1 9 7 6 (UK)
1 x 100 minute episode
11 x 50 minute episodes
I, Claudius appeared on the BBC on 20 September 1976, adapted from author Robert Graves’ books charting the decline of Ancient Rome; I, Claudius and Claudius the God.
The original novel was written in 1934 and was intended for a large screen adaptation starring Charles Laughton which was abandoned (and the book deemed ‘unfilmable’ for the next 40 years).
The 12-part series chronicles the slide of Roman civilisation in the first century A.D. into unrelenting depravity during the reigns of the four Emperors who succeeded Julius Caesar; Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius.
Having the aged Claudius act as the viewers guide to the unfolding story in a series of flashbacks afforded the viewing audience the perfect road map to the never-ending series of intrigues, plots and double-dealings which drove the central story.
Claudius is among the most fascinating dramatis personae of Roman history. A weak and sickly youth, repressed by a stern tutor as a child, physically deformed and suffering from a severe stammer, he was an outsider in the royal family and considered an idiot.
As an adult, he was never taken seriously as a future ruler of Rome. Ironically, however, Claudius was ostensibly the most intelligent of the lot. A shy man of considerable culture inclined toward a life of quiet scholarship, he knew Greek well, and wrote several works on history (now lost), including two on the Etruscans and the Carthaginians.
In the Imperial Rome of his day, however, obsessed with the exercise of power through treachery and brute force, such preoccupations of the mind were considered little more than idle pastimes.
For his virtuoso performance as the stammering but wily Emperor Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, a.k.a. Claudius I, actor Derek Jacobi earned a BAFTA.
Jacobi is the perfect Claudius, hiding his intelligence behind a crippling stammer and shuffling around the edges of events – until he finds himself pulled to the very centre. His wry comments give shape to the tangled story of his family and help the audience make sense of a dauntingly complex cast of characters.
Brian Blessed’s Augustan thunder was succeeded by John Hurt’s pathologically twee, demented Caligula; Patrick Stewart commanded the Praetorian Guard; Bernard Hill identified Jacobi as the new emperor; Ian Ogilvy fell off his horse; Peter Bowles was an unusual choice for an ancient British chieftain; Quentin Crisp was assassinated by George and Mildred’s uppity next-door neighbour, (who in turn was the grandson of the Emperor Inspector Wexford) and Christopher Biggins – soon to appear as Mother Goose at Darlington’s Civic Theatre – was a surprisingly appropriate Nero.
There was even a mini Z Cars reunion as Inspector Barlow (Stratford Johns, aka Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso) was put on trial for treason against the stepson of PC Fancy Smith (Brian Blessed, the Emperor Augustus).
The story begins in 24 BC during the reign of Augustus Caesar, Rome’s first emperor, and ends in AD 54 with Nero on the throne. In between, I, Claudius details the scheming, murder, madness, and lust that passed for politics in the early years of the Pax Romana.
The biggest worm in the Roman apple is Augustus’s wife, Livia (the superb Siân Phillips), whose single-minded pursuit of power shapes the destiny of the Empire.
With a carefully planted rumour here and a poisoned fig there, she gradually manoeuvres her son, Tiberius, toward the throne, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and treachery that starts Rome on its helter-skelter slide into bloody chaos.
Phillips somehow makes us understand this extraordinarily wicked woman. As she ages and her carefully wrought webs begin to unravel, it becomes clear that Livia has been as thoroughly poisoned by her own ambition as her victims were by her carefully prepared meals.
Sian Phillips endured monstrous makeup which often took seven hours to apply. She had to have her hair soaked flat, then a bald cap fitted with holes cut for the ears, foam rubber glued on to her cheeks, then makeup and a wig. By the final episodes, she was made to look almost bald and hideous.
She said “one day I took the rubber face home to show my mother. I wanted sympathy. I left it on the window sill, not thinking about the heatwave. When I picked it up the next day the paint on the sill had blistered. I fled in panic to the makeup girl and asked what she was trying to do to my face”.
Sian’s husband at the time was Peter O’Toole, who was making the feature film Caligula (1980). Sian recalled “When I visited him on the Caligula set I was shocked by their armour – it was all plastic and foil, cheap imitation. All the good stuff was at the BBC”.
Despite the content of sadistic gladiatorial contests, orgies, nymphomania – including a famous sequence in which the Empress Messalina (Sheila White) engages in a sex tournament – adultery, rape, forced prostitution and incest – this was ancient Rome after all – I, Claudius remains as a shining example of just how intelligent and exciting great television drama can be.
The BBC series was a masterpiece of costume and design and boasted a high degree of historical accuracy in its intelligent and sophisticated depiction of the lives and events of its historically genuine characters.
Discussion of I, Claudius in the press prior to its US television debut focused not on questions of historical veracity, but rather on how American audiences might react to its presentation of sex and violence.
The Mobil Corporation, the Masterpiece Theater sponsor, was informed by WGBH-TV, the Boston public station who put together the Masterpiece Theater package, that some scenes might cause audience discomfort. Mobil responded that it had no reservations about the programme and felt I, Claudius to be television of “extraordinary quality.”
Nonetheless, WGBH did make selective edits for the American version without prompting by Mobil. These included shortening a scene featuring bare-breasted dancers, and eliminating what might be considered a blasphemous comment by a Roman soldier on the Virgin Birth, some gory footage of an infant being stabbed to death, and bedroom shots featuring naked bodies making love.
WGBH defended these and other excisions by arguing that viewers in some parts of the United States would be disturbed by their inclusion.
When it finally screened in the USA, I, Claudius became one of the more critically acclaimed Masterpiece Theater offerings ever.
Antonia, Octavia’s daughter
Marcellus, Augustus’s son-in-law
Drusus, Livia’s second son