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I, Claudius (1976)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of I, Claudius (1976)
BBC/London Film Productions, 20/9-6/12/1976
1x100 min, 11 x 50 min episodes, colour
DirectorHerbert Wise
ProducerMartin Lisemore
ScriptJack Pulman
Based on the novels byRobert Graves

Cast: Derek Jacobi (Claudius); Siân Phillips (Livia); Brian Blessed (Emperor Of Rome Augustus); John Hurt (Caligula); George Baker (Tiberius); Margaret Tyzack (Antonia); Christopher Biggins (Nero); Patrick Stewart (Sejanus); Sheila White (Messalina)

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Shortly before his death in 54 A.D., the Roman emperor Claudius writes a secret history of his family, recording for posterity the nefarious activities of his murderous grandmother Livia, her weak-willed son Tiberius and her debauched great-grandson Caligula.

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Set in ancient Rome between 24BC and 54AD and shot entirely in the studio, I, Claudius (BBC, 1976) remains an unlikely, uniquely successful serial. Traditionally, British television dramas set overseas or in the distant past have often failed or been critically derided, such as The Last of the Mohicans (BBC, 1971), filmed in Scotland and starring Philip Madoc as Huron warrior Magua, or The Feathered Serpent (ITV, 1976-78), with Diane Keen as the Aztec Empress Chimalma.

I, Claudius, however, was instantly hailed as a classic by critics and public alike. It succeeds thanks to its extraordinary cast, headed by Derek Jacobi (brilliant as the stammering narrator) and a positively reptilian Siân Phillips as the murderous Livia, and the sharpness of Jack Pulman's scripts, which manage to make a remote era both understandable and palatable. Robert Graves' 1934 novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God are often fanciful and historically questionable, and so are the scripts. For instance, in 'Waiting in the Wings' (tx. 27/9/1976) a-historically Gaius dies before Lucius, while, in 'What Shall We Do About Claudius?' (tx. 4/10/1976), Horace appears in a scene set 17 years after the poet's death. However, such changes help Pulman give each episode a standalone structure. Thus each part ends with a dramatic sting, invariably accompanied by Wilfred Josephs' strident music, also heard during the celebrated opening titles over shots of a snake crawling across a mosaic (later parodied in Blackadder II (BBC, 1986)), which perfectly sets the tone for the serial.

Scene after scene brilliantly melds gallows humour with truculent representations of the violence and depravity of ancient Rome, such as when Livia and Martina (played, incidentally, by Patsy Byrne, 'Nursie' in Blackadder II) discuss poisoning techniques, or when Augustus (Brian Blessed in perhaps his best role) lines up and berates the many men his married daughter has been sleeping with. Undoubtedly the most shocking moment, however, is the revolting end to 'Zeus, By Jove!' (tx. 8/11/1976) when Caligula (an appropriately outrageous John Hurt) murders his pregnant sister (who he has married), and then cuts the foetus out of her womb and eats it.

Alexander Korda originally tried to film the books in 1937, and his company London Films is credited as a co-producer on the mini-series. Filming was quickly abandoned however, although the material that was shot later featured in the documentary The Epic That Never Was (BBC, tx. 24/12/1965).

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Making the introduction (2:02)
2. Playing the fool (4:02)
3. The Games (2:33)
4. Accusations (2:54)
Borgias, The (1981)
Blessed, Brian (1936-)
Hill, Bernard (1944-)
Hurt, John (1940-)
Jacobi, Sir Derek (1938-)
Phillips, Siân (1933-)
Pulman, Jack (1925-1979)
TV Literary Adaptation