Emperor Tiberius: “Has it ever occurred to you, mother, that it’s you they hate and not me?”
Livia: “There is nothing in this world that occurs to you that has not occurred to me first. That is the affliction I live with.”
Sejanus: “If he’s profoundly loved, he’s also profoundly dead. No harm in loving the dead. Everyone’s loved when he’s dead.”
Livia: “I wouldn’t count on that if I were you.
Caligula, on hearing of a plot against Tiberius: “People really are despicable.”
With dialogue like that, there’s no need for special effects, no need for CGI renditions of the Colosseum, or even for the “cast of thousands” beloved of movie directors. What keeps the landmark BBC series I, Claudius so fresh after 35 years is the savagely witty dialogue of scriptwriter Jack Pulman, performed with relish by the likes of Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Margaret Tyzack, and Patrick Stewart (yes, Captain Picard). The series made Jacobi a star, but Siân Phillips, as the ruthless Livia, may give the most enjoyable performance of all.
The whip-smart dialogue, as fans of the series well know, forms a giddy counterpoint to an operatic plot featuring just about every permutation of sex and death imaginable. There’s also John Hurt as Caligula, in a gold bikini and makeup Hurt applied himself, because the BBC makeup girls couldn’t make it tasteless enough, dancing the role of goddess of the dawn in a ballet of Caligula’s own devising before a terrified audience who know they must applaud or die.
The twelve-episode series aired on Masterpiece Theater in 1977, becoming one of that series’ landmarks even as it pushed the bounds of what was acceptable on American television. Jacobi and Philips took home the BAFTA television awards for Best Actor and Best Actress the year it aired. A third BAFTA was won by Tim Harvey, for Best Design, and the newly released 35th anniversary DVD set shows just how intelligently the show’s creators made use of what now might seem limitations.
For those new to I,Claudius, the series dramatizes two historical novels by Robert Graves, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, purporting to be the secret memoirs of the Roman Emperor Claudius, who unexpectedly came to the throne in 41 AD after the assassination of his nephew Caligula. The real Claudius may have initially been kept from public office — and protected from political intrigue – by slight deafness and a limp.
The Claudius imagined by Graves is afflicted by a limp, a stammer (not a stutter – Jacobi explains the difference in the bonus documentary), and an uncontrollable twitching that lead his family to dismiss him as an idiot; his hobby of writing densely researched historical monographs merely adds weight to their conviction. In fact, Claudius is a keen observer who learns to use his infirmities as protective coloration, staying alive and even maintaining something of a moral compass, as his relatives fall victim to their own excesses.
The story unfolds as an extended flashback, as the aging emperor (Jacobi) sets out to write his family’s secret history. He returns us to the days when the first Emperor, Augustus (Brian Blessed) was consolidating his power and formalizing Rome’s shift from a republic to an imperial monarchy. Working sometimes with, sometimes against Augustus, is his wife Livia (Phillips). The period of civil war that preceded Augustus’s rule is to Livia what 9/11 was to Dick Cheney: justification for the maintenance and expansion of power by any means necessary. She has decided that the appropriate tool for her ambitions is her son by her first marriage, Tiberius (George Baker).
Soon, the death rate among Tiberius’s rivals becomes suspiciously high. But when Tiberius does at last succeed, it’s as an embittered old man. He withdraws to his villa at Capri, which is something like the Playboy Mansion, and something like the Manson Family ranch, and a whole lot like Clare Quilty’s Pavor Manor in Lolita (though Tiberius has to make do without movie cameras).
The ambitious general Sejanus (Patrick Stewart) makes a play for power, but it’s Rome’s fate to fall into the hands of Caligula (John Hurt), whose depravity more than matches that of his uncle Tiberius, and who has the added quirk of believing he’s a god. (Hurt, fresh from playing Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, and soon to have the original alien burst out of his chest in Alien, adroitly balances camp with silken cruelty). After Caligula’s reign of terror, Claudius attempts to put things back on course, but his own wives, Messalina and Agrippinilla (mother of Nero, Claudius’s ultimate successor), just seem to offer more proof that the dynasty’s moral decline is irreversible.
The complex narrative moves with considerable speed, with no “previously on” segments to aid forgetful viewers – it makes as many or more demands on the viewer as the layered plots of contemporary cable series. Newcomers should be aware that the opening episodes cover decades of history at a fast clip, and the series really hits its stride in the later years of Augustus’s reign. Brian Blessed, in the first of his many, many turns as a booming-voiced leader of men, is appropriately larger than life as Augustus, a generous man whose vision and authority is undercut by a short temper and a fatal blindness to the flaws of his nearest and dearest.
In Siân Phillips’s hands, Livia becomes one of TV’s most memorable characters. Impossibly lean and elegant, there’s a snaky glamour to her every movement, and her devastatingly well-chosen words hum with sinister undertones. Yet the scenes in which, as a very old woman, she pleads with Claudius to promise she will be made a goddess after her death, so she can escape punishment in hell for her crimes, is strangely moving and perhaps the high point of the series.
This same scene exemplifies the distinctive way in which much of the series is staged – in long takes, more like live theater than film, enlivened by artfully choreographed camera movements. The style of the acting is likewise more theatrical than cinematic, particularly from a contemporary perspective, though with a cast of this caliber this is largely a strength. The action takes place almost entirely indoors, in sets built on sound stages, with the outside world largely reduced to light slanting in through the windows and the occasional roar of unseen crowds. This is appropriate, given that the characters mostly see the mass of Romans as background noise to be orchestrated for political effect. The few “crowd” scenes, according to the making-of documentary on the final disc, depended on artful staging of a handful of extras (only fifteen, according to actor George Baker).
I was happy to see that the sets, revealed in all their detail by digital remastering, are still impressive. Livia’s private chamber, with murals of trees and birds on a jade-green background, remains one of my favorite set designs ever. The credits, in which a viper slithers across a mosaic floor as weird, discordant music plays, are still eye catching.
The costumes keep their appeal, too – their flowing, vaguely art-nouveau lines and rich, off-key colors evoke the kind of thing Barbara Hulanicki was designing for her store Biba when the series first aired. Yet one of the minor fascinations of the series is seeing actors who’ve clearly spent more time rehearsing Shakespeare than at the gym or the cosmetic surgeon, or being styled by Rachel Zoe. I trust that Patrick Stewart fans won’t be disappointed that he didn’t go in for manscaping.
It’s interesting to think of the series as a product of its times – as a meditation on the decline and fall of Britain’s own empire, on the further reaches of the sexual revolution, on the cynicism and paranoia of the Watergate era. And the theme of increasing authoritarianism and surveillance in the name of national security has only gained in resonance.
Yet it also provides a look at an alien value system, in which auguries, omens, and prophecies inspire real belief, and gods are casually multiple. “It’s quite insufficient. You can have some of ours, you know,” is Augustus’s response to an explanation of Jewish monotheism. I wonder if in dropping mandatory Latin and Greek, which once made this wholly non-Judeo-Christian world view part of the mental furniture of any educated person, we’ve lost something.
The older characters, notably Claudius’s mother Antonia, pride themselves on adherence to values that exalt civic duty and stoic forbearance above all else. Suicide is an honorable choice, with its own etiquette. Upon learning of her daughter’s role in a planned coup, a mother locks her in her room to die. Death will be her daughter’s punishment; listening to the younger woman’s dying cries will be her own punishment, for bringing such a creature into the world.
If the series has a weakness, it is that the characters who dominate the later episodes don’t have quite the personality of Augustus and his immediate successors. The villainesses Messalina and Agrippinilla lack Livia’s grandeur and breadth of vision. Still, this sense of decline only makes the scene near the end, where the early characters appear to an aging Claudius, all the more poignant.
The DVD extras include a very watchable documentary on the making of the series, dominated by the actors themselves, an extended interview with Jacobi, and cast members and the director introducing their favorite scenes. Sadly, both Margaret Tyzack (Antonia) and George Baker (Tiberius) have passed away since making their contributions.
Of most interest to film buffs is the 70-minute documentary The Epic That Never Was. Made in 1965, and hosted by an almost unbelievably suave and handsome Dirk Bogarde, it tells the story of the 1937 film of I, Claudius, starring Charles Laughton (Claudius), Emlyn Williams (Caligula), and Merle Oberon (Messalina). Produced by Alexander Korda and directed by the legendary Josef von Sternberg, the already troubled production was abandoned after Oberon was nearly killed in a car accident.
The old-Hollywood staging of the interviews, especially von Sternberg, clad in a houndstooth jacket and smoking a pipe, holding forth in an empty auditorium at UCLA, provides a piquant contrast to the newer documentaries. There’s also a fascination in seeing Williams, a gay man, discussing a movie in which he’d co-starred with another gay man (Laughton) in a documentary hosted by a third gay man (Bogarde), describing the costumes he was to wear as Caligula as “two hostess gowns and a couple of short cocktail numbers.” Imitating von Sternberg’s German accent, he relates the director’s description of Caligula as “perhaps a little bit sissy, but not too much.”
The surviving scenes reflect a very different vision of Graves’s novel. Presented with six vestal virgins in chaste robes, von Sternberg demanded sixty, naked under translucent veils, in time for the next day’s shoot. It seems I, Claudius has always inspired the larger than life, however expressed.