The Cleopatras (A secret pleasure on UK TV)

Generational Cleopatras across the timeline.


I have a secret pleasure.  It was produced in England after the success of the TV show ‘I Claudius’, riding on the success of the Robert Graves Novel.  The Cleopatras was a dramatic presentation on the rule of the Ptolmeys.  It was written like a soap opera based in antiquity.  I supposing the producers thought it was a ‘sure thing’ but the result was really, really bad.


If you can’t find the DVD, check it out YouTube.  I mean it.  Have you ever seen something that is so bad, it turns out to be loads of fun?    This show has lots and lots of ‘chewing the scenery.’  Actors are emoting.  Oh, how they  emote.  The entire show is obviously filmed on a sound stage,  but by the looks of it every scene resembles a small theater at your local high school.  If someone runs, or makes a jarring move, you can hear the wood creak under their feet, which is jarring in that everything around them is suppose to be marble.     

Also, if you like seeing lots of half-naked women, this is the show for you. I’m not kidding.  Extras walk in and out of scenes with attire equal to any burlesque show. I can’t help thinking the actors had some fantastic cast parties. It was the early 80s.  Nuff said.  

The cinematography is dated.  There are cuts, wipes and dissolves that modern video teachers warn their students against, and probably were used because at the time the director thought these techniques were new and really, really, COOL for the time.  Think 70s video production 101 (even though this was filmed in the early 80s).

Most of the Ptolemy’s seem to be stupid.  All except one Pharoah named Potbelly, who sports the requirements for the name and has the political acumen that would make Machiavelli proud.  Unfortunately he drinks a little too much and though he gets his cumuppance  in the end, he is one of the most entertaining characters in the series.   The part was played by a young Richard Griffiths, well know for his depiction of Uncle Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films.  Griffiths performance makes the show worth watching.  He is young, fat, and EVIL.  There are other actors who may be familiar, such as Geoffrey Palmer…a sour faced fellow who starred with Judi Dench in ‘Till We Meet Again’ and one or two James Bond films as a ‘sour-faced’ admiral.    One of the Cleopatras is Ms. Lemon of the Inspector Poroit series on public television.   Go Ms. Lemon, va va voom.  

The story begins with young Cleopatra VII getting a history lesson from her tutor.  We cut back and forth between lectures in the present to her ancestors in the past.  “Am I beautiful?” She asks her tutor to see if he is a flatterer.  His answer is strange to say the least, “Of all the women that I have ever seen…”   Yea, yea, yea…he’s a flatterer.  What’s more if he did not answer in the affirmative he would have his head chopped off.  It was hard to keep a job in those days.  

The actress is beautiful.  Her name is Michelle Newell.  The jury is still out whether the real Cleopatra was beautiful though.  However, Newell must have been chosen for her kittenish demeanor.  

I sometimes wonder if the writer had more respect for the pharaohs, that maybe, just maybe, the story could have had been more interesting.  The show has a tendency to be presented like a high school production.

The history of the Ptolomys deserve better.  Think about it.  Ptolemy was an Alexandrian general, taking charge of a country that had a history going back thousands of years.  Imagine that story of the first Ptolmey, who tried to control a country and have it accept his rule  His family did a metamorphosis – they walked in two worlds (Macedonian and Egyptian).  Think what that must have been like, and what it would have entailed.   Soter stepped into the Pharonic line and took charge of a people that did not want him.  The “Greek speakers” and the “belt wearers” were a distinct people from the Egyptians.  The Ptolemys played a propaganda game for generations, and at the same time lived in a system of apartheid.   As for ruling, besides that horrible ‘family relations’ brother against brother, sister against Father, etc, etc, in the stuggle for the throne, and raising an Army here and there against their relatives, they did a pretty good job of ruling a country.  Of course they had to suffer Roman domination toward the end of the rule.  How do you think Cleopatra VII must have felt to know that she was the end of her line?  How do think Czar Nicholas the II must have felt?

The show is amazingly cheap.  The armor worn by Ceasar and Antony looks like something found in a high school costume department.  

So why watch it? 

It’s a hoot. 

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