16th November 2007
I have written about Rome before – and no doubt will again. I have now got both series on DVD and watched it through continuously once, and a second time rather more cursorily. I know that it will become a Depression staple, like The Lord of the Rings. So it works for me on many levels, both emotionally and intellectually. But for now I want to talk a little about historical dramas because I can take for contrast with Rome the appalling Tudors series which is currently being shown on the BBC.
Now the comparison is absurd at a cinematographic level because the Tudors is a cheap production – shoddy sets, some risible CGI, uninspiring action, small-scale imagination. But it is, of course, the history which really maddens me and means that I rarely watch it for very long, growing so infuriated that there is a danger of my assaulting the television set. I now approach it for laughs as much as anything else. But behind all this, and in comparison with Rome, there are it seems to me some big and interesting questions about historical drama, leading on to even more fascinating questions about History itself. Now the greatest and most brilliant strength of Rome is that it centres itself on the fundamental fact of what happened during an extraordinarily dramatic period of history. Not what those involved may or may not have seen as happening, but what hindsight can clearly see was the major outcome. Which was of course the emergence of Octavian as the first Roman Emperor and hence the establishment of the Roman Empire. Or at least the possibility of the emergence of the Roman Empire – the actual way in which Octavian consolidated and established the Empire would be hard to dramatise as it mainly involves administrative, political and social acts which would be hard to dramatise. But his rise is incredibly dramatic. Now you can argue that Rome gets all the details of this rise wrong; that it invents (which it certainly does), embroiders, dramatises, indeed fantasises about the events. But on the Big Picture it is 100 percent accurate. My own belief is that one of the ways in which it does this is by not paying too much attention to trying to figure out what the people involved ‘really’ thought or felt. And it is right to do this. Because people can never understand the nature of their own eras (quite apart from the problem of any individual in fact ever understanding their own thoughts and feelings, and whether this is possible).
The Tudors takes – as far as I can tell – an opposite path. It wants to pretend that we are getting the ‘real’ Henry 8, Wolsey, Anne Boleyn etc.. Now quite apart from the impossibility of doing this and the fact that no historical assessment of this is ever accurate, or indeed consistent, the result is that the Big Picture, what really mattered in terms of History, becomes almost lost. And again we have a period where what really mattered is blindingly obvious, and none but a fool would argue with. Luther pinned his theses to the church door, Protestantism was born and England became a Protestant country. Now the exact how and why of this is a matter of endless, and for historians fascinating, debate and conjecture. If you are writing historical drama about the matter then I think its fine to invent, play, dramatise as you wish. As long as you get the Big Picture right, do what you like with the small. Unfortunately in The Tudors the Big Picture disappears altogether. In its place we get absurd anachronisms (I am sure I actually heard Wolsey talk about collective security at one point!) on the one hand, and pretty pathetic drama on the other – the ‘action highlight’ of one episode was arm-wrestling! (this is not a joke).
Now another fascinating difference between the series is that Rome cuts and intertwines the stories of Caesar, Mark Anthony, Brutus, Octavius, Atia, Servilia etc. with those of the two, wholly fictional I presume!, working-class characters Vorenus and Pullo (and in the second series the Jew Timon and his brother). This works brilliantly to drive the narrative forward and give dramatic impetus. But it also allows for speculation about a couple of opposing historical visions – it continues I suppose Tolstoy’s great debate about the nature of History at the end of War and Peace (the bit a lot of people don’t read) – now as I understood Tolstoy (and I may well be wrong) he argued that History was bunk because in looking for an over-arching narrative and focusing on Great Men it ignored the reality of the myriad individuals who actually make history, and who’s motives can never be understood because they are so complex and innumerable. It always struck me as an odd argument because WandP seems to me to provide a historical narrative of a sort. But it is very powerful. I have never seen it discussed by historians (not surprising I suppose as it would abolish the discipline). It runs counter to all kinds of theories of History whether of Right (Great Men for instance) or Left (historical materialism for instance) or Centre (Whiggish progress). Rome makes nods to all these ideas – clearly there are great men, some effort is made to reflect material realities (class conflict, the grain supply – though there is not enough of this) and there is some notion of progress (though this may just be a result of the narrative form). But Vorenus and Pullo and the absurd co-incidences in which they involve themselves, which can have enormous consequences, spring rather from a Tolstoyan view – history as accident, randomness, non-history. Now I know that Rome in the end wholly rejects this when viewed overall, but it allows for plenty of this inventive, fictional play in the meantime. The Tudors, because it worries about detailed fidelity, has almost none of it. Not only does this reduce the drama and interest and comedy to near zero, but it means there is no argument, no speculation about accident as against historical forces.
Well I am hoping to see Cate Blanchett reprise her role as Elizabeth tomorrow so perhaps the Tudors will get some decent historical coverage then. It certainly can’t be worse then the Tudors. Hard to think how anything could be.