Monday, December 11, 2006

DVD Review: The Caesars (Network - UK Region 2)

An everyday story of sex, madness, and regicide.

Augustus Caesar, Emperor of the Roman Empire, has ruled for over 40 years, bringing peace after years of civil war, but the price the empire paid for this was the absolute rule of one man – a dictator. Although brutal, he was nevertheless a popular leader. And now he is dying, and he has to nominate a replacement. He decides that Tiberius should replace him, with the loyal-but-foolish Germanicus the next in line.

Tiberius initially rejects the offer, as he feels he is nowhere near as brutal as Augustus and doesn’t wish to become an absolute ruler. Eventually, he reluctantly agrees, and takes command with the aid of the scheming Sejanus. But throughout his reign, he faces the turmoil that affected his family, including murder, in which many people label him as a tyrant. He does on occasion have to be ruthless, but the end result would normally follow a sense of guilt.

His great-nephew, Caligula, succeeds Tiberius, but early on he does show signs of his unpleasant side. Then a serious illness drives him further into insanity. Believing that he is a God and an immortal, he becomes an irrational murderer and rapist. As he becomes more and more deranged, no-one it seems can appease him in any way without fear of being executed.

Surviving throughout all this turmoil is Claudius, who was born with a stutter and club foot. Because of his disability, many dismiss him as a fool, but he uses this to his advantage. He is ignored by Tiberius and humiliated by Caligula, but it is Claudius himself who would get the last laugh.

This series was produced by Granada Television, and was broadcast on ITV in 1968 to critical acclaim. It has been compared in recent times to I Claudius and even the BBC/HBO’s Rome, but this is still an immensely enjoyable drama in its own right. The sets, although studio bound, are very impressive. A fine repertoire of actors grace the small screen, but there are three actors who really stands out: Andre Morrell (Quatermass & The Pit) gives a dependable performance as the weary Tiberius, Ralph Bates (Dear John) is frightfully chilling as the cold-blooded Caligula, and Freddie Jones (The Ghosts of Motley Hall) fully merited his Golden Nymph award (Monte Carlo Television Festival, 1969) as the rather-intelligent Claudius.

The series was shot originally on video, but it now exists as 16mm telerecordings made for the international market (the original Granada front and endcaps have been replaced by a Granada International equivalent), and Network has been supplied with a mix of old and recent transfers. The quality of the material does show that making telerecordings was not one of Granada’s main strengths. Generally, they zoomed in too close to the video monitor, which results in a cropped picture and a grainy look. There is also burnt-in video damage evident on the recordings. The first episode is the worst affected, as shown on the screenshot below. Because of the over-zooming, you can only just make out the title (Augustus).

It would have been nice to see the series get some digital clean-up, but this would be expensive and would make the DVD release commercially unviable. Of course, Network is renowned for releasing long-forgotten TV shows that most other DVD companies wouldn’t even touch with a barge pole, so we really must commend Network for having the guts to release this.

There is one extra that Network has somehow forgot to mention on its cover – a five-minute photo gallery, showing some behind-the-scenes images and those taken on the set. I was really amazed to see what the sets actually looked like in colour, it is just a shame that they never filmed it this way. If only they waited one more year until ITV colour transmissions became a reality. Because of the rarity of this series, it is unrealistic to expect commentaries or interviews, so the photo gallery is an unexpected bonus. Pity about the lack of subtitles, though.

Despite the quality of the film material, this is an excellent watch, and huge thanks to Network for allowing this series to get a deserved DVD release. However, the RRP of £19:99 is maybe on a high side for people who aren’t too familiar with this series and/or are rather unsure of 1960’s drama, so my advice is to wait until the sales. But whenever you buy this now or later, is it well worth what you paid for it. Recommended.

NOTE: DD Home Entertainment has released their own version of The Caesars (only available through their mail-order service, while Network's version is a general release) with the same RRP. However, given DDHE's track record, it is likely that these episodes will have their adcaps removed (Network has left these alone), and there is no mention of any subtitles or other extras on their catalogue and website.

Images (C) Granada
Text (C) Lee Glover. Not to be copied without permission.

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