I don’t know when the first TV adaptation of a novel or series of novels was, but I suspect this has a claim to be one of the earlier ones. Even if we spread out to movies, there were very few thorough and complete adaptations of novels, as movies were just too short. So, whatever else we may think of this, it’s incredibly ambitious and arguably hugely important in the history of TV.
But, as you know, things have changed a lot in TV in the last 45 years. And what was once trailblazing, ambitious and, for many people, one of the greatest things they had ever seen is now dated, obviously low budget and not entertaining enough. Time has not been kind to this. So let’s try to get the problems out of the way:
It’s very clear that what passed for a decent sized TV budget for the BBC in 1976 pales in comparison to even the smallest TV show budgets now. And yes, technology has improved and CGI can fix many things now, but the lack of budget is never not apparent:
- The sets are tiny and it really feels like a play (many of them appear to be re-used)
- Sound effects are used in lieu of things like crowd scenes
- Many characters are wearing wigs and the wigs are bad
- The makeup is extremely noticeable (presumably picture quality back then was bad enough that nobody could notice), you can see where it ends and begins, you can see the skull caps, you can see where it’s applied to thickly where it has dried, and so on.
And the casting is not good when it comes to age. I understand that nobody had IMDB or Wikipedia in 1976 but even then the audience must have noticed how hilariously wrong the ages of some of the actors were in comparison to each other. It’s far worse when you can look them up and have your suspicions confirmed, but it’s still pretty obvious that the actor playing Tiberius is older than the actress playing his mother (for example).
The script very much feels like a play, not a film. Just about everything takes place in camera, as it were, with only a few exceptions (though there are more exceptions as it goes on). And the way people talk is just so very British. I understand it’s a British TV show adapted from British novels but it feels like there has been very little effort to actually set this in Rome, rather than a post-Victorian vision of Rome. This is most notable in the morals and customs but also in how they speak to each other. They sound like we’re watching a movie set in the 1930s in the UK.
And that brings us to the story itself. Graves seems to have relied primarily on Tacitus. I don’t know exactly when the history revolution of the 20th century occurred but it appears to have happened after Graves went to school. Graves takes every rumour at face value. The villains of the piece are Livia and Messalina and Caligula. But Caligula is insane and so he’s sort of given a mulligan whereas the conniving women are just ambitious women. Most of what Graves wrote about the villains in particular doesn’t seem to have much basis outside of unreliable Roman historians with political axes to grind. And the portrayals of Livia and Messalina in particular come off as extremely sexist.
But some of the male characters don’t make much sense either. Augustus is a bit of a buffoon but Livia was his third wife. We’re supposed to believe she was the reason for his success and his downfall but what did he do before he married her? He only became the first emperor in Roman history. Watch this particular portrayal and reconcile that.
And it’s not super entertaining in the 21st century. Both in the initial episodes and the final episodes, it’s kind of dull, again a bit like a play. Things improve markedly when John Hurt shows up and starts chewing the scenery as Caligula but he is really just playing full on crazy. It’s fun, but it’s also not necessarily good.
But, despite all of that, this is still one of the earliest attempts to adapt literature faithfully to TV that I’m aware of. (And only a few movies precede it, too.) It was extraordinarily ambitious for its time (and its budget, frankly). And you do have to give it points for being, if not first, then close to first. Despite all its very obvious flaws, it’s a landmark, it expanded the possibilities of television and it set some standards for TV storytelling that it took a long time to meet. Yes, the people who think this is one of the greatest TV shows of all time must have grown up with it. But it does have an important place in history.