The Cleopatras – Episode One

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They don’t make them like this any more.  Indeed, they didn’t make them like this very often back then.

The Cleopatras, written by Philip Mackie and directed by John Frankau, is a series that delights in its own artifice.  At a time (1983) when British television was slowly moving towards film as the dominant medium for drama, The Cleopatras was an all videotape production which used every available video effect to create a unique atmosphere.

The series makes its intentions clear in the first few minutes – various picture dissolves and wipes (which are used throughout the eight episodes) instantly tell us that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill production.  The sets at times appear more impressionistic than realistic and doses of CSO help to heighten the unreality.

It places the series firmly in the camp of electronic theatre rather than the naturalistic world of filmic drama (such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) that was increasing in popularity at this time.  Series like I, Claudius had shown that videotaped historical drama could be compelling, but The Cleopatras – although it had a similar mix of power-struggles, incest and murder – never had the same impact.

Looking at it today, you have to be able to embrace the production (or at least to tolerate it) and ignore some of the riper overacting.  If you can do that then it’s possible to derive a considerable amount of enjoyment from it.  And if not, you can at least admire their ambition.  Today, pretty much every drama looks identical, but for better or worse you could never say that about The Cleopatras.

Philip Mackie had previously penned a six part series called The Caesars (Granada, 1968) and it’s possible to regard The Cleopatras as something of a companion piece (both were studio-bound productions, although The Caesars didn’t indulge in trippy camera effects).  Although Mackie’s name isn’t that well known today (even amongst the select band of archive television enthusiasts) there’s plenty of interest to be found in his cv.  The Naked Civil Servant is one of his most high-profile screenplays, whilst I’d strongly recommend An Englishman’s Castle, a taut three-parter starring Kenneth More which is set in a Britain where the Germans had, thirty years earlier, won WW2.

The premise is simple.  Theodotus (Graham Crowden) is instructing the latest Cleopatra (Michelle Newell) about the history of her family.  He tells her (and us of course) that the kings of Egypt, who are all called Ptolemy almost always marry Queens called Cleopatra. The latest Cleopatra will ascend to the throne when her father dies and she marries her brother. Otherwise how will the royal blood line be kept pure? But before that happens Theodotus takes some time (the first five episodes in fact) to tell her the histories of some of her famous predecessors.

We travel back to 145 BC for the first of these history lessons. It opens with the moaning of Cleopatra’s mother (played by Elizabeth Shepherd – doomed to be known as the actress who was Emma Peel for a very short while) who’s emoting in a most peculiar fashion. She tells her daughter (also played by Michelle Newell) that her father is dead. We briefly see his death scene, but it’s presented in a characteristically abstract way that’s a feature of the series.

Eupator (Gary Carp) is in line for the throne, but Pot Belly (Richard Griffiths) is chosen ahead of him by Cleopatra’s mother. “He’s revolting. He’s so fat and horrible” says Cleopatra in disbelief. Griffiths is great fun and a highlight of these early episodes.

Eupator doesn’t last long (a mercy since Carp’s very shrill). He’s murdered in his bed in a scene that’s just as artificial as the rest of the series. We don’t see his murderers, but we hear one of them, although the voice sounds like it’s been dubbed on. Why this would be I don’t know, but it helps to continue the sense of disconnection.  This continues when Theodotus pops up to explain the current state of the plot. Graham Crowden appears in a small box which then increases to fill the size of the screen. Once he’s imparted a vital nugget of information the box then shrinks before vanishing.

Cleopatra’s clearly power-hungry. She attempts to resist Pot Belly’s attentions, but ends up being raped by him. It might be expected that she’d treat him with contempt afterwards, but that’s not the case. When she tells him she’s pregnant it’s plain she’s delighted as it gives her a chance to move closer to the throne.

Cleopatra manages to easily dislodge her mother and proves to be an ideal helpmate for Pot Belly. This is demonstrated when they both attempt to bribe a visiting Roman official called Scipio Africanus (Geoffrey Whitehead). Pot Belly offers him gold (which is refused) and then a selection of topless serving girls (there’s an awful lot of bare breasts in this series, maybe one reason why it achieved a certain notoriety. When Scipio declines them, Pot Belly desperately wonders if he’d fancy boys instead! A nice comic moment from Griffiths.

There’s predictable familial strife ahead as Cleopatra’s mother doesn’t intend to lose her position of power. Cleopatra and Pot Belly are forced to flee Egypt, but we haven’t heard the last of them. And the final image – Cleopatra and Pot Belly send Cleopatra’s mother a memorable birthday present – ends the episode in an unforgettable way.

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The Cleopatras – Episode Two

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The studio-bound nature of the series meant that it would have been difficult to illustrate battles or major upheavals convincingly, so The Cleopatras tended not to bother.  With Theodotus on hand to push the story along you just have to fill in the blanks yourself.

So at the end of episode one Cleopatra’s mother ruled Egypt, whilst Cleopatra and Pot Belly were exiles.  In the space of a few seconds at the start of this episode Theodotus informs us of a total reversal – Cleopatra and Pot Belly have regained the throne whilst Cleopatra’s mother is the one who now finds herself in exile – in Syria.

Needless to say, she’s not best pleased about it and Elizabeth Shepherd continues to wring every last drop of emotion from the role.  I can’t honestly say it’s good acting, but she’s highly entertaining.

One of the joys of the series is that there’s a constant stream of first-rate actors who pop up for an episode or two.  Due to the amount of fake facial hair (for the men, anyway) it’s sometimes hard to identity them immediately, but their voices tend to be a giveaway.  One notable new arrival is Stephen Greif as Demetrius, the King of Syria.  Greif’s excellent as the weak-willed king, easily manipulated by Cleopatra’s mother into attempting to invade Egypt and dispose Pot Belly.  It’s not a success, alas, and Demetrius finds himself deserted by his men and then executed.

Demetrius’ widow, Cleopatra Thea (Caroline Mortimer), is a chip off the old family block.  Her elder son Seleucus (Nicholas Greake) has automatically ascended to the throne, but this doesn’t please her.  Her younger son, Grypus (James Aubrey), seems to be much more malleable, so she decides to poison Seleucus.  She does so in such a blatant way that it’s more than a little surprising that nobody seems to twig.

Richard Griffiths continues to impress.  Pot Belly is a curious mixture of diplomat and tyrant (somewhat similar to Brian Blessed’s Augustus in I, Claudius).  He agrees to Cleopatra’s mother’s request to return as Queen for one key reason.  “The people are tired of chaos. Oh it’s fun for a time, throwing people out of windows, rioting, looting, burning, refusing taxes. But eventually the people long for peace. And what better symbol can there be of the return to orderly life than the reconciliation of those two great enemies, their King and Queen?”

A peculiarity of the series is that although years have passed since the events of the previous episode, nobody looks any older.  This is particularly noticeable when we see Cleopatra and Pot Belly’s children, who are now grown up. When Cleopatra’s daughters look as old as Cleopatra herself it’s slightly odd.  She does have a little bit of make-up applied in the next episode, when Cleopatra is an old woman, but Pot Belly (on his deathbed) looks pretty much as he did in the first episode.

Most amusing picture transition in the series so far occurs forty five minutes in, as the picture contracts into a ball and appears to disappear down Cleopatra Thea’s throat!

The Cleopatras – Episode Three

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Episode three opens with Theodotus continuing to teach the young Cleopatra about the history of her strange and bloodthirsty family. At this point in his story, Pot Belly is approaching death. I’m going to miss him (and Richard Griffiths too of course). Griffiths has been a constant source of delight during the series so far, thanks to the entertaining dialogue provided by Philip Mackie. His opening words here are a case in point. “I wonder if I ought to be dying more publically? In a more public place, under an awning with a vast multitude hanging on my every word. Filled with admiration at the sight of how nobly a truly good man could die.”

Griffiths, like the rest of the cast, didn’t make any effort to do “noble” acting. Instead, everyone plays in a modern conversational style, which is quite unlike, say, the more stilted delivery of Biblical classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood. This may be another reason, along with the camera effects and impressionistic sets, why the series received such a muted reception.  The Cleopatras doesn’t feel like the traditional historical drama that many were no doubt expecting and it’s mixture of ripe acting and dark humour seemed to have caught many by surprise.  Make no doubt, it is a funny series.  Some may contend that it’s unintentionally so, but I think that both Philip Mackie and director John Frankau knew exactly what they were doing.

The scene where Cleopatra’s eldest daughter (Sue Holderness) and her husband Chickpea (David Horovitch) visit the dying Pot Belly is a good case in point.  They bound into the room, hand in hand, to ask how he is.  When he tells them that he’s dying, she bursts into hysterics.  Her histrionics are so utterly false (and Pot Belly isn’t taken in for a moment) that you can view this moment one of two ways – either Sue Holderness was indulging in some ripe overacting or she was playing to the script (which strongly implies that everybody’s constantly playing games with everybody else, but etiquette means that they can’t publicly say so).

It’s highly entertaining to see Marlene and Chief Inspector Slack in such unusual garb and there’s some other familiar faces who find themselves with shaven heads and remarkable – and brief – costumes.  Alexander (Ian McNeice) is another of Pot Belly’s sons who, like Chickpea, has his eyes on the throne.

Pot Belly’s dying words (his death scene is another hysterical moment) creates a storm of controversy, which is exactly what he wished.  He commands his wife to choose which of their two sons should rule.  By right of succession the throne belongs to Chickpea, but Cleopatra chooses Alexander instead.  This sparks a storm of protest and Cleopatra is forced to back down.  The discontent of the mob and their delight when Chickpea is confirmed as ruler is largely achieved via sound effects.  It’s a theatrical – and low budget – solution, but it works.

I love David Horovitch’s impossibly wet Chickpea.  Horovitch plays him as a thoroughly decent sort of chap, which means he’s totally out of his depth in Cleopatra’s court, where everybody seems to be plotting against everybody else.  Eventually Cleopatra orders his death and sets the mob on him.  His reaction when he’s told this by a loyal servant is another comic moment – he changes in a minute from an autocratic ruler to a lost child.

If The Cleopatras lacks the depth of I, Claudius (characters feel more insubstantial) then there’s still plenty of incidental pleasures to be enjoyed along the way.  Ian McNeice’s impressive dancing at the end of this episode being a case in point!

The Cleopatras – Episode Four

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Alexander (Ian McNeice) now reigns whilst Cleopatra Berenike (Pauline Moran) is queen.  Alexander continues to enjoy drinking and dancing and seems to have very little interest in anything else.  War with Rome seems a real possibility, but Alexander has no desire to start a war he has no chance of winning.

Alexander just wants a quiet life – he knows that Rome tolerates him (regarding him as nothing more than an aimable drunkard) and by doing nothing controversial he hopes they’ll leave him alone to live his remaining years in peace.  But his unpopularity amongst both the people and the army means that civil war seems inevitable.

Familiar themes of royal musical chairs are played out in this episode.  General Chaetaes (Morris Perry) conspires with Cleopatra Berenike to depose Alexander and replace him with his younger brother Chickpea.  Alexander’s death is either another stunning example of minimalism or it’s a symptom of the series’ very small budget.  He’s supposed to be on a seashore, although it’s little more than a CSO backdrop and a few sound effects.  And it’s interesting that his death, like most of the murders throughout the series, is portrayed in an abstract way.  Given the amount of female breasts on display there was no watershed reason why they should be so coy, so it must have been another script/directorial choice (almost as if the current Cleopatra – who’s still listening to the tales of Theodotus – is editing out the grisly bits.  After all, it’s her family).

Another batch of well known faces pop up.  Morris Perry, something of an underrated actor I’ve always felt, is smoothly manipulative as Chaetaes.  Patrick Troughton has a frustratingly small role as a Roman soldier called Sextus whilst Donald Pickering and John Bennett also make appearances.  Pickering is the impossibly smooth Roman diplomat Lucullus (not a great stretch for him it must be said, since Pickering specialised in playing smooth characters) and John Bennett is very still and restrained as Philocles.  Given some of the more exuberant playing throughout the series so far, Bennett’s scenes are a model of restraint.

The death of Alexander means that Chickpea returns and he’s now an older and seemingly much more ruthless ruler.  His mistress Irene (Lois Baxter) explains why he’s changed from the younger, baffled man we saw in the last episode.  “He loves ordering people to be killed. It makes him feel like a strong man, or a king or a god. With power over life and death.”  So at heart Chickpea’s the same man, he’s just better at creating a public persona of power.  David Horovitch continues to mine some decent comic moments from the script whilst Pauline Moran (later to play Miss Lemon opposite David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot) is a characteristically manipulative Cleopatra.

Following the death of Chickpea, Rome puts his son, Alexander the younger (David Purcell), on the throne.  Purcell isn’t one of the series’ strongest actors and thankfully his reign is pretty brief.  Rape and incest are foremost on his mind as he’s upset that Cleopatra Berenike won’t sleep with him.  After he kills her in a fit of rage he’s set upon by an angry mob (there always seems to be an angry mob hanging around the palace for some reason) and his mutilated remains are very briefly glimpsed.

So that means another of Chickpea’s sons ascends the throne.  He’s known as Fluter (played by Adam Bareham) and yes, he delights in playing the flute.  Fluter demonstrates his skills to the multitude in a characteristically idiosyncratic conclusion to the episode.

The Cleopatras – Episode Five

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The opening of this episode finds Fluter and his brother and sister barely able to believe their good fortune.  Fluter’s now king, his sister Cleopatra Tryphaena (Emily Richard) will shortly become his wife (thereby strengthening the royal bloodline since Fluter was illegitimate) whilst Fluter’s brother Ptolemy (Graham Seed) plaintively wonders if there’s a small part of Egypt that he could possibly rule.

All three play these initial scenes in a very childlike way, reacting with open-eyed wonder at the events occurring around them.  It’s another left-field acting choice, but it contrasts well with their advisors, Philocles (John Bennett) and General Chaeteas (Morris Perry), who seem very grown up in contrast.  When Fluter’s told that he’s a king and can do anything he wants – such as making Ptolemy the king of Cyprus – he reacts with unbridled joy.  “Two kings and a queen.  We’ll have such fun.”  And Adam Bareham is great fun as Fluter, to begin with he generates a very appealing eager youthfulness that’s quite different from the jaded, back-stabbing maneuvering we’ve previously seen.

It seems likely that Fluter will be hopelessly manipulated by his advisors, but we jump forward to hear Theodotus tell the current Cleopatra that he was one of the greatest kings that ever lived.  The fact that Fluter was Cleopatra’s father leads her to suppose that he’s attempting to flatter her, but he insists not.  This is another interesting narrative choice as it allows the audience to learn the outcome of this part of the story before they know anything else.

Of course, it doesn’t take long before Fluter becomes as autocratic and manipulative as his predecessors, although he does so with an appearance of affability.  In one of the more bizarre scenes in the series (although there’s plenty of other contenders) he tells his advisors that they need to dress as women and imbibe copious amounts of alcohol.  This pains Demetrius (Roger Brierley) who drinks nothing but water, but it’s made plain that to disobey the king’s order is to invite death.  So he bites the bullet and drags up along with the others!

There’s plenty more familiar faces who can be spotted under the wigs and fake facial hair.  John Arnatt squirms delightfully as Sophron, who earns the displeasure of the older Fluter whilst John Savident is Pythagoras, who like all the others has to tread softly around the less affable Fluter.  Moray Watson is another solid performer, he plays the affable Roman, Gabinius, who finds it easy to manipulate the king.

Fluter travels to Rome in order to try and convince them to recognise Egypt as an independent nation and him as their legitimate ruler.  Julius Caesar (Robert Hardy) might be able to help – if the bribe is big enough.  Hardy’s a class performer and Caesar will be a key figure for the next few episodes.  As will, of course, Mark Anthony (Christopher Neame).

It’s either the corrupting influence of power or simply indifference, but Fluter registers very little interest in the news that Rome will shortly invade Cyprus and depose his brother.  Before that happens, Ptolemy elects to take poison – in a nicely played scene by Graham Seed (an actor who did the I Claudius/The Cleopatras double).

His brother’s death, and the loss of Cyprus, angers the people and they move to depose Fluter.  His attempt to find allies leads to a meeting with the Roman officer Cato (Godfrey James).  Cato’s not interested in helping and his discussion with Fluter – with Cato on the toilet, dealing with a particularly stubborn bowel movement – is another of those unexpected moments that (depending on your point of view) either makes The Cleopatras a delight or a despair.

Fluter’s removal from power and his wife’s death sees their daughter Berenike (Shelagh McLeod) take their place.  This inches us closer to the present day as Cleopatra remembers her sister ascending the throne.  Berenike needs to marry in order to consolidate her position and Pythagoras thinks he has the ideal candidate, a member of the Syrian royal family.  He does warn her that Seleucus (Colin Higgins) is a little rough around the edges, which he certainly is.   Seleucus admits he has a body odor problem, but tells her “you just have to get used to it that’s all. Come on, I’ve known girls who’ve quite liked it. They said it gave it a bit of a flavour. Wait till I’m your husband, we’ll have none of this mucking about then.”

It’s another tongue in cheek moment which ends with Seleucus being dragged off by Berenike’s guards.  She couldn’t take his advances any more, so she orders him to be strangled.  She finds Archelaus (Graham Pountney) to be much more acceptable, but their happiness is short-lived (it lasts for about twenty seconds or so) before Fluter and the Roman Army led by Gabinius kill them both and return Fluter to power.

This brings the story up to date and with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony waiting in the wings, the story of the current Cleopatra will be played out over the closing installments.

The Cleopatras – Episode Six

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Fluter is old and dying (although as has been observed before, people rarely seem to look older during successive episodes – there’s certainly none of the elaborate ageing makeup which was used in I Claudius).  He’s chosen Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy (Daniel Beales), as his heirs – with three people to act as regents until Ptolemy comes of age.

It’ll come as no surprise that the apparently meek and submissive Cleopatra is dazzled by the prospect of power.  In her father’s hearing she wishes that he would hurry up and die, although she’s quick to cover this up (claiming that she wished him to hurry up and get well).

After Fluter’s death, Cleopatra quickly displays the autocratic streak that runs through her family and firmly rejects the approach of her brother’s three regents.  One of them, Pothinius, played by John Righam, looks extraordinary – but despite being caked in makeup still manages to deliver his lines with conviction.  What a pro!  Daniel Beales is entertainingly squeaky as the boy king, completely dominated by his older sister.  He also has another sister, Arsione (Francesca Gornshaw) who immediately catches the eye.

As for Cleopatra, she spends her time flirting with the likes of Pompey (Philip Cade) and giggling about it afterwards with her servants.  As usual, they’re bare-breasted, and amongst their number is Shirin Taylor.  Eleven minutes in we’re told that the mob is rioting (you can almost set your watch by them).  This sees Cleopatra driven from Egypt thanks to the machinations of the wily Pothinius.

Robert Hardy returns as Julius Caesar.  When Theodotus (Graham Crowden) brings him the head of Pompey, he doesn’t react with the sort of delight that Theodotus was probably expecting.  Instead he mourns for a man who by chance and circumstance became his enemy.  How historically accurate this is is open to question, but it implies that Caesar has a greater sense of morality than the rulers of Egypt.

His meeting with the boy-king Ptolemy is another interesting scene.  Ptolemy is offended that Caesar didn’t rise when he entered the room, but Caesar – telling him that they got rid of their kings some time ago – is unabashed, offering him a cheery “how do you do” and a firm handshake.  He’s also asked for a meeting with the queen, but Caesar does wonder if she’ll manage to make it past the likes of Pothinius.  When you see one of her servants carrying a carpet it’s not difficult to imagine what’s coming next.  The carpet is unrolled to reveal ……. Cleopatra.

It’s a bit of a damp squib moment it must be said, although the expression of delight on Hardy’s face almost makes up for it.  Just as good is the moment when Caesar releases she’s Cleopatra (and not, as he originally thought, a prostitute).  Michelle Newell continues to play Cleopatra with a strange mixture of girlish naivety and ruthless calculation.  It’s slightly odd, but certainly effective, as Caesar falls under her spell and restores her to the throne.

Robert Hardy is the stand-out performer during this episode.  His Julius Caesar is both a diplomat and a soldier, who also possesses a wry sense of humour.  And Hardy’s more naturalistic performance contrasts nicely with some of the more mannered and dramatic turns that pop up during the series .

The Cleopatras – Episode Seven

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Cleopatra has a bombshell for Caesar – she’s pregnant.  He’s obviously delighted and after the child (as she predicted, a boy) is born, she visits Rome.  Cleopatra’s self absorption is made very plain within the opening minutes of this episode.  Her two maids, who are completely sycophantic in her presence, have a very different opinion of her when she’s not around.

Ammonius (Frank Duncan) is the Roman official who’s been tasked with preparing Cleopatra’s Roman villa.  When he mentions that he was a great admirer of her father, he receives a polite but cool response.  After she’s left the room her maids tell him that he shouldn’t “harp on about her father too much, she didn’t care for him. She cares only for herself. We recommend flattery, you can’t lay it on too thick.”

It’s interesting that Caesar later tells her that “you’re an intelligent woman, you like plain speaking. And you hate meaningless flattery.”  According to her maids she loves flattery – so who is closer to the truth?  Of course, the fact that Caesar tells her to her face that she hates flattery is a form of flattery in itself.  Caesar doesn’t seem very manipulative – Hardy plays him as an affable sort of chap – so maybe he’s sincere in what he says.

The only scene between Caesar and Mark Anthony is highly entertaining.  Caesar tells him of his desire to be crowned king, but can he persuade the republican loving Roman citizens?  Neame’s Anthony is full of boyish enthusiasm for his plans and exuberantly tells him so.  Compared to Hardy’s laconic Caesar, Neame’s Anthony is much more hyperactive.  Like some of the other performances throughout the series it’s not a subtle one, but there’s a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from watching him chew the scenery.

For all Cleopatra’s self-centeredness, she did seem to be genuinely in love with Caesar – and he with her – and she takes the news of his assassination hard.  When Mark Anthony presents himself to her, she wonders why he “didn’t die protecting him? Or die with him?”  Mark Anthony’s equally as upset as her though, as is made plan as Neame full-throttles his way through the scene.

Familiar faces (and voices) who turn up in this episode include Geoffrey Chater as Perigenes, a plain-speaking Egyptian official.  Amongst his many credits he had a memorable recurring role as Bishop, opposite Edward Woodward in Callan.  John Moffatt, as Quintus Dellius, might not have been such a familiar face, but he was a highly skilled radio actor, playing the role of Hercule Poirot over several decades.

With Mark Anthony and Octavian victorious, Cleopatra should be glad that Mark Anthony is now ruler of half the world – but that’s not enough for her.  Julius Caesar ruled the world and she wants Mark Anthony to do the same ………