I Claudius (1976) has an iconic status with British television fans: it is our Citizen Kane. It is a show which has been broadcast endlessly across the world, especially by Armchair Theater in America (where a poll recently named it as best mini-series of all time), so that if anything it is least famous in its own country. It was released on DVD in 2002, and I had intended to contribute this review at the time, but find that I never posted the copy. The boxed set certainly remains very available, and just as the old VHS tapes stayed in print for twenty years, I suspect these discs are also in the high street for the long haul. And this may be a timely review after all: HBO's new co-production with the BBC, called simply Rome, debuts on 28 August 2005, and trails in the press are already linking it with I Claudius. (Rome is not to be confused with Empire, another mini-series about Caesar's fall: ABC hastily scheduled this spoiler-show to squeeze in ahead of HBO, but it really should have been held over for Thanksgiving, because it is a great, big, squawking turkey.) With Ancient Rome back in TV vogue, this seems a good moment to look back at the original: does I Claudius live up to its legend?
Robert Graves (1895-1985) has the rare distinction of achieving classic status in every form of writing except, perhaps, cookery. The only one of the war poets to amount to much in peace-time, he was elected Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1961; his first-hand account of four years in the trenches, Goodbye To All That (1929), is one of the finest memoirs of the twentieth century; The Greek Myths (1955) remains a standard reference book. But most influential of all were the two Claudius novels of 1934, an imaginary autobiography, so often imitated by other novelists that we also have fake lives of Hadrian, Julius, Augustus, Brutus and practically every other Roman of note. Ironically, Graves has now been fictionalised himself: he appears as a major character in the recent British film of the Booker Prize-winning Regeneration (on DVD from Artificial Eye).
The Emperor Claudius (10 BC to AD 54) is not an obscure figure in history, no Emperor could be, but he is a puzzle. A half-wit child, stammering and twitching, nicknamed Clau-Clau-Claudius, he was so obviously not a contender to the throne that nobody troubled to murder him: and so he survived to become one of only two people ever legally declared a god in Britain (the other being his contemporary, Jesus Christ). Robert Graves's brilliant conceit was to reinvent Claudius as a sharp-eyed historian shamming stupidity in order to survive the madness around him. The novels, then, are his autobiography, setting the record straight. I called it a conceit, but this is just about possible. Claudius did indeed write histories, lost to posterity (such as, very unfortunately, his book on the Etruscans). Graves's second stroke of genius was to dredge every last scandal and scabrous rumour out of Tacitus, Suetonius and the other ancient sources, and to throw the whole lot into the narrative. To put it mildly, the result is a juicy story, and the epic BBC adaptation of September to December 1976 takes it on with enormous relish.
Augustus (Brian Blessed) and Livia (Siân Phillips) in The Glory That Was TV Centre Studio 1
From the start, the serial was a gamble. For one thing it was a hugely theatrical production, shot almost entirely in the studio for six solid months, with opulent sets enclosing a huge dramatic space, the equal of the stage at the National or the Old Vic. Plays shot to camera can be woefully flat and lifeless, as about two-thirds of the BBC Television Shakespeare was then proving: I Claudius could easily have been an expensive folly. Today the BBC would not have the faith in writing and acting to risk staking everything on faces and words for eleven hours. It would be taken for granted that the project would demand hyper-realistic outdoor sequences of armies in battle, and chariot-races at the Circus Maximus, and then it would become a short movie with a frightening budget, and then it would wildly exceed the BBC's resources. (Exactly that happened on this month's Rome, according to the Observer, but America came to the rescue: "The BBC has not confirmed a rumoured figure of £9 million, but its head of television, Jana Bennett, has emphasised that HBO invested much more.") A gamble, then, but in the early 1970s, The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R had proved that bookish history plays could capture a mass audience, and the BBC usually had one big-budget family epic on the boil: The Forsyte Saga, which alchemically turned John Galsworthy's novels into a sensation somewhat like that of Desperate Housewives today, had been followed up by The Pallisers - 26 hours of Anthony Trollope. The head of what was in effect the BBC's popular literary epics department - producer Martin Lisemore - was therefore perfectly placed for tackling Robert Graves in 1976, which would have reassured the BBC's head of serials. Besides, I Claudius has more than a whiff of those steamy 70s shows in which women in green nylon dresses vamp up to their hard-drinking men until every possible adultery has taken place: The Brothers, for instance, or Bouquet of Barbed Wire. Messalina's false eyelashes are so huge that from some camera angles they actually cast a shadow.
The Empress Messalina (Sheila White) prepares to take on the president of the Guild of Prostitutes in an endurance contest. Nighties by Marks and Spencer
With all this said, we ought to remember that it could have gone spectacularly wrong, been pilloried for its sex and violence, rubbished as non-historical and ignored by viewers at home. Indeed the critics were, in Derek Jacobi's words, a bit pissy at first, but the public was mesmerised and the critics came round. "A wonderful series," Clive James was conceding by late November. Even the title sequence became famous enough to be parodied. The snake writhing across the mosaic floor kept on wriggling until it even made it onto the Blackadder II titles. The programme commissioners, naturally, thought they had struck a winning formula, and historical epics with vast ensemble casts couldn't fail. And then of course The Borgias and The Cleopatras did. It's significant, I think, that the next comparable success was to be The Jewel in the Crown (at ITV): significant because, like I Claudius and unlike its imitations, Jewel was rooted in a modern classic of a novel (Paul Scott's Raj quartet).
I Claudius is studio-bound, then - it will probably stand in history as the last ever 13-part serial without a frame of location footage - but the direction keeps it lively. The studio sets are so huge that what could almost be called distance shots are possible. Scenes are long, but seldom stodgy, because plenty is going on: they aren't quick movie-style moments, but that's because they are making more than one point each. They were rehearsed as theatrical acts, not televisual scenes, and frequently recorded in very long takes. The director Herbert Wise used radical, for the time, camera-work to move through continuous action rather than opting to cut. "The camera is an actor, not a spectator." It moves among the actors (George Baker says the scenes were like dances), and it makes ironic glances around, sometimes sharing a joke with us. This was not a technique invented by Robert Altman. (One reason Altman's movie Gosford Park looks so much like British classic-serial television is that he uses a film camera the way the BBC used to use television cameras.) Equally, Wise's direction goes to show that David Lynch did not invent disruptive, surprising camera angles from odd heights. In today's television, and on review sites like this one, 16:9 or 16:10 widescreen is often considered the gold standard. And it's true that TV like, say, Band of Brothers looks terrific in wider format. But we might also remember that 4:3 offers its own unique possibility for intimate observation. The sets for the Senate, and the Imperial Box at the Circus, are deliberately constructed so that we can wander through them on tracking shots. Widescreen is what the world looks like from far away. In a drama like this one, we are seldom intended to feel far away.
Incidental music, on period instruments, is mournfully Roman. Costumes are authentic, almost comically so since the soldiers look as if they stepped out of the pages of Asterix: but the breast-plates clank, being metal and not plastic. Props are not quite so realistic but this is a blessing since one of them is a mutilated dead baby found underneath a loose tile in the floor. It is also safe to say that tomato ketchup manufacturers did very nicely out of I Claudius. But you won't actually faint from the goriness. We only see Drusilla's disembowelment from behind (and a very fetching behind it is too). For the most part the technical crew step back and let the actors get on with their business: there is a great deal of attention to detail in recreating "Rome", but it's tactful rather than obtrusive.
The cast, arguably the strongest ever assembled for a single production, married the young stars of Shakespearian theatre to old stagers from popular television. As the story opens, the assassination of Julius Caesar and the ensuing civil wars are long concluded: all the same Derek Jacobi, as Claudius, will not even enter the narrative for the first two and a half hours, except as narrator. But over the remaining episodes he will age convincingly from 18 to 64, and much of his best acting comes in playing his relationship with his own past. In a similarly huge performance, Brian Blessed has great physical presence as the Emperor Augustus. Blessed had been a star of Z-Cars as a burly police constable, but in the 1970s he was a much more subtle actor than either before or after (he played an impotent macho-man in a deeply unsettling episode of Survivors, for instance). Here he takes on the mantle of the man who ended the civil wars by defeating all other contenders, and then reigned not only well but long. In the early episodes he has titanic force of will: later he is deceived, and his mind wanders, but he remains a heroic figure. Augustus, like many tyrants, is an idealist. All he wants is for Rome to be virtuous, and he never understands that his own absolute power is what has made that impossible. Meanwhile his wife Livia (Siân Phillips) schemes to secure the uncertain succession for her own family, the Claudians, and will stop at absolutely nothing. "They say a snake bit her once, and died." Fundamentally the plot can be boiled down to a single question: after Augustus, will Rome become a republic again? Were the Caesars a short-lived emergency measure, or the start of a monarchy? And so the family are split into cynics and idealists. "They say the tree of the Claudians produces two kinds of apples, the sweet and the sour."
I Claudius permanently altered the careers of all three actors. Jacobi, though now knighted, is still being put into sandals (as Ellis Peters's sleuth Brother Cadfael) and asked to stutter in biographical films (as Alan Turing, as Francis Bacon). Blessed's emperor eventually became a pantomime figure of a tribal chieftain, with a lot of bellowing to do, in films like Flash Gordon. Siân Phillips instantly became television's leading manipulative woman, appearing as such in virtually every serial thereafter, from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to The Borrowers.
Claudius the half-wit (Derek Jacobi) startles his seniors at the Imperial library: not the idiot he seems
Others in the cast, too, were propelled to stardom. Tiberius is played, with pathos and malice, by the young George Baker (later to star as Inspector Wexford in the Ruth Rendell Mysteries: I say young, but he was already 42); John Hurt is dreamily insane as Caligula; Patrick Stewart, who looks faintly unnerving still having hair on his head, gives the tyrant Sejanus superb virility, with a look of absolute, deliberate command, like a smiling brick wall. These were not flash-in-the-pan actors: 25 years later, all are currently playing leads in major West End and Broadway productions. As I write, Siân Phillips and George Baker both star in this evening's BBC radio performance of All's Well That End's Well.
Tiberius (George Baker, behind) does that Roman male-bonding thing about oil-scraping with his brother (Ian Ogilvy)
If the first rank is Shakespearian, the substantial supporting parts are taken by what were then more familiar screen faces, actors holding lead roles in a wide cross-section of popular drama series of the day: Ian Ogilvy (lead of The Saint), Bernard Hepton (Colditz and Secret Army), John Paul (Doomwatch), Stratford Johns (Softly Softly). Even the tiniest cameos attract actors of surprising quality. Christopher Biggins makes a wickedly giggling Nero. Patsy Byrne (who, like the programme's opening titles, transferred to Blackadder II, as Nursie) is nicely garrulous as the poisoner Martina. Peter Bowles, grubby but defiant in loincloth and chains, is a faintly punk Caractacus. The very young Art Malik has great assurance, not least because, as with all of the minor parts, he may not be on for long but he has something substantial to do when he is.
Bernard Hepton and John Cater, as Claudius's senior civil servants, do not always see eye to eye
Art Malik's two scenes are typical of the way the script conveys the passage of time. We are not shown a long sequence of snippets as he changes. Instead his story is embedded in the larger plot as a sort of short two-act play: Act I, before he is corrupted by ambition; and Act II, after. As well as being highly economical, this is also rather a literary strategy, and underneath the melodrama and kinky goings-on there is a text to reckon with.
I Claudius was the final work of the late, great Jack Pulman, who came to prominence at the BBC as its leading adapter of classic serials in the late 1960s. His other masterpiece was War and Peace (1972), probably the best screenplay of Tolstoy there has yet been, and which turned Anthony Hopkins into a household name. Like Andrew Davies in our own time, Pulman understood the essential point that dialogue from a novel needs to be rewritten wholesale if it is to work on screen. (I Claudius was no automatic success: as the Radio 4 adaptation of 1994 proved, an insipid script would get it nowhere.) Pulman's best move was to split the screen time into three-quarters for Graves's first book, "I, Claudius", and only a quarter for the second, "Claudius the God", because it's the first book which contains the years of survival against the odds. Who is murdering everyone? Who is insane, who is terrified? Anxiety is jacked up by the fact that in almost every two-handed scene one person has terrible power over the other. An especially choice example is a scene at Tiberius's villa at the summit of Capri, where the exiled contender to the throne has only his exasperating astrologer for company. They see a ship arriving in the harbour below, from Rome. Is the news to be good, or bad? Tiberius decides he will throw his astrologer off the cliff to certain death unless, for once, his predictions come true. The actors play it as black comedy, and so it is, but all the same this is drama which goes ruthlessly for the jugular.
It has to be said that not everybody finds that enjoyable viewing. In the interests of balance in this review, I phoned a friend who likes almost all the canonical BBC classics, but can't stick this one, and asked him why. "It's just eleven hours of people being horrible to each other. Where are all the nice characters?"
Tiberius has had quite enough. Sejanus (Patrick Stewart) is a smiling brick wall
The theme is not tyranny but hypocrisy. The Claudians, like The Sopranos, pretend to be one big happy family. Livia, queen of poisoners and with spies everywhere, is mother and first lady to Rome. Claudius makes out he is an idiot. One Emperor after another is revered though palpably unfit to rule. Rome itself is a lie, pretending to be a Republic ruled by a noble Senate. "We have abolished kings in Rome." The endless, patent lies are not decorations to the script but are what give it its force. Here, for instance, Caligula's matter of fact sergeant-major Macro briefs the Senators. Thus far Caligula has only been a psychopath; but now the wheels are really going to come off the wagon.
Macro: The Emperor is coming. Now there is something you ought to know before he arrives, so that you won't be taken totally by surprise... We are privileged to be living at the time of a most astonishing event. The Emperor has undergone a transformation, a meta-mor-phosis. He has become a god. Now that is unusual to say the least. But that's the nature of miracles, to be unusual. And if it's the nature of some people not to believe in them, well the more fool them... However, the Emperor doesn't want to make too much of it. He doesn't want any fuss, or public announcements. He wants us all to behave normally. Although he is now a god, he is still the same loveable young man we have always known, I can attest to that. And to enable his relationships with all of us to continue exactly as they were, he has decided, for convenience, to retain his mortal form... Oh, and by the way, his sister Drusilla's become a goddess. Any questions?
Caligula (John Hurt) with Incitatus. "His life has really opened up since I made him a Senator"
One more sample: a scene which made television history. Augustus lies dying, and for three hypnotic minutes the camera slowly draws in on his face until it fills the screen. His features become gradually lifeless, the nuances steadily tinier: a twitch of the chin, a glisten of the eye. At the start he is visibly alive, at the end visibly dead, and we never see the join. Throughout the whole three minutes, Livia is talking. It is the last thing Augustus will ever hear.
Livia: Are you feeling better? There's a delegation here from Rome. They're waiting here to see you... You're a fine one. You made yourself worse with all those figs, I never heard anything so ridiculous. I only came on this journey to look after you, and you won't let me or anyone else cook for you. It's very embarrassing, you know. People might think we were trying to poison you... I sent for Tiberius. Fortunately he wasn't far away, he'll be here soon. Well, I thought you might want to see him, and he'll do everything that has to be done. Hasn't he always? Of course you haven't always seen eye to eye, but that hasn't been entirely his fault, you know that, don't you? ... You were always inclined to favour one over the other, I've often spoken to you about it. You made fish of one and fowl of the other so often that no-one knew where he was or what he was. You should have listened to me more, you should. You know that, don't you? I've been right more often than you have, you know. But because I was a woman you pushed me into the background. Oh yes, yes you did. And all I ever wanted was for you, and for Rome. Nothing I ever did was for myself, nothing. Only for you, and for Rome. As a Claudian should. Oh yes, my dear: I am a Claudian. I think you were apt to forget that at times, but I never did, no, never, no.
Livia's hand enters shot, closing Augustus's eyes. The camera, shocked, jumps back onto her and finds her looking at her hand as if paralysed. Tiberius breaks the spell by coming in.
Tiberius: How is he?
Livia: He's dead. Augustus is dead.
Tiberius: The earth will shake.
Livia: I must go and see the Senators and the Consuls from Rome. Stay with him until I return... By the way: don't touch the figs.
Wise's direction of this scene was spot-on and Blessed's performance astonishing, but it has to be said, television writing just doesn't get any better than this.
Nero, last of the Claudians (Christopher Biggins). Would you make this man Emperor?
I Claudius has been on high street shelves for nearly twenty years in VHS form. There used to be a woman called Margot whose task it was, with expert fingers, to trim away all episode titles, credits, recaps and indications of episode openings and closings on BBC Video releases: and oh dear, but she was good at her job, worsening releases right across the board, from Smiley's People to The Onedin Line. In particular I Claudius came out as four seemingly endless reels of film, its original structure as a 12-part serial sunk into a morass. Gone was all sense of which scenes paired to which other scenes as book-ends; gone, too, was any reasonable way to watch it in sensible instalments. One of the tapes ended on a clumsy freeze-frame in the middle of an episode, with a bogus "End of Part I" caption superimposed. Margot has happily not worked her magic on the DVD release, so the original episodes are intact, and their wry titles ("A God in Colchester" being my favourite) can be seen again. (I wish I could say the same for some of the other shows now being transferred to DVD, where Margot's work lives on: Poldark, The Onedin Line, The Duchess of Duke Street, and such, all transfers released by PlayBack. Lightweight they may be, but I find it so objectionable to have obliterated - say - the information that Fay Weldon wrote the next bit.)
Instead of Margot's we find the more reassuring name of Paul Vanezis on the box cover. Mr Vanezis is a member of the Doctor Who Restoration Team, a crack squad of television professionals who happen secretly to be fans, and whose sterling work makes the Who DVDs so impeccably presented. These are people who think nothing of mending 6,000 barely noticeably damaged frames of film by hand. I Claudius isn't quite as lavishly attended to, but it does gets a whole fifth disc of extras. The lack of commentary tracks (no doubt because of the huge scale) is made up for by the numerous interviews and "favourite scenes" vignettes. Film of Phillips and Jacobi accepting BAFTA awards is more interesting than one might have guessed: if only for showing that while the cast looked beautiful in togas and Roman hairdressing, they sure were gruesome in the real-life 1970s. The extended footage is tiny, but admirable. It was a late decision to edit together episodes 1 and 2 into a double-bill for broadcast on 20 September 1976: the editing trimmed away two of the book-end scenes, closing episode 1 and opening episode 2 (which was to have been called "Family Affairs"). Here they are. Rather than a photo gallery, the disc presents the Claudian family tree (which, given all the remarriage and incest, is more monkey-puzzle than oak) with stills of the actors keyed to the names, in order to settle those "hang on, who exactly is whose sister?" moments.
The bonus disc has not one but two documentaries. Curiously, neither one is the BBC's own curtain-raiser, In Nineteen Hundred Years, broadcast the night before episode 1 - a missed opportunity since this does survive in the archives. I haven't seen it, but would guess that this is the source of the life-in-ancient-Rome lectures by the show's historical adviser, of which fragments are used in the main extra on the disc. "A Television Epic" is a newly-made documentary which fans of the show will rightly be eager to see. The show's producer and guiding spirit, Martin Lisemore, died in a car crash shortly after the broadcast; Jack Pulman's similarly premature heart attack came only a month or so after; but the director Herbert Wise is on hand, and his remarks are so interesting that one might wish for a full-length commentary by him, rather than just for the Augustus death scene. All the stars are interviewed except Patrick Stewart, now presumably too grand for BBC Worldwide. Derek Jacobi and George Baker are especially instructive. Brian Blessed not only thinks it was a thumping good show, but looks as if he will thump you if you don't agree.
Charles Laughton's lost Claudius
The second bonus feature is a fascinating surprise. In glorious black and white, Dirk Bogarde presents a substantial mid-1960s BBC documentary on the abandoned 1937 movie of the book. Interviews are intercut with the surviving footage, spooky without incidental music, in which Charles Laughton takes on the sandals of Claudius and Dame Flora Robson is Livia. We see a flour-haired Robert Graves talking about the book, a treat in itself: a camp old charlatan he seems too, and one has to remind oneself that he commanded a company in battle before his twenty-first birthday. But the chief interest of the documentary is as a comparison. These two productions, in 37 and 76, betray the anxieties of their days. In 1937 it was about national tyranny, in huge dream-like white marble sets echoing the Nuremberg stadium, or Hitler's Berlin Olympics the previous year. For 1976 it was an intimate, dissolute wrangle of meaningless personal ambition against the decay of society. There are also startling similarities, from the latex old-age makeup to the effeminate reading of Caligula. Laughton seems to have got rather lost in the title role: often he staggers and stares dumbly about him, then makes odd asides in the manner of Frankie Howerd: but at other times he finds something he can work with, and his magisterial power as an actor returns. Strangely, we're told that he built his performance on listening to recordings of Edward VIII's abdication speech. But it wasn't a happy production, and when Merle Oberon (Messalina) was put into hospital by a road accident this was a welcome excuse to shelve the production. It was never finished.
The five discs come in individual card sachets, glued in a slightly odd way to make them the right height to fit in the box. Decked out in Imperial purple, the box is a pleasingly slim volume for the shelf. Episode and chapter titles are printed on the sachets: somebody in the graphic design department ought to be blushing over the heading POISON IS QUEEEN. Does nobody proof-read any more? But the whole thing has a deluxe aimed-at-the-Christmas-market feel to it, and is a bargain at the price.
Jacobi's Emperor Claudius addresses the Senate for the last time
I am tempted to say it would be a bargain at any price. I Claudius enjoys a healthy reputation as "great" television. It deserves to. In the end, this is because it is founded on writing of real substance, and as such is effortlessly superior to by-the-numbers historical series on BBC1 in recent years: Charles II: The Power and the Passion (sic), for instance, or Cambridge Spies, both with excellent casts, beautiful design, an interesting milieu to write about, and good intentions. Neither one will be remembered. They were slackly written, and felt shallow. In my more depressive moments, I find it steadily harder to feel that I know today's BBC characters, who have twenty-word conversations and do nothing but tell each other what both must think obvious ("But Mary is a Catholic and cannot claim the throne!"). No programme is more lowering than the one which will not trust you to give its dialogue your undivided attention. In such moments, I watch American television instead, where we can bless the economics of syndication for giving today's best shows a canvas large enough to paint a landscape. Think of I Claudius as a sort of two-thousand-year prequel to The Sopranos: David Chase openly admits the influence, and it's not a coincidence that the wicked grandmother was still called Livia in AD 1995.
What gives this series such endurance? - such kudos, indeed, that a programme launching twenty-nine years later would still be eager to be associated with it? True, I Claudius was one of those happy productions in which everything gelled, but I believe it would still have been a success even with a second-rate cast, flat painted sets and clumsy camera-work. And for the reason, look no further than the writing team: Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Robert Graves and Jack Pulman. Unbeatable.