BBC's Atlantis: "family friendly" drama gone wrong

The trouble with Atlantis isn’t that the drama is so lame; it's that its jokes are.

Atlantis
BBC1

Splosh! And with that sound, a small submarine containing a dishy but slightly fey young man – think Benedict Cumberbatch in a luxuriantly curly wig – enters the murky water. Jason, for that is his name, is in search of his father, whose own submarine has long lain at the bottom of the seabed somewhere nearby. As this series is called Atlantis (Saturdays, 8.25pm), however, we know exactly what will happen next.

Boom! Jason’s vessel is soon in a calamitous accident. He blacks out and when he wakes up he is lying on a warm beach, stark naked. A pile of (admittedly somewhat oldfashioned) clothes has been left on the sand, so he pulls them on and, to the sound of various Enya-like warblings (the sort of stuff that gets played on a British Airways plane as you taxi to the stand), he walks across the dunes until he sees . . . But, lo! What is this glorious sight up ahead? Is it Mykonos? Carcassonne? Euro Disney?

Welcome, then, to the BBC’s new Saturday night drama, which is basically Merlin with added sunshine and sand. It stars Jack Donnelly as Jason of golden fleece fame, Mark Addy as Hercules the demi-god and Robert Emms as Pythagoras, “the triangle guy”.

Indeed. Well spotted. This is something of a mash-up, historically speaking, its writer, Howard Overman (Hotel Babylon, New Tricks, Dirk Gently), apparently having leafed through a children’s treasury of myth and fable, picked out a few favourites, and then thrown in a real-life maths geek for good measure. Medusa, too, will shortly appear, in the form of the pouting Jemima Rooper, while the ruler of this version of Atlantis is King Minos of Crete (Alexander Siddig).

But why worry? Atlantis isn’t, you understand, intended to be high art. It’s not even intended to be competition for Game of Thrones. This is – dread phrase – a family friendly drama, with a CGI dragon for the children and Sarah Parish channelling Joan Collins as Alexis Colby for the adults. Parish, her earrings jangling, her kaftan wafting and her upper lip trembling like a whippet in a breeze, plays Queen Pasiphaë.

If only they’d made it a little sillier! I kept thinking, longingly, of Patrick Duffy in the 1970s show Man from Atlantis, in which his character, the sole survivor of the “lost” city, had webbed hands and feet and did top-secret research for the US government. More weirdly still, I also recalled Manimal, the 1980s series in which Simon MacCorkindale played a guy who could turn himself into any animal, a skill that proved highly useful when it came to helping the police solve difficult crimes.

The trouble with Atlantis isn’t that the drama is so lame (in the first episode, to no one’s very great surprise, Jason killed the Minotaur and thus saved the people from having to make any more human sacrifices to it); it’s that its jokes are. Pythagoras, for instance, is a drip who wants only to talk about the hypotenuse and Hercules is a podgy coward who longs to run away to Patmos, where there are lots of lovely women to be found.

Naturally, when Hercules mentioned Patmos, I was waiting for Jason to say: “I’ll come with you! I can get the ferry to Rhodes from there and thence an easyJet flight to Luton.” But no dice. It isn’t that kind of show at all. Xylophones play in comedy moments but that’s almost the only way to tell that one is supposed to be rolling in the aisles. After just 24 hours, Jason has decided that he really likes Atlantis – especially King Minos’s foxy daughter, Ariadne (Aiysha Hart) – and that he misses his TV, computer and toothbrush not one bit. Perhaps it’s because the necklace his sainted father left him – a Bonnie Tyler-style leather thong that might have come straight from Camden Market – finally looks vaguely fashionable among all the togas and sandals.

The only person who seems not to be taking Atlantis entirely seriously is Juliet Stevenson, who plays the Oracle and looks to me as though she might corpse at any moment. And no wonder. It’s a long way from Rada and the RSC to speaking gobbledegook in a former Tesco cold store in Chepstow (which is where, or so I read, much of Atlantis was filmed). “Ooh jah minj ja voo leee boo boo,” she burbles as she wanders the temple, wide of eye and wild of hair.

The Oracle is, I’m afraid, more like the batty old woman you avoid sitting next to on the number 38 bus than the fount of all wisdom, although she does a nice line in scented candles. In spite of this, Jason appears to buy every word. Like lots of people who shop at Camden Market, he is a sucker for incense and fortune-telling. If she offers to pierce his eyebrow, he’ll be her slave for life.

BBC1's Atlantis.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism