Saturday, August 13, 2011

I, Claudius

 Whew!! 13 50+ minute episodes later, and over 12 hours straight in front of the telly eventually came to an end! Bugger, because I, Claudius was a viewing experience that I wanted to go and on and on..just like the novels it is based on! I read Robert Graves masterful epics I, Claudius and Claudius the God two years ago and rate them the greatest historical novels of the 20th Century. After finishing them I was eager to watch the series which I can vaguely remember from boyhood.

 I can re-call having to go to bed at the time the series started, and ever since the image of Derek Jacobi as Claudius, sitting at his desk as the programme started has been seared into my mind. I can't recall though how old I was, but it must have been a re-run because I was only 6 when this was made, and the house in which we lived when I first saw this I was aged about 10. But finally after many, many years of waiting I procured a copy on DVD from my local library, because I had the house to myself for several days, and settled in for what turned out to be a marathon viewing session!

 I, Claudius is of course the work of Robert Graves. It is one of his most prominent, and well known works, among an extraordinary litany of writing he produced during his life. Possibly only his auto-biographical work on his life in the trenches of The Great War is better known, Goodbye To All That. He also wrote poetry, novels, and translated numerous works from ancient Greek and Latin into English, of which he won great praise.

Cover of the first edition.
 Graves wrote I, Claudius in 1934 and used prodigious use of classical sources to write this complex, compelling tale of the fourth Roman emperor, Claudius. It is written in the form of an auto-biography with Claudius, right from the start, stating he wants to put into words the history of his family, and that of Rome in his lifetime. The resulting two volumes are regarded as pioneering masterpieces of historical fiction , and I personally think only American Leon Uris comes close to Graves in this type of genre. In 1998 Modern Library rated I, Claudius as the 14th greatest English language novel of the 20th Century.

 But while the novel was a commercial and financial success, Graves himself professed to dis-liking them because of their popularity, claiming they were only written out of financial need and to a deadline. No matter his personal feelings I, Claudius is without question one of the last centuries greatest, and most influential novels.

 In 1937 an aborted film version by copyright holder Alexander Korda came to naught, and it wasn't until 1976 that the novel was actually filmed, albeit for television. Television or no it proved to be the most successful drama serials the BBC ever produced, and is now ranked 12th on the BFI'S 100 Greatest British Television Programmes. It won numerous awards and in 1977 Derek Jacobi won an Emmy for Best Actor ( TV ), and Sian Phillips best actress (TV) for her portrayal as the vile Livia Drusilla.

 The serial was an ambitious under taking because the novels are complex, and cover an immense amount of Roman history. The screen play was written by Jack Pulman, and he has done a brilliant job of adapting the novels to television. The serials out of necessity had to trim much from the novels,  and it has been done masterfully by cutting out much of the narrative that takes place 'out in the field'. So much of the action that takes place in Germany, and the Levant is trimmed off, as are all the expensive games and excesses of Caligula.

 What is left then is basically the intriguing and politics of Rome at the highest levels. While much may have been trimmed nothing is lost by it, as much of it can be refered to without the need to have it put into film. For instance the famous 9AD Battle of Teutoburg Forest is refered to, and we see Augustus and company pouring over maps etc, deciding on a course of action. That is it and that was all that was necessary. But other more demanding scenes like Caligula's showy excess involving a two mile long bridge made of barges, etc south of Rome, are not even mentioned. So Pulman had a demanding task and I think he pulled it off superbly.

 Obviously the logistics involved in filming such outdoor scenes that are in the novel would have proved prohibitive, not only in scale, but in sheer cost. Even as it is the scale is huge. The cast is immense and the sets, even though quite basic, were dismantled and re-used. But all together the expense in their day must have been huge. I liked the sets as they replicated indoor Roman life and done enough, as the whole point here is not a visual one but one of dialogue. Many of the scenes are filmed on the same sets, but they cover quite a number of years, and involve the same people, that this is understandable.

 The interesting thing here to note is a comparison between the recent big budget serial, Rome to I, Claudius. Rome I think was made for $100 million, and yet is nothing spectacular. The sets may be bigger than I, Claudius's, but they are in no way overshadowed or bettered. Rome was a series I enjoyed but it highlighted the problem with filming Rome based scenarios, namely the inhibiting costs in relpicating the era. That is why most Rome based serials/films are based inside, and are political in nature as they are quite simply cheaper to make. The sets for I, Claudius still look good, and the whole production hasn't dated visually at all.

 But even with its limited sets I, Claudius must have been a staggering production cost wise. The cast ran to no less than 51 actors/actresses alone!! And again I run into the cost issue. Not only must those actors be paid, but several of them are in a substantial part of the production. So of course they have to appeared aged, and believe me for 1976 the make-up work was superb!! The aging of Sian Philips as Livia in particular is very very good. I can't fault the aging and it did look good, and still does nearly 40 years later. But I laughed because in one scene Derek Jacobi, as Claudius, sits down on his toilet and I could quite clearly see where the latex had peeled off his fingers!! I suppose with such enormous cost it was deemed too expensive to re-shoot the scene. But overall the sets and makeup was pretty sharp even though there were the inevitable goofs.

 The cast is brilliant, and  what particularly struck me was it felt as if it was filmed as if on the set of  a play. The voice projection was the give away, particularly from a brilliant John Hurt, and Brian Blessed. I think the sheer size of the sets demanded this, but somehow with so many stage veterans on set, it was to get everyone heard when filming. But not only that, the stage skills of some of them is apparent, and their performances quite phenomenal. Derek Jacobi as Claudius is obviously the lead role, but for me a very young John Hurt, as Caligula, was a stand out. He was breath taking as the insane Caligula, not to the point of vileness but sheer insanity. We all know what a great actor Hurt is, but in I, Claudius his stage origins are apparent. For any reason alone I, Claudius is worth watching just for Hurt alone, as it is a fine performance of an insane, perverted, sick man.

 Sian Phillips is quite simply brilliant as the vile, conniving, evil bitch, Livia. What a performance and I hated the sight of her!! She plays the role to perfection, and the viewer at no time likes her, quite the opposite. The wonderful thing to is that her makeup was superb, especially when she had to appear aged. I mean as she aged the makeup artists done a superb job of making her appear even more evil and vile. Philips was a good choice as Livia's because she was an attractive woman, as the real Livia was purported to be. But that beauty hid an ugly, poisoned soul that was beyond belief, and Sian Phillips thoroughly deserved her Bafta.

A good montage of three of the best male television performances you will ever see.
 Also the make up of George Baker ( Tiberius, Livia's son ) must be commended because his to was fantastic as he aged, appearing as a rotten corrupt pervert covered in welts, and open weeping sores. And I cannot over look Patrick Stewart!! God does this man age!!  Today he looks the same as he did in 1976!! He plays the  ambitious Seljanus and plays him very well. He is a good looking man who hides his evil ambitious side well, and yet there is no doubt as to his desires. Again, like Hurt, it is Stewart's stage experience that comes out in the role, especially in the use of voice projection. Unfortunately he is killed off, but what we get from him is vintage stuff, and it shows the quality of actors/actresses who come from a stage background.

 But for the all the great performances, from Brain Blessed as Augustus, to John Hurt's Caligula, and Sian Philips' Livia, this is Derek Jacobi's show!! What can be said of his performance?! He is simply stunning as the stuttering, limping Claudius. And for all its worth what was all the great fuss about Colin Firth and his stuttering performance in, The King's Speech? Anyone would think he was the first to pull if off. Well sorry folks he wasn't, because for Jacobi runs rings around Firth...and he had a limp to match! This is Jacobi's show and a worthy Bafta win it was. I just wonder if his career ever really got back on track after this though, as Claudius is almost his definitive role, and one he possibly has never managed to shake off.

 One thing really struck me and that was the nudity. Remember this was 1976, and yet here we see full frontal nudity!! This was unheard of stuff and must have caused a stir in its day. I mean we very rarely, if ever, see such nudity in more modern television programmes. Also there was some quite explicit bloodshed, which again was unheard of in 1970's television. At one stage we see a guard hold up the severed head of a boy who's cough was annoying Caligula. Suffice to say it is nice and juicy, dripping copious amounts of blood about! Also Caligula eviscerates his naked pregnant sister!! I mean how much more vile and twisted can it get?!

 I, Claudius then makes for stunning viewing. I liked how this DVD cut out the need for the credits after each separate episode, and just rolled on into the next one. I find it frustrating when watching a DVD like this that keeps in the credits. There really is no need. The whole production takes more from I, Claudius, as Claudius the God is far more sweeping, and just the sheer scale of filming Claudius's reign as emperor just couldn't have been done practically. So what we get is the vile intrigue of the first novel in abundance. By cutting out so much necessary stuff, in essence the serial is a Roman era soap opera, but of an extremely high quality.

 In short making Robert Grave's novels into a television serial was an ambitious project. Two vast sweeping epics that went to all corners of the then Roman Empire, and included a vast array of characters was never going to be an easy thing to make. And yet it was, and the final product is simply sublime, quite simply television at its best. And for me a reminder of just how good BBC telly was in the 1970's. For me it was the best era of television and I, Claudius shows how good it was, because I seriously doubt the BBC, let alone any other television studio, could make something like this anymore.

Frame form the opening credits I remember so well from boyhood.
 A masterpiece, totally unmissable, and thoroughly entertaining! But if you want to watch it either have a spare 12 hours straight free, or plan ahead because it is 4 discs of three hours duration each, and believe me that is a lot of viewing!! And ultimately a sad indictment on modern telly that can't even begin to re-capture the greatness of the 1970's, and early 1980's.

 Highly, highly, highly recommended. If you liked Rome then you'll love this because I,Claudius runs rings around it!!

 And whatever you do, DON'T ever pass up the chance to read the novels. They are two of the best novels you will ever read. Guranteed!

Click here for a synopsis and more on this fine serial:

And here for a site offering many interesting facts and figures:


  1. Derek Jacobi was in Belfast at the start of the year in a touring production of King Lear and it was the best show of anything I have ever had the pleasure to witness.

    Jacobi was absolutely amazing as King Lear. My employer keeps on telling me I should watch this as she knows I will love it even more.

    Brilliant review as always Brent.


  2. Ooooo lucky you!! Yes I believe he is a very fine stage actor. I really think the cast of I, Claudius was picked for that very reason. I mean they are all reknowned theatre actors. Patrick Stewart is apparently a brilliant Shakesperean even though he is more recognised as Captain Jean Luc Picard!!
    I can't recommend this enough, the quality of the acting is above anything we see on telly anymore.
    Did you watch Rome? I only saw the last season as the first played at a ridiculous time at night and I missed it. If you liked Rome then you'll love this as it really will put it to shame!

  3. Jacobi seemed genuinely touched and surprised at (the deserved) standing ovation.

    I missed Rome - I am terrible at tv series' can come and go I will not have heard of them.

  4. Fantastic review!

    I rarely ever watch TV, but with this I made an exception as I was such a fan of the books, and I'm glad I did, as it's easily one of the finest adaptations I've ever seen.
    The whole cast was brilliant, and I agree, it was far superior than most TV series today.

  5. Jacobi comes across as a down to earth sort of person. I wonder how long it has been since he's been on stage. Maybe he has forgotten how good he himself can be!

    Yeah Jack I'm the same I don't watch a lot of telly at all as it is pretty much just rubbish.
    I ,Claudius just highlights how bad modern telly is doesn't it? I love the books as well and was impressed with this adaptation no end because it was an ambitious undertaking.
    The cast is brilliant and I really do think their stage skills are what are utilised hereand what makes the dialogue so effective.
    But man 12 hours is a long time to sit in front of a television but I just couldn't turn it off!

  6. Excellent review Brent, it's been a few years since I've seen but I loved it when I did.

  7. It is certainly something you never forget isn't it! I don't know of anyone who has sen it who didn't like it. I just wish telly was half way as good as this nowadays.