In 1934, English poet and historian Robert Graves electrified the literary world with his novel I, Claudius, which along with its 1935 sequel Claudius The God told the story of nearly 100 years of the Roman Empire through the eyes of the fourth emperor, Claudius—a limping, stammering, grossly underestimated idealist. The books were bestsellers, and helped popularize a more personal kind of historical fiction. British cinema impresario Alexander Korda even hired Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg to helm a 1937 movie adaptation, with Charles Laughton as Claudius, but an accident scuttled the production. It wasn’t until 1976, when the BBC adapted Graves’ novels into a 13-hour television miniseries, that I, Claudius finally hit the screen. The TV Claudius proved to be as much of a sensation as the written one, winning awards in the U.K. and then more in the U.S. when it aired as part of Masterpiece Theater. Like Upstairs, Downstairs and Roots, the BBC I, Claudius became one of the defining television events of the ’70s, and just as Graves’ books exemplified a simultaneously sophisticated and populist literature, so the miniseries established a benchmark for excellence that it would take decades for TV producers to consistently hit.
Though shot on videotape—with lengthy, set-bound scenes that play more like theater than cinema—the BBC I, Claudius is a true epic, covering a century of history and dozens of characters who grow old and die after incidents of betrayal, madness, maneuvering, and depravity. Writer Jack Pulman and director Herbert Wise make the most of a ’70s TV budget, suggesting crowds and spectacle with just a few well-placed extras and some detailed costume and set design. Wise moves the camera smoothly and dynamically around the columns, and transitions in a blink between scenes that are sometimes set months or years apart, borrowing tricks from the early days of live television to keep the audience engaged. To that same end, I, Claudius doesn’t spare the titillation. As Pulman and Wise track through the reign of the jovial Augustus (played by Brian Blessed), the tortured Tiberius (George Baker), the insane Caligula (John Hurt), and the studious Claudius (Derek Jacobi), they enliven the backroom intrigue and conflict with the occasional orgy or disemboweling.
Based on history but not strictly factual, I, Claudius offers up a very British Rome, with enough dry wit and polite savagery to rival Downton Abbey. Nearly every episode contains at least one memorably wicked scene: Augustus walking blank-faced past a seemingly endless line of his daughter’s lovers; the master manipulator Livia (played by Siân Phillips) complaining to an assembly of gladiators about their attempts to fake wounds in combat; Caligula cutting (and eating) his own baby out of his sister’s stomach; and so on. And the interlocking stories of the Roman emperors tell one big story about how the ideals and intentions of rulers get sidetracked by uncontrolled lusts, bad associations, and an addiction to power. All of this is witnessed—and lived out—by Claudius, whose love of history and gift for telling people what they want to hear keeps him alive through decades of tumult.
What I, Claudius most has in common with the best TV of any era is that it brings together a phenomenal cast and assigns them to characters who are immediately recognizable. Even with so many people wandering through these episodes—some getting hours of screen-time, some killed off after only a scene or two, and many with similar names—it’s never that hard to tell who anyone is, because Pulman and the cast instill in each character such strong, clear personalities. They cease to be remote figures and become familiar, such that when Livia warns Tiberius, “Don’t touch the figs,” her treachery and ferocity drip from every word; and when Claudius tries to ride the wild wave that is Caligula’s reign, the sense of how far Rome has fallen since Augustus is palpable and tragic. I, Claudius earns the greatest compliment that any TV series can receive: Its world and those who populate it are so vivid that we miss them when they pass away.
Key features: A recent interview with Jacobi, a lengthy documentary about the making of the series, and an equally lengthy 1967 documentary called The Epic That Never Was, about Korda and von Sternberg’s ill-fated I, Claudius.