Today my blog is going to go off at a little bit of a tangent as I don’t normally mention television programmes let alone shows that are fair to say not main-stream viewing.
However this week sees the return to British TV screen of Spartacus following behind by a week or so from its scheduling in the North America. This is the final year for Spartacus but it is not too late to catch up with this show so that you can always say that “I was there” before its transition to cult classic in endless re-runs in complete. Spartacus is not what you remember from Kirk Douglas, more a cross between Gladiator, The 300 and The Godfather.
Spartacus tells the story of the rebellion of Spartan slaves during one of the Servilc Wars that shook the Roman Empire to its core. Spartacus and some of the key characters in the show are based on real historical figures, however the lack of firm historical evidence means that the writers have some leeway over elements of the story telling and boy do they make the most of it.
One of the reasons I love Spartacus is that it is unashamedly male television. Many shows on British television at least are skewed towards a female audience, partly as ladies are thought to buy the products which televisions stations advertise during their commercial breaks. Also womens shows are often inoffensive if not to the taste of many men whilst the same is not often true the other way round.
Of course there are shows with male tendencies but generally even these will be toned down for female sensibilities with a will they won’t they romance between lead characters. There is none of that in Spartacus. There is blood, there is death, there is action and there is sex too. Depending on which leaves you the most screamish, it is likely that most people will be pushed to the edge by any one of these.
You might wonder why a self-proclaimed cultured well read and generally peaceful blogger like myself likes this show. Partly it is because of the unashamedly macho nature of the show. It gives the viewer exactly what they expect to receive and it doesn’t mess around or leave much if anything to the imagination. Also every other tv show seems so routine, we know very well that most tv shows never have main characters die, let alone die in droves and often totally unexpected. Watching Spartacus you live the plot on the edge.
Surprisingly it often has a great plot, this is partly down to the fact that pretty much everyone can and does get killed and often when you least expect it. In some seasons there is a level of behind the scenes politics and manoeuvrings that would leave the Houses of Parliament or Congress look boring…. oh they are anyway are they?
In the first years much was brought to the show by John Hannah who obviously loved appearing in the show as he quickly came back for the prequel year. His witty one liners and scheming ambitions were truly a joy to watch even if he was a nasty piece of work along with his wife but more about that later. For periods of the show he was likeable and then he would do something awful, reminding us just what a dangerous man he is. Oh I could write a lot about this man but it would likely get the site taken off air. Perhaps he can be best summarised by John Hannah in an interview with The Guardian newspaper ‘I play a devious, lying, cheating, ambitious mother******. It’s great!”
The first year was largely set in the Gladatorial training school that was central to the ambitions of the House of Batiatus. Spartacus and his wife were captured and Spartacus was sold into combat school and whilst Batiatus led Spartacus to believe his wife was safe, he had actually put the knife into her in more ways than one. Spartacus had a big rival in the way of Crixus and much of the first year is spent as the two men form allegiances with other gladiators all the while risking death in combat or at the machinations of the rich Romans who watched them fight. Indeed the will-they won’t they of Spartacus season 1 was whether Spartacus and Crixus would join forces or kill each other, something that was only resolved about 10 minutes before the last episode concluded. Crixus is perhaps the most powerful gladiator and was looked fondly upon by the wife of Batiatus.
The Gladators were over seen by Doctore, like Crixus another actual historical figure. He was noble and like Spartacus didn’t really want to fight.
Also on the scene was Ashur. Ashur was a former Gladiator who was slightly maimed and managed to weasel out of fighting to assist Batiatus in numerous dodgy dealings. Ashur is horribly slimy and sly and all credit to the actor and writers for making him truly despicable, especially annoying as time and again he escapes death. At least for a few seasons but he certainly did a lot of damage to pretty much everyone including his owners before he was out of the way. By the end he was even referring to himself by name instead of saying ‘I’ or ‘me’. He was a delightful piece of dirt.
Along with Batiatus was his wife, Lucretia played by Lucy Lawless. At first she is a relatively normal hedonistic Roman. She wants to further herself through the ambitions of her husband. She is also not above taking a fancy to the odd gladiator and having the odd fling on the side. This normally ends nastily for those who she sleeps with and for those who refuse her.
Lastly but by no means least is Ilythia. Ilythia is perhaps my favourite or second favourite character and one of the most memorable from any show. She is the young and beautiful daughter of an important Roman, she is at times useful associate, best friend and bad penny to Lucretia. Ilythia is a party loving socialite, a rich girl who thinks nothing about stabbing people in the back literally. She is perhaps my favourite bad character because she is so manipulative and cunning and yet she has an innocent fun loving aura. Ilythia is responsible for most of the truly hideous events such as seducing a 16 year old in order to get Spartacus’s best friend executed or how about her ramming an innocent girls skull repeatedly into a marble floor after mistaking her for a lover who had turned her down. You’ll have to go a long way to beat her piece de resistance of in the end of the last episode of season 1 escaping from the gladiatorial training school by the skin of her teeth and locking the door behind her leaving the entire household and many others to be massacred by the escaping and rampaging gladiators. Quite a breathtakingly shocking scene even through the haze of 3 years of memories.
Sadly it’s impossible to talk about Spartacus without remember Andy Whitfield. Andy was a talented and handsome Welsh actor to originally played Spartacus. He was largely responsible for taking what could have been a one dimensional character to make him believable and someone the audience could relate to and urge on to reach his vengeance. Sadly Andy was diagnosed with non Hodgkin Lymphoma and after initially thought to have beaten the disease later suffered a relapse and died on 11th September 2011. A brief though suitable on-screen memorial was shown after his death but cast, crew and audience alike all miss Andy and think how terrible that such a young talented man died just before he was going to truly make it big in acting.
If Season 1 was about the imprisonment, training and escape of Spartacus and the other gladiators then something different had to happen for season 2 when Andy was away undergoing treatment for his illness. We went back a few years for a prologue again set in the gladiatorial training school but with Batiatus learning the ropes and a new champion Gannicus who went on to win his freedom. Of course the killing, gore and plot twists were as good as before as was the great humour that John Hannah brought on screen.
With the sad death of Andy, it was decided to re-cast Spartacus with actor Liam McIntyre now in the role. The Spartan rebels were on the loose, both trying to stay ahead of the Romans and recruiting other disaffected slaves and fugitives. The hunt for Spartacus is led by Gaius Claudius Glaber who originally played a small role in season 1. He sets up home in the ruined and bloodied home of Batiatus along with his wife, the Ilythia. To every ones surprise they find a delirious and miraculously saved Lucretia. Much of season 3 is split between the hunt for Spartacus in the countryside and the events in the homestead. There are signs of splits in the ranks of the Spartans in between some of the most dramatic fights and set pieces yet seen. Meanwhile there are problems in the marriage between Ilythia and Glaber and Glaber proves himself to be every bit as devious and vicious as his wife by murdering his father in law while Ilythia tries to save things by announcing her pregnancy.
Season 3 ends even more dramatically than season 1 with the scheming and ever more glorious Ashur double crossing his betters one time two many. Spartacus leads his men to a glorious victory with Glaber meeting his somewhat deserved and violent death. The real twists though are between Ilythia and Lucretia. On one of the few times we feel sorry for Ilythia she is about to give birth whilst also plotting the murder of Lucretia . However in a shocking and bloody twist Lucretia attacks her with a knife and gives a distinctly evil and amateurish caesarean section, grabbing the unborn baby and making to the cliff edge. A bloodied and mortally wounded Ilythia crawls after her just in time to see Lucretia proclaim her love for her dead husband and plunge off the cliff with Ilythia’s baby. Lucretia had been sent truly mad by the deaths at the end of season 1 and viewers were left with their gobs well and truly smacked at yet another unforeseen and terribly delightful twist. The end of the most delightfully evil but clever female character ever who was yet in many ways quite endearing, a Frenemy (friend/enemy) as actress Viva Bianca calls her.
Season 4 is said to be the final season and for those of us who know history, it isn’t going to be pretty. Possibly one of the reasons the proposed 5th season was quietly forgotten but also as it will be terribly tough to keep up the high standards thus far achieved.
Spartacus is also produced on a limited budget which makes the final huge battles hard to make and relate to on a television show though these budget restrictions have forced the writers to concentrate on the characters which is all for the better.
Spartacus is definitely a one off TV show, one which will be missed by fans of cult tv once it has gone off the air but which has already secured a legendary status. Spartacus is on Sky1 @10pm Monday 11th February in the UK, check your local listings for scheduling in the USA, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.