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TV antiquity

Swords, sandals, blood and sand

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Sylvie Magerstädt

TV antiquity explores representations of ancient Greece and Rome throughout television history. It is the first comprehensive overview of the genre in television. More specifically, the author argues that serial television set in antiquity offers a perspective on the ancient world quite distinct from their cinematic counterparts. The book traces the historic development of fictional representations of antiquity from the staged black-and-white shows of the 1950s and 1960s to the most recent digital spectacles. A key argument explored throughout the book is that the structure of serial television (with its focus on intimacy and narrative complexity) is at times better suited to explore the complex mythic and historic plots of antiquity. Therefore, the book consciously focuses on multipart television dramas rather than made-for-TV feature films. This enables the author to explore the specific narrative and aesthetic possibilities of this format. The book features a range of insightful case studies, from the high-profile serials I, Claudius (1976) and Rome (2005–8) to lesser-known works like The Caesars (1968) or The Eagle of the Ninth (1976) and popular entertainment shows such as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995–99) and STARZ Spartacus (2010–13). Each of the case studies also teases out broader issues of the specific decade under consideration. Consequently, the book highlights the creative interplay between television genres and production environments and illustrates how cultural and political events have influenced the representations of antiquity in television.

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Sylvie Magerstädt

This part explores the revival of serial television dramas set in the ancient world in the new millennium. Described by some scholars as the fourth wave of peplum, the revival of the genre in cinema, following the success of Gladiator (2000), was replicated by notable television productions that followed in its wake. At the same time, the emancipation of TV antiquity from its cinematic counterpart continued during this time. Apart from the unique way of telling stories in a serial format, technology now made it possible to claim even more of the spectacular elements of screen antiquity for television. Programmes such as Rome (2005–8) combined the recent tendency towards gritty realism in television with the visual splendour and spectacle of cinema. In addition, the use of choreographed ‘ultra-violence’ became more prominent, which was particularly evident in shows like STARZ Spartacus and indicated a new route for TV antiquity.

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Sylvie Magerstädt

This part investigates the dramatic expansion of the television market in the 1980s–1990s, which also led to a notable shift in TV antiquity. Technological advances such as the introduction of satellite and cable television, plus the increasing dominance of colour meant that TV antiquity now tried to compete with cinema with regard to spectacle and scale. While the production of British antiquity dramas declined, a number of US miniseries conquered the screens. With Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995–99) popular entertainment programmes emerged that drew inspiration from sword-and-sorcery films made a decade earlier, but also high-profile productions such as ABC’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1984). As this part demonstrates, changes in technology went hand in hand with changes in the production environment, such as network syndication and new global markets, which affected the content of the shows produced during this time.

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Sylvie Magerstädt

This part explores the developments of television throughout the 1970s and the increasing popularity of the miniseries format. As big cinematic epics went into decline, representation of the ancient world appeared in other forms and increasingly on television screens, for example in comedies such as Up Pompeii!. More significantly, ground-breaking new shows like I, Claudius, one of the case studies in this part, developed key aesthetic aspects of TV antiquity and pushed the boundaries of what was permissible with regard to screening sex and violence. This and other shows also led to increasing concerns over censorship and media regulation during this decade. Like I, Claudius, the lesser-known The Eagle of the Ninth (1977), the subject of this part’s second case study, strongly reflected contemporaneous concerns over empires, home and abroad, and ethical issue relating to conquest and occupation.

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Sylvie Magerstädt

This part explores how early television dealt with representations of antiquity and the significant differences in the structural framework between the commercial broadcasting system in the US and the dominance of public broadcasting in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. It also argues that, while specific shows dealing with antiquity were rare, many other shows, especially science fiction, contained episodes set in the ancient world. The two case studies that feature in this part, ITV’s The Caesars and RAI’s Odissea/The Odyssey (both 1968), offer examples of two very different approaches to TV antiquity as well as diversity of aesthetic styles. In addition to the case studies, the introduction to this part also discusses the BBC’s remarkable six-part series The Spread of the Eagle (1963), and a number of other shows featuring ancient world episodes.

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Sylvie Magerstädt

This introductory part sets out the subject by discussing issues relating to representations of antiquity on-screen, such as the difficulties in defining the genre, the alternation of TV antiquity between high and low culture, and the dominance of ancient Roman over Greek narratives. Although TV antiquity is very much indebted to its cinematic predecessors, it has from the outset developed its very own style and language and in the process added a new dimension to representations of antiquity in popular culture. Yet, for a long time, antiquity in television has remained in the shadow of its more spectacular cousin. This part will outline some of the particular characteristics of television, namely complexity, intimacy and seriality, and analyse why these offer distinct advantages when it comes to representing the ancient world on-screen. Finally, this part outlines the interdisciplinary approach of the book and addresses the cultural implications of TV antiquity.

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Series:

Sylvie Magerstädt

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Series:

Sylvie Magerstädt

Abstract only

Series:

Sylvie Magerstädt