Confessions of an Anglophile: Of Roman emperors and naked boobs

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Captain Lucius Aelius Picard, or, a hairy Patrick Stewart

OK, look, I was a weird child. My brothers were 10 and 12 years older than me, which had positives and negatives. They had already been through what I was going to go through, so I had an idea of what to expect. But they were also almost autonomous adults, so even though we were a household of two parents and three children, I was pretty much on my own.

But my oldest brother Tony acted as a surrogate father at times, and the one main thing he shared with me was a love of all things British. PBS—back when it was good and would show wonderful programming—was on constantly in my apartment. And this was a time when independent television channels were actually “independent”, and combed far and wide for programming to fill their schedules.

A great source of that programming was from the BBC and ITV, the only two British television networks at the time. (Channel 4 didn’t come online until 1982; Channel 5 a Johnny-come-lately from 1997.) I’ve forgotten more British television than most Americans remember. I have to consciously fight the urge to speak in an English accent after watching something from the BBC.

This early exposure to all things from Blighty has marked me for life. When the Scots were voting for independence a couple of years ago, of course I rooted for the preservation of the Union. (If they were to redo the vote today, my opinion might be a bit different.) I’ve only become more of an Anglophile as I’ve aged, with the perspective of time that everything and everyone is flawed. (The Raj, anyone?)

There were three seminal shows, however, which set me on this path. And the first one was that hoary, decadent, camp chestnut: I, Claudius.

I was, what? Eight or nine years old when I first watched I, Claudius. And of course, my most vivid memories are of the boobs. God! There were boobs everywhere! The first scene had topless dancers! Then there was Augustus’ daughter Julia and her romp through the Roman aristocracy. And don’t get me started on Messalina. It was quite formative for a randy prepubescent boy. (Did I mention I was a weird kid? One of the benefits of having parents who don’t speak English is that you’re pretty much left to your own devices in terms of entertainment.)

The sheer delight of the costume drama was also enough to entice me. Breastplates and helmets and togas, sandals, and those wigs on the female characters, like ancient Roman busts come to life.

Since even at that age I was already a Roman history buff (I think I was pretty young when I first read Livy’s History and Suetonius’ The 12 Caesars), I had a passing familiarity with the history. (I didn’t read Robert Graves’ Claudine novels until I was in my teens.) The characters were recognizable, but as put through the blender by that master pulp television writer Jack Pulman—who wrote and directed the amazing Private Schultz a couple of years later, and passed from us way too soon in 1979—this was history shorn of any drudgery. This was history as Dallas, with the fate of an empire depending on who fucked who.

Then, of course, you had the character of Claudius, and portrayed by Sir Derek Jacobi. Stuttering, lame, always-overlooked Uncle Clau-clau. As a young boy with a stutter Claudius spoke to me. And it was interesting in the series in that as it progressed, his stammer became tellingly less pronounced. When he was a powerless dunce, he could barely speak; by the time he took that poisoned mushroom, the stutter had vanished. Power cured all his maladies save for one: death.

I, Claudius was one of the signposts on the road to who I became. There was nothing like it being made by US networks. It gave me the notion that Britain was an exotic place where adult shows with adult themes were made. And, of course, there were tits.

One thought on “Confessions of an Anglophile: Of Roman emperors and naked boobs

  1. Laughed my ass off, if you’ll pardon the expression.

    My favorite line: “I, Claudius was one of the signposts on the road to who I became.”

    Still laughin’ – it was so very enjoyable. (Well done!)

    Like

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