The 1976 BBC production of I, Claudius is often cited as the best television mini-series of all time. I managed to miss it the first time around, but after viewing the series in the new 35th-anniversary Acorn DVD release, I can certainly see what all the fuss is about. Personally, I’d reserve the “greatest of all time” label for another BBC mini-series, the 1979 Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy with Alec Guinness, but there’s no reason you can’t enjoy them both (and congratulate yourself for living in the age of the DVD, while you’re at it).
I, Claudius is narrated by Claudius (Derek Jacobi), a cripple and stutterer who manages to become the emperor of Rome, in no small part because everyone else thinks he’s an idiot and so all-around pitiful that he couldn’t possibly pose a threat to their interests. The events in the story run from about 24 BCE to 54 CE, and are concerned primarily with the goings-on of various people clustered around the Roman court. By and large they’re a black-hearted lot, willing to use just about any means, from poison to slander to a simple sword through the heart, in order to improve their position and eliminate anyone who stands between them (or their offspring) and the throne.
Adapted from Robert Graves’ popular, semi-historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius, the God, the mini-series appeals to many tastes. The highbrows can enjoy the history (not entirely accurate, but not completely made up either) and the literati can feast on Jack Pulman’s witty dialogue (it’s a mystery to me why this script is not available in print, as it’s better than about 95 percent of the movie scripts I’ve read lately), while there’s more than enough treachery, bloodshed, and bare nipples to please those of more earthy tastes.
If you’re a fan of soap operas, you can look on I, Claudius as a very fancy and somewhat historical soap, demonstrating that old adage that people are people, no matter what the period or locale. Given the censorship of the day, it’s surprising how much gore, and how much flesh, is displayed on screen; of course, even more happens off-screen, including some deeds that would give Hannibal Lecter a run for his money.
The greatest treat in I, Claudius is the superb acting—the series seems to have recruited just about every British actor who was anybody at the time, along with a few who would become somebody in the future. As with the Harry Potter movies, one of the delights of I, Claudius is being surprised by just how many notable actors who pop up in small roles. Not that the lead roles are neglected: Claudius was a career defining role for Jacobi, Siân Phillips is deliciously evil as Livia (reportedly Tony Soprano’s mother was named after her, to give you an idea of this Livia’s personality), and there’s nowhere John Hurt won’t go to make his character of Caligula come alive. Add in George Baker, Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart (looking very hunky as the traitor Sejanus), Margaret Tyzack, Simon MacCorkindale, Patricia Quinn (Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show)…I could spend most of my allotment of words just listing the eminent cast members.
If the acting in I, Claudius is first-rate all the way, the appearance of the series does leave something to be desired, particularly on a modern, big-screen television. It was entirely shot on sets, and it shows; the general feel is more of a filmed play than of a television production. That’s not entirely a bad thing, given the primacy of words in this production, but it does feel a bit cheap by today’s standards. Costumes are another weak point, and some of the wigs are simply laughable.
The music by Wilfred Josephs feels quite dated, although it was right in style when the series first aired. But really, who cares? This is an actor’s vehicle, and while you’re enjoying the acting, you can also admire the production design (Tim Harvey won a BAFTA for it). Even the title sequence (a snake crawling across a mosaic) works every time for me.
I, Claudius comes with a strong package of extras, and they alone make a good argument in favor of purchasing this collection if you’re a fan of the series, or of filmed historical fiction in general. The big bonus feature is a 71-minute documentary about an earlier version of “I, Claudius” that barely got out of the starting gate. It was directed by Josef von Sternberg, produced by Alexander Korda, and starred Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon, and Flora Robson; production was halted when Oberon was in a serious automobile accident, but you can see clips of what was shot in this documentary.
There’s also a 74-minute making-of feature, an interview with Derek Jacobi (10 min.), and a feature in which the cast and crew discuss some of their favorite scenes. Were I in charge, I would add a commentary track or two (perhaps one speaking to the actual history underlying the events shown, and another focused on the production), but what is provided is generous.