Thursday, September 21, 2006


I, Claudius

Poison, backbiting, people professing their love and loyalty to colleagues then plotting as soon as their backs are turned, charismatic speeches and leaders being violently deposed… If you want a break from Liberal Democrat Conference, BBC4 is showing the complete run again of one of the finest television series ever made, compelling Roman drama I, Claudius. If you’ve never seen it, do so. The first episode is tonight at 10pm, and not only is the script outstanding, but just about every famous British actor of the 1970s is in it; it originally started broadcasting exactly thirty years ago last Saturday. I wonder why they didn’t decide to show it then, rather than Thursday nights (and no, that other of the greatest series ever made that’s regularly part of the BBC4 schedules still isn’t back; I’ll mention The Avengers again when, hopefully, they return). And, yes, they did show the whole thing just last month, appropriately for August; looking at the ratings, it was a big hit by BBC4 standards, so they decided they’d like it again. The first episode is not only double-length, incidentally, but followed by related documentary Togas on TV (which features not just a lot of I, Claudius but William Hartnell in Doctor Who, The Goodies and someone I’m sure is a young Sutekh).

Tracing the history of the Caesars from Augustus to the ascent of Nero, I, Claudius is loosely based on Robert Graves’ famous novels, but if the easiest TV adaptations to write are novels with clearly defined chapters, clear description and lines that can be turned into dialogue simply by removing ‘She said’ and ‘He said’, this must have been right at the other end of the scale. Written almost entirely in Claudius’ voice and mostly a ‘reported’ record of events, while the novels are impressive, they’re a mass of details and feature very little dialogue. Jack Pulman’s scripts for the TV series are even more stunning when you realise they’re inspired as they are by a book supplying more an erratic plot summary than actual lines. Should you pick up the DVDs, there’s an excellent documentary on them, too, from the same people who’ve done those on Doctor Who releases, one of perhaps three or four other TV series I’d place as highly as this one. Brian Blessed reveals that none of them could get a handle on the characters, and asked the writer, who explained he’d had similar trouble coming up with any scenes to convey the extraordinary story until he thought of the Mafia. And suddenly he had it.

So, essentially, this is the BBC’s answer to The Godfather, but set back in Italy and some 1,900 years earlier. It’s particularly noticeable in the early episodes, as Brian Blessed’s Augustus embraces people with the hearty fervour of a good Family man. In any other show he’d steal it completely, a thoroughly lovable and charismatic dictator, but not when his wife Livia is played by Siân Phillips. Cold, scheming, and utterly compelling, I suspect she and Blake’s 7’s Servalan may have been my political anti-heroes growing up, and helps create the monstrous black humour of the early episodes. Add John Hurt as fey, mad Caligula, blood-soaked guard captain Patrick Stewart, Derek Jacobi as Claudius himself and almost too many other great actors to count, and it’s the cream of British talent.

Aside from the sheer quality, there are quite a few differences between this and modern – if you’ll excuse the term – Roman epics. Like most of my favourite series, the ideas may be epic but the budget isn’t; amazingly, this is entirely studio-based, and you can imagine it as a terrific series of plays, though some of it is strikingly televisual (it’s terribly well-directed, but you won’t get any showy, swooping camera angles, let alone CGI). At the time it was famous for its orgies, but while they seem a little tame by 2006 standards, the reported debauchery still takes you aback. I suspect, though, that the real reason for the orgy rather than the arena favoured of movies was not to shock, but because you can only do one of the two on a small-screen budget. As far as my cursory examination can make out, it’s also pretty accurate in its history – not a claim often made of Rome on the screen. You’ll at least be able to reel off the right names in the right broad sweep of things, though I suspect it gives Claudius rather a good press, while Augustus also comes out of it jolly well (notably omitting his own shagging around), in contrast, of course, to Livia, whom historians apparently think rather maligned. As between them they get almost all the best scenes, though, I’m more than happy to keep them slightly ‘inaccurate’. With Claudius, as it’s his autobiography, you make more allowances for bias in his own favour. Still, we can’t help being on his side, and I remember being particularly pro-Claudius when I saw the whole thing repeated in the 1980s; by then, I was a very bookish teenager with a noticeable stammer that took years of determined speechmaking to overcome, so perhaps that’s unsurprising. Of course he’s a superb character (an superbly played by Derek Jacobi, from youth to old age), his limp and stammer convincing his family – not least his magnificently upright but cold mother Antonia, played by Margaret Tyzack – that he’s an idiot. He survives them all to become emperor, but though he’s a benevolent dictator, he’s always wanted a restoration of the Republic. Where I’m most sceptical of Claudius these days is the way he sets up his successor to be the horrifyingly corrupt Nero, because he wants people to rise up to renew the Republic; Tiberius does exactly the same thing in promoting Caligula because he wants to be loved more after his death than he ever was when alive. Claudius is like an innocent Marxist hoping for repression to hasten the final crisis of capitalism, but his effect is exactly the same as Tiberius, for whom it’s proof of corruption (along with sex, of course, which is generally a sign of moral depravity in this story).

With the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God making up about 800 pages of mostly plot summary rather than detailed scenes, even a dozen TV episodes wouldn’t be able to expand all of it, so if you’re familiar with the books, this is something almost entirely new to discover, both heavily edited and massively expanded. The second book, for example, spends dozens of pages on Claudius’ conquest of Britain, all completely impossible on a TV budget of the time (the elephants would be a challenge even with modern CGI), but while that’s almost entirely omitted you’ll find that almost all the real meat of the TV series was created for it rather than taken from the novels. If the best bits of the books are in Claudius’ asides on his strange history as he tells it, the episodes of the TV adaptation that you should really look out for are the earlier ones, full of manoeuvring, acid dialogue and black humour. Under Tiberius and then Caligula – whose madness I remember from the character inspired by it in Judge Dredd before I ever saw the show – the reigns of terror become bloodier and less diverting than the mafia-ish family soap, high camp bitchiness and poisonings.

I believe it’s the second episode in which the series hits perhaps its most stunning run of scenes, as Livia schemes to bring down Augustus’ daughter Julia, who has been having rather an unwise amount of sex for someone with such a moralising father and uncharitable stepmother. None of this sequence is in the book, but first we see Livia interrogate almost flirtily one of the ambitious young men whom Julia’s been involved with, getting from him a list of Julia’s partners; then Livia confronts Julia’s son Gaius with the news and manoeuvres him into telling Augustus himself, rather than it coming from her; and it all climaxes as Augustus, finally exerting his power as Caesar rather than the chummy man we’ve seen him pose as until now, moves down a great line of nobles, asking questions until he eventually erupts with a great cry,
“Is there anyone in Rome who has not slept with my daughter?”
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Brian Blessed, shouty, no surprises. Well, though he’s been employed to do little but shouting since his magnificent King Vultan, you may be surprised by how subtle his performance is in this; towering, yes, but often very quiet. He’s never quieter than in his death scene as, at last poisoned by Livia, he’s completely still for minutes on end as his wife, off-camera, explains her reasons for everything she’s done before closing his eyes. It’s absolutely mesmerising. When she’s much older, another great scene comes as, in return for a promise from Claudius (whom she’s finally recognised as no fool), she confesses all her terrible deeds to him for his interest as an historian. And in the later, bloodier episodes, the scene that’ll remain with you is of course the appalling close of an episode at which Caligula emerges from a certain room, his mouth smeared with blood, and simply tells Claudius, “Don’t go in there…”

Incidentally, there was an ill-fated attempt to bring the book to the big screen in the late 1930s with Charles Laughton, which became such a famous disaster the book was declared unfilmable. Again, should you pick up the BBC DVD, you’ll find a great documentary on The Epic That Never Was; it shows fascinating glimpses of a movie that might have been more epic but which, even with the magnificent sets and actors shown in the few surviving scenes, didn’t look a patch on the 1976 triumph. It did, however, feature Flora Robson as Livia, an actress who played old women from her thirties. I mention her because her last film role came over forty years later, as an old witch in the entertainingly irregular Greek legend from Ray Harryhausen, Clash of the Titans… In which you can also see, as the haughty queen whose pride gets her daughter into trouble, none other than the BBC’s Livia, Siân Phillips. I wonder if they met?

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Bought this for the Dr one Valentine's Day, and enjoyed her spot-the-source commentary.

It's an oddly stagey epic, especially when they try to convince us we're seeing the senate or circus.

But seen as a broadcast stage play - and forgiven the medium's limitations - it's really very impressive indeed.

I still think the first episode is a bit arduous, and the thing doesn't really get going until Jakobi is appearing in the flashbacks and his narrating elder self gets to comment on what he now realises was happening.
Remind me not to come to dinner with you, Mac ;-)

And, Simon, the Dr's commentary sounds fabulous. You're right about the staginess (and at least they make some attempt to show the Senate, while the circus-seen-entirely-from-the-imperial-box is just hilarious), but I rather like it like that, and the camera is impressively fluid, too.

I think you're slightly mean about the first episode; it probably would be better as two ordinary-length episodes rather than one giant one, but there's still a lot to enjoy in it. All the heartily over-friendly interplay between Augustus and Agrippa always amuses me, almost as much as Augustus berating Tiberius and then saying how much he hates a family row. It's a scream (and at least one of the documentaries recounts how George Baker could never get through it with a straight face).
Episode one was on at the weekend - don't recall whether it was Saturday or Sunday though. Thursdays must be the second showing.
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