"Cicero" interview with Scott Handcock, David Llewellyn & George Naylor

"Cicero's story is just as relevant now as 2000 years ago."

Foto: Copyright: Big Finish
© Big Finish

May 3, 2018 by Nicole Oebel @philomina_

Rome, 80BC. An age of bloody civil war and dictatorship is at an end.

In its turbulent aftermath, an ambitious young lawyer, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is beginning to make a name for himself. But does he have what it takes, and can this new era of peace and prosperity truly last?

Listening to the "Cicero" pilot episode, that was released in February 2017, I was marvelling at the language use - pointed, poignant, poetic! The performance by Samuel Barnett and George Naylor as the brothers Cicero is gripping, the banter so refreshing, the bromance so real. An hour of mystery that went by too quickly. Luckily Big Finish decided to make "Cicero" into a series and I got to ask director Scott Handcock, writer David Llewellyn and actor George Naylor a few questions on their thoughts and process.

Order "Cicero" at Big Finish.

Scott, imagining Dorian Gray as a real person and creating a series about his heart and soul's struggles was an intriguing choice. In your new project you focus on a historical figure from ancient Rome. Why Cicero? And in dramatising his work as a lawyer will we also get to glimpse at the human Cicero and his inner struggles?

Scott: I don't think it's a secret that I'm a Classicist. I studied Latin, Greek and Classical Civilisation through to university, so it's a subject I have a great enthusiasm for. It was probably inevitable that I'd end up tackling something Classical in my professional life. In fact, I've campaigned to tackle a lot of the tragedies on audio - with a cast of three, as would have been the fashion - but I think people get the impression the texts themselves are quite dusty and worthy, which isn't the case at all. In some ways, I faced a similar struggle with Cicero…

Why Cicero, out of all the figures we could have tackled? Well, partly because it's one of the less obvious choices (people always plump for the Emperors); but mainly because Cicero was a figure I studied way back in my youth, and his story genuinely stuck with me and stood out from a pool of more recognisable names. It wasn't a massive leap, then, to revisit him when I was looking for a project to pitch during my Radio 4 days, and after chatting with David Llewellyn, we worked up a spec script. That was back in 2013. I left the BBC to go freelance later that year, but always kept Cicero on the back-burner…

As I said earlier, I think there's still a preconception that historical drama will require a degree to understand it, so it took a while before I came to pitch the idea to Big Finish. By that point I'd proved myself as a producer/director with the Dorian series, so it was easier to argue the case for a drama based on Cicero. And the brilliant thing about the character is, in his own way, he has a modern outlook, even in an ancient world. There are so many parallels in attitude and outlook, it's not as alien to a modern audience as you might first think, and hopefully we've been able to channel that. True, the first episode is about a very specific case, and therefore quite plot-driven, but having established the world and the characters, we get to explore the human drama of Cicero and his family throughout the rest of the series.

Cicero was right at the centre of Roman power politics and even though the events in "Though Scoundrels Are Discovered" took place over 2000 years ago the story feels very relevant. How did you achieve this modern feel?

Scott: That's all down to our writer, David Llewellyn, who got the tone I was after almost instantly. David's one of the most well-read people I know, and the background is terribly well-researched as a result, but those details are very much the platform for the drama. You don't need a degree or glossary of terms to understand what's happening, and I think that's the key. It would be very easy to make the focus on how Roman society differs from ours, but by shifting that focus onto the characters, you get to explore their world through their reactions and emotions, which is far easier for an audience to engage with. Like any good drama, it taps into our own attitudes to life and provokes a reaction. Yes, the world has changed, but our responses haven't, and that's why Cicero's story is just as relevant now as 2000 years ago.

In our earlier talks about Dorian and Hamlet you mentioned your own learning curve both professionally and personally, from arguing the case for a lot of the creative decisions to getting out of your comfort zone to tackle Shakespeare. What are the challenges with Cicero and it now being continued as a series?

Scott: I think the biggest challenge with Cicero is accessibility: avoiding the traps and preconceptions that might deter people from historical drama. Thankfully, because it's out of living memory, we have licence to make it feel quite modern in terms of the language. It's also strange tackling a drama where the ending's already out there. Obviously anybody can research Cicero and find out every aspect of his life and career, so the challenge of the series lies in telling stories that allow us to maintain an element of suspense - and again, that lies in using the events as a backdrop and focussing on the human relationships, and the series has a lovely spread of subjects to tackle…

Foto: Samuel Barnett, George Naylor, Cicero - Copyright: Big Finish
Samuel Barnett, George Naylor, Cicero
© Big Finish

David, Cicero "Though Scoundrels Are Discovered" is beautifully accessible - modern language, yet with an admiration for classical linguistics shining through. Adapting the records, what was your approach to finding the right mix?

David: I think it was a case of realising that there's a vast difference between how politicians, lawyers etc speak in public, and how they are in private. That's true today, and it would certainly have been true then, so we had to treat Cicero, Quintus & Co. as human beings, first and foremost. Human culture and values change, but human behaviour and emotion is reasonably constant, so we had to be true to that, while also showing some felicity to the source material.

Cicero's speeches, some of his books and letters have survived which offer insight into his work as well as his personal correspondance. In the Cicero series now, what's the biggest challenge in writing the journey of the human being Cicero in this new audio drama?

David: I guess it's knowing how to strike a balance between being reasonably faithful to what we know happened in real life, and what makes for an interesting and exciting drama. We were lucky, in exploring this chapter of Cicero's life, that it was all reasonably dramatic to begin with. He defends a man accused of murder, he gets married, he's reunited with one old friend, goes on an extended trip to Greece. We had to blend in a few things that were more gossip than historical record, and other aspects have been ramped up, but that's the nature of historical drama. It's not a documentary or a text book!

What's the part in which you have the most creative leeway, the banter between the brothers or maybe the whodunit?

David: Probably the banter, though you get a sense of how their relationship was from the letters Cicero writes to his brother. He was definitely the more buttoned up of the two of them, though Quintus was also highly intelligent and ambitious. We've probably exaggerated the contrast a little, but it's definitely there in what they both wrote. We're lucky in that even at its fullest, the primary sources still leave plenty of gaps that allow different writers and actors to interpret these characters in their own way.

Foto: Richard Earl, Sarah Douglas, Samuel Barnett, George Naylor, Cicero - Copyright: Big Finish
Richard Earl, Sarah Douglas, Samuel Barnett, George Naylor, Cicero
© Big Finish

George, as the fun and funloving sidekick Quintus you get to play one of those interesting characters you fall in love with first while everything is still out in the open in terms of character development. Will there be room in the series for his emotional journey?

George: There will be. David has taken advantage of having multiple episodes to expand and explore his characters, and instead of just focusing on each episode as a stand alone case for the brothers to solve, he has chosen to focus on their relationships to each other and others around them. Which means when it came to Quintus in particular there was so much detail and complexity to him to unravel. As you say, I fell in love with him in the first episode, but I like to think I began to understand and care for him in the stories that are to come.

The relationship between the brothers feels very natural, playful, and it's essential when for example Quintus drills Cicero on his oratorical skills. How did you and Samuel find the right tone for this bromance?

George: For me, it was an incredibly natural chemistry and so quite easy when it came to finding that tone and playing that relationship. With the first episode, I was unbelievably nervous, but both Sam and Scott put me at ease straight away, and so the atmosphere was quite relaxed and was filled with a fair bit of fun and mischief. (Maybe too much at times.) It also helps when you're working opposite someone as experienced and as generous as Sam, he would pick up on things I would miss all the time, so he was very much the lead in finding the right balance for the brothers.

What's the biggest challenge for you in acting for radio, especially now that Cicero is going to be series?

George: Trying not to get fat from the sheer amount of biscuits floating around.

Thank you so much, Scott, David and George, for the lovely chat!

"Cicero" series 1 out NOW. Order at Big Finish.

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