I, Claudius’? Here is a peerless and prescient portrayal of a once-great society on the cusp of collapse into decadence and then destruction; we witness that collapse through the ruling Roman dynasty and their Mafia-like machinations to rule at all costs. Served-up as perhaps the last great television event of the era in which television was the prime medium for telling stories with intelligence, wit and panache, ‘I, Claudius’ is littered with unforgettable set-pieces, spiky dialogue and characters that linger in the collective memory almost half-a-century later.
The cast list alone of ‘I, Claudius’ demonstrates how the reputation of British TV for attracting the cream of the acting crop was at its zenith in the mid-70s: the young Derek Jacobi making his name as the stammering, shambling lead character; the malevolently mesmerising Sian Phillips as the scheming Empress Livia, arguably the most memorable bitch in television history, and a woman who will casually poison the competition to clear the path for her ungrateful son Tiberius (George Baker) to succeed her husband as Emperor; and not forgetting Brian Blessed at his booming best as Augustus. Along the way we encounter numerous then-current as well as future familiar faces such as Patrick Stewart, Ian Ogilvy, John Rhys-Davies, Stratford Johns, Bernard Hepton, Margaret Tyzack, Kevin McNally, Bernard Hill, Peter Bowles, Patricia Quinn, Norman Rossington, and even Christopher Biggins as an especially noxious Nero. But perhaps no other cast member – with the honourable exception of Sian Phillips as Livia – leaves a greater mark on the production than John Hurt as the dangerously insane Caligula.
Fresh from his breakthrough into household name territory via ‘The Naked Civil Servant’, Hurt plays the psychopathic Caesar with the correct amount of genuinely disturbing menace, yet is equally hilarious in a part that another actor could easily have tipped into melodramatic farce. Caligula’s sadistic madness and conviction he is a God merely renting a human form turns those around him into either sycophantic toadies or (as in the case of ‘Uncle Claudius’) forces them to think on their toes, watch what they say, and learn to anticipate the unpredictable whenever in the Emperor’s company – as kids hoping to avoid a beating often do when finding themselves alongside the school bully. Caligula famously promoted his horse to a senator in one of his milder expressions of lunacy, but his more deviant whims were inflicted upon Rome simply because he decreed it, however much the Romans realised he was tampering with the natural order of things by normalising all that was beyond the pale. No doubt if Caligula had added paedophilia to his depraved list of legalised perversions, he’d have reclassified paedophiles as ‘Minor Attracted Persons’ – as indeed a member of another contemporary Police Force did just a week ago.
Caligula’s inevitable downfall at the hands of assassin’s blades comes in the wake of impregnating the sister he married and then – believing himself to be Zeus – following in the God’s footsteps by cutting out the foetus and eating it. The episode that climaxes with this gory scene was originally even gorier, but BBC bosses wilted under the onslaught of outrage from Mary Whitehouse and her comrades-in-offence and censored the offending sight of Drusilla bleeding to death from her horrific wound when the series was repeated. Although the scene in question can never be restored on account of it being lost on the cutting room floor, the edited version actually works much better in that seeing Claudius’s horrified reaction as he gazes upon the carnage is brilliantly effective without needing to see something our imagination has already pictured in all its grotesque glory.
Claudius is eventually the last man standing following the murders of most of the imperial family and is proclaimed Emperor against his wishes; but being perceived as a fool for most of his life due to his physical afflictions has saved his skin and also means he is able to document the saga of his brutal clan for the benefit of future generations. More or less each episode opens and closes with the elderly Claudius almost acting as a geriatric Edgar Lustgarten introducing the latest instalment of a bloodthirsty story, the likes of which has continued to echo throughout every TV series dealing with dynastical intrigues ever since. But ‘I, Claudius’ itself is perhaps the high watermark of a period that had begun with ‘The Forsyte Saga’ a decade earlier, one in which writing, production, direction and acting overcame the limitations of a studio set and managed to manufacture a uniquely compelling halfway house between theatre and television rather than aping cinema, as the small-screen does today. We may not see that era again on TV, but I expect Caligula to return as President or Prime Minister of somewhere soon; the climate seems particularly sympathetic to him right now.
© The Editor