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29 October 2014
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Rome - coming soon on BBC TWO

Ciaran Hinds, Kevin McKidd and Lindsay Duncan head the cast of HBO/BBC epic series Rome - this autumn on BBC TWO


Ciaran Hinds, Kevin McKidd and Lindsay Duncan head a cast of top British acting talent in Rome, the HBO/BBC blockbuster epic drama series that chronicles the rise of the ancient Roman Empire through the eyes of two foot-soldiers.


Ciaran Hinds (Road To Perdition, Miami Vice) stars as Gaius Julius Caesar, the battle-weary commander of Rome's conquering army in Gaul; Kevin KcKidd (The Virgin Queen, Kingdom of Heaven) is Lucius Vorenus, one of the two foot-soldiers around whom the drama unfolds.


Ray Stevenson (King Arthur) is the headstrong legionary Titus Pullo, Vorenus's battlefield cohort; James Purefoy (Vanity Fair) is Mark Antony, one of Caesar's powerful political allies; Lindsay Duncan (Shooting The Past, Under The Tuscan Sun) is Servilia, the lover of Caesar and mother of Brutus, Caesar's nemesis; Polly Walker (State of Play, Patriot Games) is Atia, the powerful, manipulative and sexy niece of Caesar.


Kerry Condon (Angela's Ashes) is Octavia, the daughter of Atia, who is forced to choose duty over love; Max Pirkis (Master And Commander) is Gaius Octavian, who becomes the first Emperor of Rome; and Indira Varma (The Canterbury Tales) is Niobe, Vorenus's stunningly beautiful wife.


Rome is a co-production between HBO and the BBC. The 11-part series was shot in Rome, with British director Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough) directing the first two episodes.


Rome began shooting with an international crew of 350, at the legendary movie studios of Cinecitta in Rome, in March 2004 - and the last reel was in the can by May 2005.


It was a mammoth undertaking that was filmed on a five-acre 'backlot', with six further soundstages, designed by British designer Joseph Bennett and constructed by Italian craftsmen.


The writer is British screenwriter Bruno Heller, who is also co-creator and an executive producer on the drama.


The project is a cross-genre collaboration for the BBC, with Jonathan Stamp, formerly a BBC executive producer for history and archaeology, as a consultant on the series.


Rome, the saga of two ordinary Roman soldiers and their families, looks at the birth of the Roman Empire through the eyes of ordinary citizens, as well as famous historical figures such as Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Rome's first Emperor, Octavian.


It is an intimate drama of love and betrayal, masters and slaves, husbands and wives; it portrays a fascinating and influential period of history - the birth of a modern society as we know it today - and brings the audience vividly into everyday Roman life.


Rome is the largest co-production deal ever made by the BBC for an American series, and the partnership with HBO marks the first series co-production of the two internationally-renowned television production houses.


The BBC had previously been associated with HBO on the Emmy award-winning series Band of Brothers, and the Emmy award-winning film The Gathering Storm.


Jane Tranter, BBC Controller of Drama Commissioning, says: "We've been developing this project with HBO for some time and we're delighted that Rome has now come to fruition as our first co-production.


"Rome is a powerful story and, alongside The Lost Prince, State of Play, Canterbury Tales, Charles II, Hustle, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot and To The Ends of the Earth, it is another example of our ambition to create the boldest, most original and engaging events on television.


"When I first met HBO executive producer Anne Thomopoulos about five years ago, we both talked about our love of the BBC series I, Claudius and she said that HBO was looking to develop something in similar territory.


"By coincidence, we were also about to develop something Roman, and when I was in Los Angeles a year later she gave me a script of Rome.


"It was clear in the first episode that writer Bruno Heller's take on the world of ancient Rome was really interesting. It was very similar to our home-grown BBC pieces on historical drama.


"For example, Adrian Hodges on Charles II put the man at the heart of it, the man who was weak, who tried to be a good husband, tried to be a good lover, tried to be a good friend and a good king. It brought the monarchy very near and real, rather than put it on a pedestal.


"It's also very similar to what Paula Milne has written for our production of The Virgin Queen about Elizabeth I, in which she's almost painted her as Margaret Thatcher.


"Bruno had clearly made the Roman aristocracy - Julius Caesar, Pompey, Atia - feel like they were part of a 'grand guignol' drama. We would be entertained by these characters and we could recognise them.


"In the two legionnaires, Pullo and Vorenus, Bruno created fictitious characters out of the names he found in his historical research.


"It rooted the whole thing, in a not dissimilar way to Robert Graves' device of using Claudius as the human narrator of the appalling antics that were going on at that particular period of Roman history.


"Bruno has interweaved the human stories of Pullo and Vorenus into the lives of the Roman upper classes, so we get to see ancient Roman society as a whole."


The BBC is internationally renowned for its drama, particularly for its award-winning period productions.


Says Tranter: "It felt like something that could have been developed by us and HBO felt like natural partners for the BBC.


"We knew they wanted to use British actors some British directors and Bruno is British. It felt like a good thing for us to do - huge, epic and ambitious and not the sort of thing we'd ever be able to do on this scale on our own."


Rome Pullo and Vorenus, the two central foot-soldiers in Rome

The impressive scale of making Rome - in terms of budget, set design, costumes, cast, crew, and the actual filming - has made it much closer to a feature film production than a television series.


Continues Tranter: "We did commit a substantial budget but what you get on screen represents incredibly good value for money for the licence fee payer.


"I think the production values in Rome are extraordinary: they are as high as you would get in a feature film."


Given the international success of HBO, including its Emmy award-winning series The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Sex And The City, having a co-production partner for Rome would not appear to be an essential factor in getting the series made.


"HBO knew that we'd got a worldwide reputation for our period historical drama," says Tranter.


"It's the first deep period drama for HBO and I think they saw us as a natural partnership on Rome. The BBC brand does mean something in the US and also the HBO brand means something over here.


"We were able to bring to the project the BBC hallmarks of factual historical authenticity, integrity, class and quality.


"One of the first things that we did, for example, was ask Jonathan Stamp from the BBC Specialist Factual department to work with us to ensure that everything in our ancient Rome would be authentic - whether it was the design of the urns that people were pouring the wine from, to whether it was how Caesar would have marched on Rome.


"We need it for our audience, particularly for a BBC TWO audience; for it to have an authentic, realistic feel."


Five years from development to seeing Rome on screen has been a mammoth task for all concerned.


"I think it's a really powerful piece of work," Tranter concludes. "The performances are absolutely stunning, the production values are excellent, the characters are really big television characters.


"It's a fascinating piece of history and offers a lot to an audience. For those who know the era, they will be really interested to see it dramatised; and for those who don't know it will be very entertaining and informative.


"It's a vivid, highly-coloured, highly-charged drama series. I think it will be a real television event. For me, it's Ben Hur meets The Sopranos with a touch of Mean Streets thrown in."


Capturing the drama, excitement and reality of ancient Rome was the responsibility of co-creator, writer and executive producer Bruno Heller.


"You rarely see on-screen the complexity and colour that was ancient Rome," he says. "It has more in common with places like today's Mexico City and Calcutta than quiet white marble.


"Rome was brightly-coloured, a place of vibrant cruelty, full of energy, dynamism and chaotic filth. It was a merciless existence, dog-eat-dog, with a very small elite, and masses of poverty.


"We see the same problems today - crime, unemployment, disease and pressure to preserve your place in a precarious society. There's the potential for social mobility, if you're smart.


"Human nature never changes," continues Heller, "and the great thing about the Romans, from a dramatic perspective, is that they're a people with the fetters taken completely off.


"They had no prosaic God telling them right from wrong and how to behave. It was a strictly personal morality, and whether or not an action is wrong would depend on whether people more powerful than you would approve.


"You were allowed to murder your neighbour or covet his wife if it didn't piss off the wrong person. Mercy was a weakness, cruelty a virtue, and all that mattered was personal honour, loyalty to yourself and your family.


"One of the overarching themes is that Vorenus is a loyal member of Caesar's 13th Legion, but he cherishes the old ways of the Republic.


"So he's forced to make a choice between personal loyalty to a powerful leader, who for all intents and purposes is destroying the Republic, or to follow his own deeply-held political ideals.


"The other archetypal story is that these men have been away from home for eight long years. Vorenus is married with children who've grown up without him. His wife has been looking after herself.


"How do you reconnect with them? How do you go from war's brutalities to a civilised existence? When you're used to being in charge, how do you deal with ordinary human interactions when you can't kill someone who contradicts you?"


Working with the production team is historical consultant Jonathan Stamp, who was formerly an executive producer in the BBC's history and archaeology departments.


When the BBC came on as a co-production partner, Stamp began reviewing the scripts for historical authenticity on an occasional basis, which eventually became a full-time assignment.


Says Stamp: "We did everything we could to make these episodes historically authentic, which meant researching and incorporating every kind of detail we could about the way our characters behaved, the way they interacted, how they dressed and gestured, the kind of streets they walked down, the way they conducted their private and public lives.


"We were not, however, making a documentary. We were striving for authenticity because it enriches the experience of the drama for the viewer.


"For example, we know that Vorenus and Pullo are historical figures who were mentioned by name in Caesar's account of the Gallic wars. Bruno then invented the details of their lives."


While life among the aristocracy is fairly well documented, there are few direct sources for details about life among the poor and working class.


"It's all about taking little clues and extrapolating from there. The three sources you have are archaeological, such as the ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum; throwaway references in literature; and tomb inscriptions," says Stamp.


"Tomb inscriptions are incredibly important because everyone had them, regardless of class. People saved money their entire lives so they could have a funeral. And although the inscriptions are brief, they're priceless, honest indications of the way things were.


"There's one for a 16-year-old boy that reads, 'Once a slave, now a son'. That speaks volumes about the nature of slavery, that it wasn't always shackles and cages, although that existed as well.


"So slavery was a diverse phenomenon - some were chattels, disposable, and some were absorbed into the emotional fabric of the family and eventually freed.


"Rome of this time was a noisy and bustling metropolis," Stamp continues.


"There's a description in literature where the author's complaining of not being able to sleep when in Rome, because in the daytime he describes the noise from the nearby gyms and the street vendors, and then, instead of quieting at night, it gets worse because all the traffic starts. Large carts were banned during the day, and all started up at night."


Living and working in Rome has been of benefit to the actors as well.


"It's been one of the greatest challenges, but also a great reward to live here," says Ray Stevenson.


"A challenge because you're relocating your life for such an extended time, but I can't think of better preparation for the role than spending time in true Roman bars and coffee shops, away from the tourists, observing and absorbing contemporary Roman life.


"Pullo is a contemporary character in his world, and it hasn't changed all that much as far as the way people interact, talk to each other and gesture."


"It's been fantastic living here," agrees Kevin McKidd. "It's a way of life that just rubs off on you and makes the performance that much more authentic.


"And it's been such a rewarding experience to work with this cast. Just by being here you become a better actor because everyone's raising the bar for everyone else."


Executive producer Frank Doelger adds: "One of the most remarkable moments I've had on set was watching a scene, and forgetting that I was in ancient Rome.


"The character story was so immediate and wonderfully realised, it wasn't about the set dressing, props and costumes.


"And I saw then that we'd done exactly what we wanted to do, which is to take Rome out of the museum and make it as real and immediate and vital as if we were shooting a contemporary drama."


Rome is a co-production between HBO and the BBC.


Co-creators are John Milius, William J. Macdonald and Bruno Heller.


Executive producers are Bruno Heller, William J. Macdonald, John Milius, Anne Thomopoulos and Frank Doelger.


Co-executive producers are Jim Dyer and Eugene Kelly. Rome is produced by Marco Valerio Pugini. Eleanor Moran is the producer for the BBC, and Michael Apted is consulting producer.


"Rome is an ingenious amalgam of hard-core history and yummy soap-opera, with lots of violence and sex. Think of it as I,Claudius on steroids and Viagra." Newsweek magazine


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