Episode three opens with Theodotus continuing to teach the young Cleopatra about the history of her strange and bloodthirsty family. At this point in his story, Pot Belly is approaching death. I’m going to miss him (and Richard Griffiths too of course). Griffiths has been a constant source of delight during the series so far, thanks to the entertaining dialogue provided by Philip Mackie. His opening words here are a case in point. “I wonder if I ought to be dying more publically? In a more public place, under an awning with a vast multitude hanging on my every word. Filled with admiration at the sight of how nobly a truly good man could die.”
Griffiths, like the rest of the cast, didn’t make any effort to do “noble” acting. Instead, everyone plays in a modern conversational style, which is quite unlike, say, the more stilted delivery of Biblical classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood. This may be another reason, along with the camera effects and impressionistic sets, why the series received such a muted reception. The Cleopatras doesn’t feel like the traditional historical drama that many were no doubt expecting and it’s mixture of ripe acting and dark humour seemed to have caught many by surprise. Make no doubt, it is a funny series. Some may contend that it’s unintentionally so, but I think that both Philip Mackie and director John Frankau knew exactly what they were doing.
The scene where Cleopatra’s eldest daughter (Sue Holderness) and her husband Chickpea (David Horovitch) visit the dying Pot Belly is a good case in point. They bound into the room, hand in hand, to ask how he is. When he tells them that he’s dying, she bursts into hysterics. Her histrionics are so utterly false (and Pot Belly isn’t taken in for a moment) that you can view this moment one of two ways – either Sue Holderness was indulging in some ripe overacting or she was playing to the script (which strongly implies that everybody’s constantly playing games with everybody else, but etiquette means that they can’t publicly say so).
It’s highly entertaining to see Marlene and Chief Inspector Slack in such unusual garb and there’s some other familiar faces who find themselves with shaven heads and remarkable – and brief – costumes. Alexander (Ian McNeice) is another of Pot Belly’s sons who, like Chickpea, has his eyes on the throne.
Pot Belly’s dying words (his death scene is another hysterical moment) creates a storm of controversy, which is exactly what he wished. He commands his wife to choose which of their two sons should rule. By right of succession the throne belongs to Chickpea, but Cleopatra chooses Alexander instead. This sparks a storm of protest and Cleopatra is forced to back down. The discontent of the mob and their delight when Chickpea is confirmed as ruler is largely achieved via sound effects. It’s a theatrical – and low budget – solution, but it works.
I love David Horovitch’s impossibly wet Chickpea. Horovitch plays him as a thoroughly decent sort of chap, which means he’s totally out of his depth in Cleopatra’s court, where everybody seems to be plotting against everybody else. Eventually Cleopatra orders his death and sets the mob on him. His reaction when he’s told this by a loyal servant is another comic moment – he changes in a minute from an autocratic ruler to a lost child.
If The Cleopatras lacks the depth of I, Claudius (characters feel more insubstantial) then there’s still plenty of incidental pleasures to be enjoyed along the way. Ian McNeice’s impressive dancing at the end of this episode being a case in point!