Over The Hill

I know I’m old now, in a sense, because actors who played bit parts in beloved dramas of my younger days are now iconic, their most famous roles etched on the public mind even when their names require a look-up.

The Cute Engineer, who was about seven when the BBC aired its tour de force series based on Robert Graves’ Claudius novels, had heard me rattle on enough about the programs and surprised me by springing for a 35th anniversary edition of the series. Every other episode tossed up a familiar face. I had warned him about Patrick Stewart‘s performance as the corrupt prefect Aelius Sejanus,  whose plays for power during the reign of Tiberius ended — at least in Graves’ version — with execution at the order of his competing prefect Macro. I’d forgotten about the actor playing Macro himself; he looked familiar, and the name John Rhys-Davies scrolled by in the credits.

A couple of nights later, as we got toward the end, I recognized Bernard Hill as well. Of all the characters in the filmed Lord of the Rings, King Theoden was to me the most perfectly realized, the man I would have wanted for a king, a father, a general. Hill blew the role out of the ball park and possibly into the next galaxy. It was a bit jolting, I said, to see a much younger Theoden pulling Derek Jacobi’s tremulous Claudius out from behind a curtain and declaring him Emperor of all Rome (here, at about 5:30).

“Not as weird as seeing Captain Picard done in by Gimli,” said the Engineer.

We’re still debating it.

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11 thoughts on “Over The Hill

  1. Yeah. I went to get a haircut the other day and in desperation was flipping through some of the lame magazines they had there. I didn’t even know who the people the papparazzi were chasing were and why they were famous.

  2. I always wanted to watch the BBC series based on Robert Graves’ novels on Claudius but never had a chance. Even though every time I see an Anglo-Saxon playing a Roman I get this weird kitsch sensation I heard the series to be very well done. Like Thomas and probably you almost all celebrities of today go over my head while I remember so well those of my days.

    • Oh, when you find a chance and time, do check it out. The British modeled themselves on Rome so devotedly that I think they play Romans with enormous dedication, though I can imagine it affecting you as “weird kitsch.” (I think of Roman gravitas = British stiff upper lip; parliamentary government blended with a class oligarchy; maritime supremacy — the list goes on.)

      The rank and file soldiers have Cockney accents, and the “German” guards whiff of modern Germany rather than the tribes inhabiting Germania at the time — but Graves played that game himself, describing the German troops in Rome as always homesick and prone to say everything was done better back in Germany. 🙂 (If you’ve spent much time around German ex-pats, you know what I mean!) Derek Jacobi’s performance is monumental, though — if he had never done anything else, his seamless portrayal of the limping, tic-ridden, stuttering Claudius would make him immortal.

      • What you say makes me want to watch the series even more. As for the German ex-pats, well, yes, one of them once confessed me (with a bit of shame perhaps) that for the first years of his Italian sojourn he used to go back to Germany to get his teeth cured (he implied he later found out our dentists are not that terrible).

        I remember Derek Jacobi as one of the Roman senators in The Gladiator: great actor, but very British looking, at least to me. Roman gravitas as British stiff upper lip etc. Lol. Well, some cultural adaptation is probably necessary to make people understand (ie perceive an upper class style, or a lower class one via cockney and so forth). Something similar happened with HBO ‘Rome’, which in any case I found excellent from any point of view.

        • Jacobi’s an interesting and adventurous actor. His on-screen Hamlet was done right after Claudius — very angry and bringing out the crude sentiments in the text — and he has played Hitler, WTF (pretty well, too, at least in terms of recalling the mannerisms and cadence in old newsreels). He was the scheming antique dealer in Kenneth Branagh’s “Dead Again.” But never exceeded the brilliance of Claudius.

          The British do sometimes make me think of Cato the Elder’s boast, as recoutned by Graves, that he and his wife were such models of gravity and restraint that the only time they had ever embraced outside the bedroom was when she was frightened by thunder. “Well, perhaps Jove will be good enough to thunder again soon,” someone snarkily replied.

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