Monday, October 13, 2003

Scotsman Gives BBC's Colosseum: Arena of Death Thumbs Up

"The really sexy new history shows have been entrusted to the BBC’s Special Projects, and the BBC’s two most prestigious productions for the autumn are not drama series, nor comedies, but proud examples of their new toy: 'drama reconstruction'. It’s a genre they pioneered last year with a somewhat enervating portrayal of the construction of the Great Pyramid. If the computer graphics, sets and location filming were all groundbreaking, Pyramid was let down by concerning itself with, well, groundbreaking. Try as you might, it is difficult to make a building site exciting, even if these were the foundations for one of the wonders of the ancient world. The stilted and witless 'dramatisation' also stopped well short of arresting the attention. "

Pyramid established the blueprint of looking at history through the eyes of a contemporary participant, and half-invented a slave toiling among the masonry. Colosseum has the advantage of an off-the-peg hero, the gladiator Verus, whose exploits in the arena were delineated in some detail by the Roman poet Martial. Unusually, it’s a story with a happy ending.

"Verus is given a credible back-story, as a slave captured in Rome’s Balkan campaign and sent to work in a stone quarry in Latium. We follow his recruitment to a gladiatorial training school, his first bouts, and eventually his arrival at the newly built Colosseum, which Titus launched with a 100-day orgy of continuous spectacles."

"The slightly malign influence of Gladiator serves the BBC production well, in that it demonstrated the importance of convincing action sequences, and showed how risible bad history can be. In terms of action Colosseum doesn’t stint on the sweaty close-ups, and the occasional bloody coup de grâce. You suspect the soundman spent a lot of time shoving steel into wet meat. "

Our British friends will get to view this program tonight. Those of us in the states can only hope PBS or The History Channel snags a copy for us at a later date.

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