What an experience it must have been to have seen I, Claudius when it first aired on the BBC some 35 years ago. It is one of the most exquisitely staged and acted programs I have ever seen. And in those pre-cable days, it was also magnificently risqué. The 12-part series has just been reissued as a beautiful five-DVD set by Acorn Media, in honor of the 35th anniversary of its original airing. I must say, they have done a tremendous job.
The epic series covers the years 10 BC to 54 AD, inside the court of the Roman Empire. It is presented as the autobiography of Claudius. The source materials are the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. These were adapted by Jack Pulman, with the resulting script directed by Herbert Wise. Many of the cast members gave career-defining performances. These include Derek Jacobi as Claudius, John Hurt as Caligula, and Patrick Stewart as Lucius Aelius Sejanus, among many others.
The palace intrigue is unrelenting, and always “For the Empire.” Of course it is nothing more than a series of petty jealousies and grabs for power, these people are compelled to justify their actions in the name of honor. Incest and the murder of family members when they get in the way of plans are just par for the course, as are practically every other outrage one can think of. It all seems to come to a head during the reign of Caligula, the most decadent Emperor of all time. Yet even after what truly seems to be the last days of Rome, when Emperor Caligula has turned the palace into a brothel, there is more.
Claudius is described as “A stuttering scholar who learns to play the fool to stay alive.” The period is seen through his eyes, beginning as a child in the court of Augustus. Because of his stammer, and shyness, Claudius is considered to be a “half-wit.” As he himself puts it at one point, “Whether I am a half-wit or not is irrelevant, for everyone else is gone. It does not seem that quantity of wits is more important than quality of wits.”
When Caligula is assassinated, the Praetorian Guards promote the
(seemingly) hapless Claudius in his place. Claudius proves to be an astute Emperor however, although he has a dangerous blindspot when it comes to his conniving young wife, Messalina (Sheila White). When he is apprised of her activities, Claudius takes action, and is soon re-married, this time to his niece Agrippina (Sheila Ruskin), who turns out to be even worse.
As all of this unfolds, the motivations of Claudius become clearer and clearer. He is a wise man, and his goals are honorable, but the follies of those who surround him never cease to doom even the best laid plans. During his final soliloquy, we come to understand that this is not just the story of what led to the fall of Rome, but a timeless tale. The weaknesses and decadence of men and women over the years is a constant, and as the series wraps up this is brought home in a powerful way. I, Claudius has been ranked as one of the all-time greatest television shows for the past 35 years for good reason. This is one of the most incredible productions the BBC has ever mounted.
The fifth DVD in the set is devoted exclusively to bonus material. The one feature you should not miss is The Epic That Never Was (1965). This is a black and white documentary recounting the failed 1937 film adaptation by Alexander Korda, which fell apart after just a few weeks of filming. “I, Claudius, A Television Epic” is a behind-the-scenes look at the series, and is also quite interesting. Other highlights include the extended original versions of the first two episodes (both run 52 minutes), and interview with Derek Jacobi, and favorite scenes of the cast and director. There is also an interesting booklet discussing the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of the series.