Judge Jim Thomas was once asked to help inspire an orgy scene. He ended up working in a vomitorium.
Our review of I, Claudius: Complete Series, 35th Anniversary Edition, published March 4th, 2012, is also available.
I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus…this, that and the other, who was once, and not so long ago, better known to my friends and relatives as Claudius the Idiot, or That Fool Claudius, or Claudius the Stammerer, am now about to write the strange history of my life.
Few miniseries have garnered such universal acclaim as the BBCs 1976 production of I, Claudius. The adaptation of Robert Graves' novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God was groundbreaking on multiple levels—the quality of the writing, the at-times lurid subject matter, and above all, the stellar performances. The miniseries was a strong seller, even as a VHS box set priced at $200; that edition was quickly transferred to DVD in 2000. Now Image Entertainment brings us a remastered edition of this true classic.
Facts of the Case
The series, presented as a history of Rome as chronicled by Claudius, spans 24 BC to 45 AD, when Claudius was murdered by his third wife. Each of the 13 episodes is framed by the elderly Claudius writing this history; this construction not only allows us to get to know Claudius immediately (he doesn't appear as an adult until the fourth episode), but having a narrator makes sorting through the plethora of characters much easier, as Claudius can simply identify them in voiceovers.
• "A Touch of Murder"—24 BC. Augustus (Brian Blessed, Henry V) has ruled for the past three years, and the empire is finally at peace. Attention turns to the question of Augustus' successor. Augustus has been grooming Marcellus, his son from his first marriage, but his second wife Livia (Siân Phillips, Dune), intends to see her own son Tiberius (George Baker, The Spy Who Loved Me) on the throne. Livia's machinations drive the first half of the miniseries; the results of her machinations drive the latter half.
• "Family Affairs"—13-10 BC. Livia's plotting continues; Claudius is born.
• "Waiting in the Wings"—2 BC-4 AD. Livia's plans come to fruition.
• "What Shall We Do About Claudius?"—4-10 AD. Claudius (Derek Jacobi, Dead Again) gets sage advice on survival from the Roman historian Pollio.
• "Poison is Queen"—14 AD. Augustus dies and Tiberius becomes emperor; he takes as his right-hand man Sejanus (Patrick Stewart, X-Men), an ambitious member of the Praetorian Guard.
• "Some Justice"—19 AD. Germanicus, Claudius' older brother, dies under mysterious circumstances. A plot develops to prove Tiberius' involvement in the death.
• "Queen of Heaven"—26 AD. Livia dies after extracting a promise from both Claudius and Claudius' nephew Caligula (John Hurt, Alien).
• "Reign of Terror"—29-31 AD. Tiberius has retreated from Rome to the island of Capri, leaving daily governmental duties to Sejanus, who plots to become emperor.
• "Zeus, By Jove"—37 AD. Caligula. Are details really necessary?
• "Hail Who?"—40-41 AD. Caligula, Part Two. Claudius marries Messalina. Claudius finds himself proclaimed emperor.
• "Fool's Luck"—41-43 AD. Claudius reluctantly accepts the mantle of power, and almost immediately, Messalina begins to style herself as a second Livia—with all the scheming that implies.
• "A God in Colchester"—43-48 AD. Claudius is away in Britain. Messalina, reputed to be the greatest wanton in history, accepts a challenge, and plots a rebellion of her own.
• "Old King Log"—48-54 AD. Claudius marries Agrippina, Caligula's only surviving sister, with disastrous results.
From a historical standpoint, the series is fairly accurate; Graves drew heavily on Roman historians such as Juvenal, Pliny the Elder, and Tacitus for details. Claudius himself was a historian—in fact, the novels were inspired by some inconsistencies that Graves discovered. Graves had the idea of Claudius himself wanting to set the record straight, and just as the books are presented as Claudius' history of his family, the series is presented as Claudius writing that history. Where Graves tended to differ from his sources was not so much the facts, but rather the interpretation of those facts. Writer Jack Pulman sticks closely to his source material; even the framing sequences that open and close each episode, though not depicted in the novels, are nonetheless drawn from them.
You want a dysfunctional family? You want plots? Schemes? Backstabbing? Bubbles bursting? Forget the Corleones. Forget the Borgias. Forget the Auburn football program. They're amateurs next to the Julio-Claudians, and the evidence permeates every frame of this magnificent series. If someone isn't plotting against someone else, it's only because he or she is too busy trying to avoid someone else's plot. Ambition clashes with honor, and honor with desire. Too often, honor finds itself discarded along the roadside; when honor does triumph, it can carry a heavy price. Claudius' mother Antonia (Margaret Tyzack) is horrified to discover that her daughter Livilla (Patricia Quinn, The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Magenta, in case you were wondering—the mind, it boggles) has murdered her husband Castor, and now plots with her lover Sejanus to murder Tiberius. Antonia takes matters into her own hands, sealing her daughter into her bedroom. Claudius finds Antonia sitting in front of Livilla's door, Livilla screaming and begging for mercy within.
Claudius: How long are you going to sit here?
Antonia: Until she dies.
Claudius: Dies? Dies? Have you gone mad? She is your daughter. How can you leave her to die?
Antonia: That's her punishment.
Claudius: How can you sit out here and listen to her?
Antonia: And that's mine.
And through the chaos, all Claudius is trying to do is stay alive—for years he has exaggerated his stammer and played the fool so that no one would consider him a threat. No one is more surprised than he when the emperor's mantle finally lands on his shoulders.
The raw tonnage of talent on display is mind-boggling. Derek Jacobi shot to fame as the twitchy, stammering Claudius. From young man to doddering fool, Jacobi is in complete control of the character, by turn comic, tragic, furious, contemplative…you get the idea. His initial appearances as the elderly Claudius give us our first glimpse of the character; despite being the emperor, he views himself as but a minor player in the story of his family. That self-effacing nature endears him to the audience and pulls us into the story. But the most amazing performance belongs to Siân Phillips as Livia. She is as ruthless, manipulative, and blackhearted a figure as we've ever seen on screen, but you cannot help but admire her for her devotion and single-mindedness of purpose. Phillips refuses to portray Livia as a monster, despite her monstrous actions. We see pangs of regret on her face, and her reasoning as she explains to Claudius why he must promise to have her deified reveals a surprising depth of character. It's easy to see why David Lynch cast her as Reverend Mother Mohiam in Dune—Livia and the Reverend Mother might as well be sisters. Another standout is John Hurt's Caligula; he is chilling, without a trace of self-consciousness, no matter how lunatic, obscene, or cruel the action. Robert Morgan (Nuns on the Run) has some amazing moments as the young Caligula, whose innate depravity makes him far more dangerous than Livia ever dreamed of becoming. When Sejanus' career takes a massive turn for the worse, Macro, a member of the Praetorian Guard, emerges to fill the void. You'll look at him, and the inability to place him will drive you crazy. Then he'll say his first lines and you'll recognize the young and surprisingly clean-shaven John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Video is fairly clean. There are few scratches or spots on the print, and colors are nicely balanced (The title sequence, featuring an adder crawling across a mosaic of the title, is very inconsistent; in some episodes, it's pretty clean, in others, there's a fair amount of damage. There is a troubling issue with flaring on light sources, whether from candles or gleams off of a sword. A downside of the remastering is that the prosthetics used to age various characters are very apparent. Audio is free of hisses or pops. The mono soundtrack is perfectly acceptable; the series is overwhelmingly dialogue-driven.
The set title is listed as I, Claudius/The Epic That Never Was. That second part refers to the only extra—a 70-minute 1964 documentary on Alexander Korda's 1937 attempt to produce the story. This BBC documentary was included on both the VHS box set as well as the first DVD release. With Charles Laughton in the title role, directed by Josef von Sternberg and also starring Merle Oberon as the lustful Messalina, the production, plagued by cost overruns and quarrels between the producer, the director, and the principals, ground to a halt after a month, when a car accident incapacitated Oberon. That was the official story, at least; the documentary makes the case that Laughton's trouble getting a handle on the part, coupled with his demands, caused the production to spiral out of control, and Oberon's accident gave the producers a convenient (and insured) excuse. Given that Laughton wasn't alive to provide his side of the story, that conclusion should probably be taken with a grain of salt. The documentary includes about 25 minutes of footage from the abandoned film, from rushes to edited sequences. It's a bit dry and somewhat staged, but it remains an interesting historical record. What is notably absent is any extra relating to the miniseries itself. This miniseries was such a watershed moment for the BBC that it cries out for extras. And there are so many things they could have done. Cast interviews, commentary tracks…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At times, it can be difficult to keep the secondary characters straight, partly due to their sheer number, partly due to physical resemblances. At times, the dialogue-heavy plot drags, but such moments are few and far between.
Despite the glaring absence of extras, if you are at all interested in Roman history or even just enjoy watching exceptional acting, this set cannot be recommended highly enough.
Though I, Claudius is a made-for-TV production, parents should be advised that there is some nudity, as well as some violence—hardly much by today's standards, perhaps, but it's still somewhat brutal. Under normal circumstances, one might say, "Hey, it's got Caligula in it, of course it's going to be inappropriate for kids," but when I went to the midnight showing of The Dark Knight, I saw several people with 4- or 5-year-old children with them.
The BBC is guilty of producing one of the best miniseries in the history of television. Special thanks are tendered to writer Jack Pulman, whose efforts were nothing short of masterful.
Image Entertainment, on the other hand, is guilty of criminal neglect in their utter failure to produce any extras to accompany the miniseries. As Caligula said, "Go in peace. I was thinking about killing you, but I've changed my mind."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• The Epic That Never Was
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