Sky’s Domina -- I, Claudius…or Imperium?
Sky UK is currently shooting Domina, a new series about the Empress Livia, wife of the first Roman Emperor Augustus, portrayed in both contemporary histories (Tacitus), and more recent works (notably Robert Graves in I, Claudius) as scheming and unafraid to engineer murders -- including even that of her husband the Emperor.
She was played most memorably by Sian Phillips in the 1976 BBC2 adaptation of I Claudius (more of this later). Also by Sonia Dresdel in the sadly neglected b/w ITV series The Caesars (1968), Charlotte Rampling in Imperium (2003) and more recently by Alice Henley in HBO’s Rome (2007).
But, to coin a phrase, ‘I’ve got a bad feeling’ about this.
Writer Simon Burke is competent journeyman, but the endeavour smacks of the increasingly awful Brit/Italian Euro-pudding Imperium series of TV movies, where star casting (of rapidly declining magnitude) couldn’t make up for soapy storylines and low budgets. Peter O’Toole starred as Augustus in the first of the Imperium series – with Franco Nero as St Augustine in the last (2010).
Domina star Kasia Smutniak may surprise -- she is perhaps best known for the lame Travolta/Jonathan Rhys Myers action-thriller From Paris With Love, but her career mainly consists of Italian pictures.
Ancient Rome appears back in vogue in the UK with Domina, Britannia and ITV’s upcoming Flavian sleuth Falco… (not a biopic of the ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ singer). Presumably the mooted HBO/BBC remake of I, Claudius has been abandoned (partly due to Game of Thrones), a shame as a new version with a decent budget, believable aging (Jacobi as an elderly Claudius below) and better supporting actors (especially children) could introduce Robert Graves’ classic to a new generation.
Fun Fact: George Baker’s performance as the grouchy miserabilist the Emperor Tiberius in CLAVDIVS was the inspiration for GRR Martin’s Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) in GoT.
Don Johnson Gets His Mojo Back
From a very length patch of mediocre projects and personal problems, former Miami Vice star Don Johnson is hot again -- at the ripe old age of 69. Don’s recent highs have included the jaunty prison thriller Brawl in Cell Block 99, Dragged Across Concrete, Django Unchained, Cold In July and of course the current HBO series Watchmen.
There’s also a juicy role in Rian Johnson’s upcoming whodunnit Knives Out. And the upcoming reboot of Nash Bridges, perhaps not what the world has been waiting for.
Lets face it, Johnson is looking at a career renaissance, with recent relatively lousy choices such as the Norwegian movie Long Flat Balls II (2008) and Sky One’s 2017 alleged ‘comedy’ Sick Note looking to be mere stumbling blocks on the way to his critical re-evaluation.
By the way, Johnson’s early role in the cult sci-fi movie A Boy & His Dog (1975) is well worth checking out.
American Politicians via Brits Abroad
There’s a strange frequency of Brits to be cast in iconic US political roles -- Clive Owen will play Bill Clinton, as have other Englishmen; Christian Bale as VP Dick Cheney, Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, Anthony Hopkins as Nixon/Quincy Adams, Cummings and Branagh as FDR, Gambon/Donald Moffat as LBJ, and even Emma Thompson as a thinly veiled Hillary in Primary Colors and many others (including Ben Kingsley as a fictional VP in Dave).
Perhaps a challenge for Clive Owen, as no great master of accents he -- witness Inside Man, Sin City, Shoot ‘Em Up, etc -- but maybe he’ll nail Clinton’s Arkansas twang. Brendan Gleeson is set to play Trump in the upcoming CBS adaptation of James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty. Well at least he’s got the physique and can be trusted to dial down his intrinsic charm for the role.
And his scene with a couple of hookers in 2011’s The Guard will have been good practice.
And there’s also the reverse -- US actors playing UK political figures John Lithgow as Churchill and Gillian Anderson as Thatcher in The Crown, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady etc.
What gives? surely the US and UK have enough capable actors to essay these kind of roles? Nonetheless, it’s always interesting to see how they turn put -- Gambon and Hopkins’ accents were pretty terrible in LBJ and Nixon, but they still gave memorable performances despite this. Daniel Day-Lewis was felt to have nailed it as Lincoln, even though some expected that the late president would have possessed a more basso voice than quavering tenor… And Lithgow and Streep as Churchill and Thatcher were generally thought to have delivered, even in the UK.
Comeback for Wickedest Man in The World
With appearances as a character in Strange Angel and Pennyworth, who was Aleister Crowley? With Crowley (1875-1947) popping up in two US series (Strange Angel & Batman prequel Pennyworth) this year, 2019 appears to be the comeback year for the so-called ‘Wickedest Man in The World’ by Angus MacFayden and Jonjo O’Neill respectively.
The leading practioner of ‘Sex Magik’ and disciple of Lucifer, Good Omens purloined Crowley’s name for David Tennant’s demon in the recent adaptation of the Pratchett/Gaiman snooze fest soon to grace our screens on BBC2 in the UK after being on Amazon for months.
Outstanding co-pro deal, BBC.
Will anyone dare to adapt his Simon Iff ‘mystic detective’ novels, Crowley’s attempt to widen his audience base? During WWII the elderly Crowley offered his Magikal services to the British Government, with Churchill apparently saying that he would willingly enlist the help of even Old Nick against Hitler. Al also claimed to have invented the ‘V for Victory’ sign. Crowley was also the model for Ian Fleming’s (who he knew) Blofeld.
WATCHMEN: Sounds Better than Expected
Not only is Damon Lindelof’s show a damn sight better than expected (probably to Alan Moore’s chagrin), the score (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross) and choice of songs is pretty much perfect, well in my opinion. I mean -- it even makes Howard Jones, if not cool, not totally awful…
The use of classical music (Mozart/Beethoven/Bizet etc), Beastie Boys (Eggman), Kenny Roger/Dolly Parton, Sturgill Simpson and a host of covers (inc Nataly Dawn’s Careless Whisper) is inspired. Also Jeremy Irons grooving to Desmond Dekker’s The Israelites whilst experimenting on clones…
His Daft Materials?
With the current Dark Materials and upcoming Good Omens (already on Amazon) the BBC appear not to have learned the lessons of other fantasy shows that crashed and burned for them. These include the dreary Troy: Fall of a City, the excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and others such as the earlier Gormenghast.
Ratings for Materials have declined as viewers swiftly grew tired with what they saw as essentially a kids show, full of impenetrable gobbledeygook, better suited to an earlier slot. With more peak time fantasy drama on the horizon for Auntie (another Pratchett show, Discworld’s The Watch) you don’t need a crystal ball to predict that there’s a good chance of further flops.
2020’s new Gatiss/Moffat take on Dracula may just buck the trend, but the character belongs more to Gothic Horror than fantasy.
The Papal States -- The Real Magisterium (His Dark Materials, HBO)?
What with all the fuss about the aesthetic premise of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, we should remember that there actually was a huge period of time (754-1870 AD) when The Popes held similar temporal power in Central/Northern Italy.
And what (mis)uses they made of it! Corruption, torture, religious persecution and the particularly cruel method of public execution (yes, despite the 6th Commandment) -- the ‘Mazzatello’:
“A prayer would first be said for the condemned’s soul. Then, the mallet would be raised, swung through the air to gain speed, and then brought down on the head of the prisoner. The condemned was usually knocked unconscious rather than being killed instantly, so the throat of the prisoner would then be slit with a knife”
This practice only ended with the dissolution and conquest of the Papal States in 1870.
So The Magisterium isn’t really so far-fetched, is it? Another reason (if needed) for the separation of Church & State. Note: the author Kingsley Amis also posited a world where the Catholic Church continued to retain temporal power in The Alteration (1976).
2020: The Year of Julian Fellowes?
With The Gilded Age (HBO), Belgravia (ITV) and early days of football drama The English Game (Netflix) Fellowes will be difficult to avoid in 2020, but has his occasionally lazily scripted class-driven shtick enough appeal to be stretched so thinly? Even the most avid fans of Downton Abbey felt that Fellowes was prone to winging it in terms of plotting and character development.
Julian owes a considerable debt to British period dramas especially Jean Marsh & Eileen Atkin’s Upstairs Downstairs/House of Elliott, together with the likes of The Pallisers, Forsyte Saga and The Duchess of Duke Street. Fortunately for him, wannabes such as the BBC Upstairs Downstairs cash-in/reboot and ITV’s The Halycon failed to capture Fellowes’ magic touch.