Archive TV review: Greek tragedy on the small screen #3, BFI Southbank

The third instalment in the ‘Classics on TV: Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen” season at the BFI Southbank teamed a serious piece with a parody, to very good effect. First, the opening instalment of ‘The Serpent Son’, called ‘Agamemnon'(starring Diana Rigg at Klymenestra, Denis Quilley as Agamemnon, Helen Mirren as Kassandra, Nickolas Grace as a messenger, and a chorus including Alfred Burke, John Welsh and Geoffrey Toone; directed by Bill Hays); then a comic piece called ‘Of Mycenae and Men’ (starring Diana Dors as Helen of Troy, Freddie Jones as Menelaus, Annette Crosbie as Kassandra, and Bob Hoskins as the delightfully named Mr Taramasalataopoulos; directed by Hugh David).

In 1979 ‘The Serpent Son’ presented the whole of the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus across three weeks, which were then followed by the parody. Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish translated the Oresteia and wrote ‘Of Mycenae and Men’. The opening part of ‘The Serpent Son’ includes some outlandish costumes (Kassandra isn’t very covered up, the armour worn by Agamemnon is ridiculous, and the chorus have oddly painted faces) and sets, but the basic story survives – Klymenestra swears revenge on her husband on his return from war because he sacrificed their daughter Iphegenia to the Gods. Diana Rigg shows an affinity with this material and is very good, but the acting honours here go to Nickolas Grace, who proves he doesn’t always have to roll his eyes and overact.

To move from such serious fare to comedy may seem odd, but for those who know the story of the fall of Troy, ‘Of Mycenae and Men’ is a lost delight. Hoskins’ slave puts us in the picture about his loud-voiced master Menelaus retrieving his busty wife Helen from the Trojans and bringing her back for a second honeymoon, but it is clear when they arrive that the ‘face which launched a thousand ships’ is simply bored with her husband and given to sly asides to the camera, while he stares with frustration into her bosoms. A dull messenger (Derek Godfrey) and an endearingly batty Kassandra (Crosbie) help push this sitcom of Ancient Greece (which has a telephone ‘to save time’ and a Swedish au pair) along with many wonderful in-jokes and saucy double endentres.