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Thursday, October 21, 2021

What Succession owes to the depravity of ancient Rome

Also, the dialogue can be just as fruity. When you hear Logan’s younger son – the impish screw-up Roman (Kieran Culkin) greet his father’s butler, one is transported back to an age of actorly proclamation. “Hail, my fellow toiler man, I have returned from real America, bearing the gift of sight.”

This doesn’t seem so far away from I, Claudius’s many verbal gems. (“I’ve seen how frail is the structure of a civilisation before the onslaught of a gust of really bad breath!” etc).

Incidentally, it has also struck me that family, a crucial component in I, Claudius, is a very good starting point for drama. As Tolstoy famously said: “All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” These words have proved most effective in creating some of the world’s greatest ever TV dramas, from The Sopranos to Dallas. Succession continues in a similar vein with no one as wretchedly unhappy as the Roys. The fact that they are thoroughly ghastly is enmeshed in their misery.

But there is another, more basic similarity between Succession and I, Claudius: both refuse to talk down to their audience. Jed Mercurio (creator of Line of Duty) pinpointed this as a problem with British TV drama recently. If you are watching the current Sunday-night drama Ridley Road, a sort of Janet and John guide to the rise of anti-Semitism in early 60s Britain, you will know exactly what he means. However, I also feel he is partly responsible for what I see as a relatively recent decline in our output. Mercurio’s stuff is undeniably clever, but he doesn’t operate at the same level of psychological brilliance as Armstrong (neither does he have his coruscating wit).

The terminally dumb submarine drama Vigil (made by the team behind Line of Duty) proves that we are in the doldrums intellectually, and that is why the return of Succession feels so welcome. It does not make any concessions to us mere mortals, but, at the same time, still works brilliantly as sheer entertainment. I, Claudius achieved the same thing 46 years ago, never more so than when John Hurt (as Caligula) went completely unhinged and appeared in gold lamé, as if auditioning for a Soho strip show. Watching this makes me think that British drama needs more risk takers – and definitely needs more gold lamé.

Series 3 of Succession starts on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV on Monday October 18

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