After Christianity became the dominant religion in the West, the Greek gods could have taken it easy and had a rest. Some suggest they did; others, however, tell a different story.
Modern US television suggests that right now, they’re off running their own companies in Valentine, trying to matchmake mortals in Cupid, or both. Back in the 90s in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, they were either trying to make television shows while trying to rescue innocent mortals or sabotaging their relative’s TV show so they could sit back and watch Millennium and Cop Rock in peace:
But if we go back to the late 70s, back when they were still in Greece (or Cyprus at least), they were busily helping to solve crimes – in their own inimitable way.
When David Collier arrives on Cyprus following the death of his brother, Barry, in what Collier believes was an accident, he meets the beautiful Helene and her mysterious companions, Basileos and Charalambous, who appear to know a great deal more about his brother’s death than anyone is admitting. Slowly Collier is drawn deep into a complex conspiracy until neither he, nor the viewer, know who he can trust, particularly when it becomes apparent that someone is trying to kill him. The police, in the form of Inspector Dimas, don’t believe a word Collier says, since every time he finds something, or someone, that could substantiate his story they inexplicably vanish.
When all is revealed and Barry’s murder is solved, there’s one last mystery: Collier discovers that rumours of the deaths of the gods Aphrodite (Alexandra Bastedo from The Champions), Pan (Stefan Gryff) and Dionysus (Brian Blessed in full Brian Blessed mode) have been greatly exaggerated.
It’s not been repeated since UK Gold showed it a decade ago, it’s never been released on DVD, although you can find it on YouTube (playlists later): it’s The Aphrodite Inheritance and it’s a Lost Gem. Here’s the title sequence and for those who want to cut to the chase, the final ten minutes of the final episode in which the gods’ game with the poor mortals is finally uncovered.
Episode 1 A Death in the Family
David Collier is called urgently to Cyprus. He is soon involved with the mysterious and beautiful Helene who gives him disturbing news.
Episode 2 A Lamb to Slaughter
Collier’s attempt to take Helene’s evidence to Inspector Dimas is violently interrupted and he is unable to persuade the Inspector of the truth of what has happened. Later a meeting with his brother’s friend, Eric Morrison, is broken up in a frightening way.
Episode 3 Here We Come Gathering
Collier stumbles on people he is sure can help him convince Inspector Dimas of his brother’s murder. Later the evidence which Helene first produced mysteriously turns up again – and again leads to trouble.
Episode 4 A Friend in Need
After his violent clash with Collier, Morrison soon finds himself in a desperate situation. Hellman begins to show his hand – and Collier again meets Helene.
Episode 5 Come into my Parlour
Collier unwittingly plays into the hands of Hellman. Meantime, from his hiding place, Morrison arranges to meet a buyer – but the deal goes sadly awry
Episode 6 Said the Spider to the Fly
Morrison waits to conclude his deal – but he is horrified when the ‘buyer’ appears. Inspector Dimas is intrigued by what he learns from Collier; later he gets startling news from Morrison’s girlfriend.
Episode 7 The Eyes of Love
Preece is badly shaken by the things Hellman tells him. He realises he still has a long way to go to achieve his ends. Collier again meets Helene. Unsuspecting they wander into a situation of great danger.
Episode 8 To Touch a Rainbow
Collier goes through a final shattering experience. Later inspector Dimas shows him something which Collier finds incredible, but which could offer an explanation for all that has happened.
The making of the show
Back in the 70s, the British went Med mad. We did. Cheap package holidays to Spain and Greece turned us all into sun-lovers.
British television also went a little bit Med crazy. After decades of filmed backdrops at best, the television industry finally had the means and the budgets to film on location. Starting with ITC shows such as The Persuaders! and The Adventurer, by the end of the 1970s even the “everything in offices, London or just outside Leeds thank you very much” spy show The Sandbaggers was off to Malta for no well explored reason, while France and Spain did very well out of the trend as well. Italy never did well, unfortunately, thanks to the existence of Portmeirion in Wales, which doubled for everything from ancient Rome through Florence of the Renaissance and onwards.
No, the big winner in the Med boom were Greece and Cyprus thanks mainly to one man: Michael J Bird. Bird created two hit shows for BBC1: The Lotus Eaters and Who Pays The Ferryman?, two reasonably conventional programmes about British people coming to Crete (or living on Crete in The Lotus Eaters‘ case), although with some thriller undertones. These proved successful enough that their effects are still being seen in Eloúda, where Who Pays The Ferryman? was filmed (and Victoria Hislop’s The Island is set):
Bird’s dominance over the Med drama boom was due in part to his ability to arrange its financing in co-operation with Greek broadcasters. So adept did he become and so capable of providing sure-fire wins that he didn’t even have an idea for his third eagerly-expected series, to be set on Cyprus, before he got on the plane to meet with the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation to discuss the production.
He claims that it was on that plane he came up with the idea for The Aphrodite Inheritance and almost every scene for all eight episodes of the show – a plot that included the legend of Aphrodite’s final resting place, something Bird said he had no knowledge of until he began work on the series itself. Spooky, huh?
After that, Bird rounded up most of the usual suspects from The Lotus Eaters and Who Pays The Ferryman? and work began.
The Aphrodite Inheritance is far more of a thriller than the previous two Bird productions, and for obvious reasons is far weirder. For anyone expecting more of the same from Bird, it would have come as a big surprise, particularly considering that it wasn’t trailed as a fantasy or supernatural show.
It starts off simply enough, with Collier (Peter McEnery)’s arrival on Cyprus in Larnaka before heading off to the site of his brother’s death: Paphos, the legendary birthplace of Aphrodite. For much of the first episode, there’s still no hint that anything strange is going on. All appears to be a conventional thriller, right down to a character called Hellman*, an American millionaire with a private yacht who sends heavies to keep an eye on Collier while he investigates his brother’s accidental death, which subsequently is revealed to Collier to be a murder (a fact we know already).
True, there’s a mysterious barman called Charalambous (no real clue to divinity here: ‘joy in the shining’, although at a stretch we could go for ‘receiver of joy’, which is quite Dionysian) who breaks into Collier’s room at night and is able to knock out one of Hellman’s heavies and silently cart him around while Collier takes a bathroom break (a slightly silly scene to say the least).
But it soon becomes clear that Charalambous isn’t working alone – he’s friends with the beautiful Helene (Aphrodite sneakily going around using her sister’s name) and they have plans for Collier.
Then things start to get weird. Helene takes Collier out to a deserted village, tells him his brother’s been murdered and shows him £50,000 in Swiss Francs that she says is Collier’s brother’s. Then she disappears, taking the money with her. Collier tries to drive back to town but is forced off the road by Hellman’s men and knocked out. When he reports the crime to police inspector Dimas, he finds his car gone and no evidence of a fight.
Soon, he’s meeting up with his brother’s partner in crime, Morrison, and getting shot at. He’s rescued by one of Helene’s helpers, Basileos (‘our god’ in Macedonian, and it’s Dionysus). Basileos, who appears at first to be silent, but who speaks Greek, Latin, English, Hebrew and numerous other languages, is able to fix Collier’s near-broken ankle with a simple poultice.
Collier spots the three gods together, laughing over a particularly heavenly feast, but when he drags Dimas out to the monastery they were keeping him in, it’s revealed to have been deserted for a year.
Gradually, over subsequent episodes, it becomes clearer and clearer that something truly odd is happening, with Basileos able to impersonate Collier’s voice exactly when Hellman’s heavies come for him at night, and Helene disappearing from the middle of a room without even opening a door. The question for the viewer is no longer “Who are these people?” but “Are these really the gods or is this a double bluff? If it isn’t, which ones are they and what do they want?”
Collier is eventually able to discover that his brother came across a tomb, said to be the last resting place of Aphrodite and her possessions, the contents of which he was selling off. An inscription in the tomb says that anyone breaking into the tomb would suffer a terrible vengeance at her hands and the hands of the co-protectors of the tomb: Pan and Dionysus. And what better way to exact revenge, have all the intruders killed and their possessions returned than through the manipulation of a mortal man, just as they’d done in the olden days?
It’s Hellman, who came to Cyprus to buy the artifacts, who first realises the true nature of the ‘other buyers’ who have been competing with him for the jewels – he’s the only one who is able to confront them, knowing who they are – prompting him to cut his losses because he knows he’s doomed to failure. Willing to kill even Collier if he submits to avarice and tries to sell their jewels, the gods recover their possessions, close off the tomb and kill everyone who stole from them.
Eventually, police inspector Dimas, armed with the translation of the inscription, works out the full story and shares his theory with Collier. His proof? Three statues of the gods at the temple of Dionysus on Cyprus, identical to Helene, Charalambous and Basileos. And as Collier leaves Cyprus, mysteriously finding at his feet his reward while on the aeroplane home – that suitcase full of cash – the gods wave him goodbye, their games continuing.
Is it any good?
It’s a bit slow moving and although the gods aren’t omniscient or omnipotent, there would have been far fewer episodes if they’d stopped messing Collier around, playing hide and seek and ‘hide the briefcase full of cash’, which keeps disappearing and reappearing. There’s a considerable number of near-silent scenes that drag on forever, consisting of Collier or someone else searching apartments for that pesky briefcase or looking in fridges or Collier whining on a bit about how hard his life is. The middle episodes are more concerned with Morrison’s sub-plot involving a Greek girlfriend and his attempts to hide from Hellman than with the main plot.
Peter McEnery should never be allowed to dance. Ever.
There are also times where the whole thing teeters on a precipice of silliness, such as the aforementioned “double burglary” incident in the first episode and a very odd, ill-advised dream sequence in the fifth that’s just about excusable as an example of Dionysian ecstatic incoherence. And Peter McEnery should never be allowed to dance. Ever.
But it’s still a show that bears up under repeat viewing thanks to the supernatural element, which makes episode eight a real corker as all the elements of the story come together – the show treating the gods with an almost worshipful awe as the implications of their existence sink in. Speeches that seemed innocuous life philosophies suddenly become the literal word of god (or the gods), containing instructions on how to live your life. The ostensible central mystery – why Collier’s brother was murdered and Collier’s investigations – isn’t that interesting, although it would have been a reasonable backbone for a pure thriller of four parts: McEnery’s everyman is a bit too everyman and a victim, but the philosophical Dimas rapidly changes from being a foolish policeman to the driving force of the investigation and its eventual resolution. Yet the introduction of the gods is a near master stroke, even if it’s still hard to work out exactly what was on their minds half the time – other than having a laugh.
Far more of the story’s best moments stem from the gods. Even when it’s not clear who they are or what they’re doing, their ability to be almost everywhere, always one step ahead of everyone else, manipulating everything and treating everything like a game despite the obvious dangers is far more thrilling, and indeed scary, than the simple fights and intrigues the mortals arrange for themselves – particularly once it becomes clear that they’re not regular people.
Dionysus is, well, Brian Blessed, full of the joys of wine, love, life and a portable Greek-coffee maker
They’re also characterised well. Rather than the Americanised versions of the gods in Cupid, Valentine or Hercules, these are Greek gods in every way: there are even some okay to good stabs at Greek accents by everyone from Bastedo to Blessed, with Gryff doing very well thanks to his long stint in The Lotus Eaters as police captain Michael Krasakis. They indulge in most of the common activities of the Greek myths, such as disguising themselves, impersonating others, sending mortals dreams to tell them what they need to do or what’s going on and scaring them witless.
Pan is playful, finding fun in everything, right down to the constant playing of his pan pipesharmonica and tricking of mortals, including appropriately enough, faking his own death; Dionysus is, well, Brian Blessed, full of the joys of wine, love, life and a portable Greek-coffee maker; while Aphrodite, a little underwritten until the final episodes, is clearly in charge on her island and obviously having a whale of a time as a modern-day playgirl, swimming, drinking champagne, riding horses and making mortals fall in love with her to get them to do her bidding.
And then there’s Hellman. Even on multiple viewings, he can appear to be a simple, slightly-dodgy American businessman, just trying to get some priceless relics for his own profit. And given he seemingly has nothing to do with the three gods and does nothing especially magical, you could certainly get by with that interpretation.
Yet embedded in the story are clear signs of something more divine. For starters, there’s the name: Hellman – ‘hell man’. Then there’s the fact that his boat his called the Kore, which is the Greek word for ‘daughter’, but was also used as another name of Persephone, the queen of the underworld and wife of Hades. Notably, when Persephone returns to the underworld, winter comes to the world.
So what should we make of the fact that when a cold wind blows, Hellman looks at a photo of his wife and remarks: “Soon she’ll be coming back to me again and I wouldn’t want to keep her waiting.” Or that when asked by one of his henchmen why he doesn’t kill his enemies, Hellman remarks that he never kills anyone – they all come to him. Or that he calls them his hounds (of hell?).
The show does make a brave stab at showing a Cyprus that isn’t an England in the Mediterranean. Many of the characters speak Greek, there are problems with communication thanks to the language barrier, people eat Greek food, and everyone indulges in ‘Greek activities’. Although the main cast is non-Greek, most of the extras are Greek. It is arguable, however, that the show’s Greek to a level the Greeks would find stereotypical, unrepresentative and more like tourist Greece, but it usually treads just the right side of the line.
Indeed, the show is something of a tourist brochure for the island, with the constant Greek music (except for progressive longer and weirder electronic interludes in later episodes) and basic education for the viewer (“Yiamas! It means good health and happiness”) bundled together with long lingering shots of the scenery and sub-textual exhortations to enjoy life the ‘Greek way’ – teetotal Collier being converted to the passions of wine through his meeting with Basileos. It’s no surprise that Aphrodite’s helped by two of the most carnal and Greek of gods, rather than Apollo or Hera, say.
Yes, you can watch it
If you’ve a few hours to spare and don’t mind YouTube, all eight episodes are available to view below. It’s worth watching, since despite the pacing, it’s an intriguing show and great fun. Plus it’s got Alexandra Bastedo and Brian Blessed in it.
UPDATE (1/11/14): It’s also now available on DVD. It’s not lost any more!
If you want further information about Michael J Bird, The Lotus Eaters, Who Pays The Ferryman? or The Aphrodite Inheritance, I heartily recommend the Michael J Bird tribute site which includes production photos and information, including a Radio Times of the time.
PS I have no idea who the guy in swimming trunks is in the main picture. He doesn’t appear in the TV show. I suspect he may be a member of the production team, probably even the director of the final four episodes, Terence Williams. But I thought you might enjoy a guy in trunks anyway.
PPS If you want to know what else the Greek gods have been up to, Toobworld is the place to look.
* There is, of course, a clue in that name, too…
Episode 1 – A Death in the Family
Episode 2 – A Lamb to Slaughter
Episode 3 – Here We Come Gathering
Episode 4 – A Friend in Need
Episode 5 – Come into my Parlour
Episode 6 – Said the Spider to the Fly
Episode 7 – The Eyes of Love
Episode 8 – To Touch a Rainbow