Shiny Shelf

Ancient Rome: Nero

By Jim Smith on 24 September 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Surprisingly restrained in its use of graphic violence the first episode of BBC One’s drama-documentary series ‘Ancient Rome – The Rise and Fall of an Empire’ boasted outstanding production values and an extraordinary central turn from Michael Sheen. Sheen (with almost no help from the script and only the occasional echoes of Kenneth Williams and Tony Blair, Sheen’s other great historical impersonations) convincingly portrayed the Emperor Nero’s descent into insanity over a short period following the Great Fire of Rome.

That shouldn’t be construed as too harsh a verdict on the screenplay used here. Drawing from classical sources and forced to split itself roughly evenly between dramatised scenes and narrated-over vistas. Psychological realism was not, is not, the point of Roman history and it would fallacious to insert it into the script. It was up to the actors (a big hello to David De Keyser and the effortlessly superb Trevor Cooper) to supply it, and this they all did with aplomb.

Those aforementioned production values deserve further praise. Digital technology has now moved on at such a pace that sights such as these (the burning of Rome, the whole city as one giant construction site) are casually accomplished for week night television. Fifteen years ago they would have bordered on unthinkable for even the biggest of movie productions.

Perhaps this series, which takes its subject seriously without taking itself seriously, is the BBC’s reaction to criticism of its Anglo-American co-production ‘Rome’. Maybe the two projects are unrelated. Regardless, the combination of drama and education presented here is supremely effective.

The only big question is why, after showing us Nero’s suicide, the series is choosing to jump back around a century to show us the life and campaigns of his revered ancestor Julius Caesar, the originator of the dynasty that Nero ended when taking his own life. This kind of reverse-temporal engineering is a very off thing for a popular TV series to do.

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