The BBC made their adaptation of I, CLAUDIUS — based on the classic novels by Robert Graves (I, CLAUDIUS and CLAUDIUS THE GOD), which were in turn based on the histories of Suetonius — in 1976, but I did not encounter them until a few years later, when PBS picked them up and ran them (in a somewhat censored form, to shield Americans from seeing nipples) in the USA. I remember, I was still living in Dubuque, Iowa at the time, teaching college. I loved the series then, and I love it now. I have probably watched it a dozen times in the years since. When it was rerun on TV at first, then later on VHS tape, and most recently on DVD.
I just finished watching it again. Up in my mountain cabin, I discovered that my assistant had never seen the series, so of course I had to break it out and show it to her. It is just as brilliant as I recall. I am pleased to say my assistant, seeing it for the first time, loved it just as I did, seeing it for the… I don’t know, the tenth time? Twentieth? I have not kept count.
This despite the fact that the budget for BBC drama in the 70s was… let us say… not large. There are no special effects here. No battles. No exteriors, in fact. It was all shot on a sound stage, and most of it takes place in one or two rooms, repeatedly redressed. When these Romans go to the arena for a gladiatorial show, you do not so much as glimpse a gladiator, you just see the actors sitting watching carnage offstage. This is not HBO’s ROME nor even SPARTACUS (both great shows in their own right). I, CLAUDIUS is more akin to a filmed stage play. I think the craft services budget on any HBO series is probably ten times what the BBC spent on the entire thirteen episodes.
And you know what? IT DOES NOT MATTER. If you have great writing and great acting, that is really all you need. And I, CLAUDIUS had that in spades. A single writer, Jack Pulman, scripted all thirteen episodes. Pulman is long deceased, I fear, which I regret. I would have considered it an honor to meet him and shake his hand. His dialogue sparkles from beginning to end, with so many unforgettable lines… and throughout he remains true to the genius of Robert Graves and his great novels.
And the acting here is equal to the brilliance of the writing. This was the series that made Derek Jacobi a star, and rightly so, but the supporting cast around him was sensational as well. Sian Phillips as Livia, Brian Blessed as Augustus, John Hurt as Caligula, the criminally underappreciated George Baker as Tiberius, Patrick Stewart (with hair!) as Sejanus, and more, and more, and more…. there’s not a false note here. They were all great.
And yes, from time to time a marble pillar ripples when someone passes, revealing itself to be painted canvas, but so what? If you are like me, you are too deeply involved with the characters to notice or care.
If you have never seen I, CLAUDIUS, you owe it to yourself to have a look (though be warned, this a dark show, and there is lots of violence and sex, especially by the standards of 1976). You should read the novels too, they are terrific. And then give thanks you do not live in ancient Rome.
Even now, deep in the Second Golden Age of television, I would rank I, CLAUDIUS as one of the greatest television series ever made. Certainly in the top ten. Probably in the top five.
Current Mood: satisfied