AFTER the recurring rhetoric of late – that of Boris Johnson ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ – I decided to watch the 1951 Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr film that chronicles the story of Rome burning at the hand of the destructive Emperor Nero.
As Quo Vadis commenced on my television with its stirring overture, I settled in with a suitably opulent box of Quality Street, matching perfectly the fabulous Technicolor timbre of the movie.
As soon as Peter Ustinov’s Nero came into shot, lying on his couch surrounded by tunic-clad sycophants, I could not help but superimpose Johnson’s head on the frame. It was too delicious not to see Matt Hancock and Michael Gove soothingly playing stringed instruments behind their emperor, sandals climbing up their legs, whilst Boris recited reams of verse, dedicated to himself and his love of . . . himself. Of course, there was Rishi Sunak, the Tribune loyally drawing himself to attention, sword at his side, resplendent in burnished helmet. Sage scientists nibbled grapes as they reclined on luxurious cushions, watching the scene and whispering in Nero’s ear, before sauntering off to the bathing pool and massage parlour.
What struck me most, whilst I lay on my own scatter cushion settee, was how much Nero’s imperious and evil mistress Poppaea (who directs the hapless Nero to set the fires in the first place) was the perfect caricature of Nicola Sturgeon. Rome may be burning, but we must remember that Rome was ignited only to stamp out rebelliousness and to find a way to blame others for all the wrongs and mistakes.
As the film moves on, Christians meet ever more grisly ends, morale wavers with the dissenters, and there is a glint of triumphant madness in the eyes of the main protagonists. But the hero, Marcus Vinicius, eventually stands firm in the Colosseum, having saved his love from a hideous death, and draws the attention of the baying mob to the injustice of it all. The hitherto Nero-supporting populace take a moment, reassess and rebel. Nero’s reign ends with his ignoble death and his belated realisation that he was led to such folly by others who have now fled. We finish the film awaiting the arrival of a better future, and a new general and his loyal army to lead the people.
The Conservative Woman asked this past week if there is any brave person who can be that general to lead the people back from the brink. We have many wonderful Marcus Vinicius characters, pointing the way to a more compassionate and understanding future, but there is no general poised to enter the gates of Rome. The mob cannot be turned without this reassurance that there is a convincing other way, with the numbers to make it happen.
Until then, we watch as Nero and his attendees continue to set fires, to destroy businesses, to torch society, and seek to undermine people’s faith. I worry that many more will be ‘lost’ in this continued battle of arbitrary tiers and rules, as livelihoods and families are consumed by the ravaging of our own Rome. We must hang on and hope for that saviour to come, and for the old normal to return to our old country.