on 14 May 2003
An epic soap opera following the life and times of the great imperial Cesars in Rome at the height of its world power. Massive helpings of sex, intrigue, violence and madness all acted with gusto by a stellar British cast, aided by a witty script and skillful direction. Both Derek Jacobi as Claudius and especially John Hurt as Caligula are absolutely mesmerising. If you know nothing of this period in history you will learn much even if a great deal of artistic license was used by Robert Graves in his books on which this series is based. Knowing how each member of the extended and inter-married imperial family is related to the other can be sometimes confusing but is essential in following the plot and if you pay sufficient attention you will be rewarded. Some great extras on the DVD too with an hour long retrospective containing interviews with all the major players and the cast choosing their favourite scenes being among the best. Theres an absolutely essential family tree as well but its a bit of a spoiler so best left til last. ...As well as being a great example of why the BBC was once so deserving of its reputation as a leading force in TV drama throughout the world, what you are getting here is the chance to immerse yourself for a few hours in a gripping story set in a studio-bound but convincingly Roman world, one that you will be utterly grateful you had the great fortune not to have been born into.
on 19 December 2008
I remember seeing thie series on the TV many years ago, and I wondered how it would compare to my memories.
The bad stuff first: this dates from the time when the BBC used videotape, rather than film. Everything is studio-bound, and all the sets, even the most ambitious, are obviously just that, with multiple shadows. The picture quality is also soft, though the colour isn't too bad. As for the box, it contains precious little about the production: shame on you, BBC.
The good stuff: the artificiality actually helps, as you start to see this as a theatrical production, rather than a realistic one. And as such, it is tremendously gripping, with Graves' words impeccably transferred to the new medium, and a dream cast, with no weak link. Almost immediately you are drawn into the plot (Claudius doesn't actually appear for ages, but you don't care), and you are held until the end. Yes, it really is that good!
on 20 September 2002
I saw this on when I was at school back in the 70's, when it was first shown (twice a week), and when it was repeated in the 80's. I have since bought the videos. This dedication must go some way to show how incredibly powerful the acting and script are in this portrayal of Imperial Roman life from Augustus to Nero. Personally I can't wait to see them restored on DVD, complete with cast interviews.
The power of this series lay in it's use of small sets, making the intrigue far more personal and believable. Poison dripped from every word, look and gesture of Sian Phillips as Livia. John Hurt was incredibly disturbed & disturbing as Caligula, and Derek Jacobi was amazing as Claudius, surviving when all around fell.
The biggest problem with I Claudius is that the acting and story are so powerful, I often find myself thinking of the actors Roman characters when I see them in other things.
This is a must watch piece of classic BBC drama, with the cream of British acting talent.
on 9 April 2010
"I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, this that and the other, am now about to begin ......"
The opening words of this extraordinary series are the stuff of legend. Derek Jacobi as the Emperor Claudius, with his limp and his stammer (the yardstick by which all subsequent actorish stammers have been measured) and the remarkable makeup that takes him from old man to young man to old again turns in such a superb performance throughout the eleven episodes that he must be numbered one of the all-time greats in television drama.
The supporting cast is no less impressive - from the deadly Livia of Sian Phillips, the fiercely matriarchal Antonia of Margaret Tyzack (why was she never made a DBE ?) and Brian Blessed's homely, bumbling Augustus Caesar - down through the ranks to the minor roles, what we have here is ensemble playing of the highest quality.
It is deliciously theatrical - mainly because that was how the series was conceived. It could never have been 'Ben Hur' - or any other toga-clad epic with thousands of extras in a sun-drenched location - studio drama was never like that, and it's often a better and more powerful product because of its necessary limitations. 'I, Claudius' begins with a script that is a masterpiece of adaptation. Anyone who has ever ploughed through Robert Graves's original novels (yes, there are two of them, and mighty hefty they are) will realise the Herculean labour undertaken by Jack Pulman (who also adapted the BBC's 'War & Peace') and will have to agree that he did a superb job with extremely exacting material.
The novels contain very little dialogue, with most of what speech there is reported by the narrator, Claudius. To get round this, Jack Pulman has created a deliciously modern and often very funny tragi-comedy which somehow sits effortlessly among the fountains and colonnades and scantily-clad slaves of Ancient Rome - and the actors play it for all it's worth. It's frequently over the top, but it's meant to be, and it works.
The idea of a 'classical period' being portrayed in any other way is now virtually unthinkable. Thanks to 'I, Claudius' the heavy rhetoric and the thees and thous beloved of so many epics have gone for ever.
Even the music will be a surprise to anyone not familiar with the series: no brazen symphonic score or pseudo-antique strumming and tinkling of cymbals - we are blasted with a hard-hitting, almost jazzy affair to accompany the slithering of a viper across a mosaic depiction of the emperor and the opening titles.
There is plenty of sex and violence and even some nudity (yes, really, in 1976!) and in the days of the programmes' first transmission, warnings were given out that 'some viewers may find certain scenes disturbing ...'
Viewers of today needn't fear. They will have seen far worse on their screens, in every sense. They can watch all eleven episodes and enjoy them for all the right reasons. An added bonus is the BBC documentary 'The Epic That Never Was' introduced by a very elegant and well-spoken Dirk Bogarde. He charts the story of the failed attempt to film Graves's books in 1937. The producer Alexander Korda had Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon, Emlyn Williams and Flora Robson lined up and signed up to play the protagonists - alongside a galaxy of British movie stars. The project was doomed, and was abandoned a short way into shooting.
The surviving footage is shown in full, and is a fascinating record of vintage film production. There are entertaining interviews and anecdotes from surviving cast and crew alike, all extremely intelligent and at the forefront of their respective professions.
This boxed set of 'I, Claudius' on five DVDs is extremely good value, even at full price - and the series must remain one of the BBC's crowning glories. Like Shakespeare, it's for all time. The gods forbid that ANYONE be cynical enough to try doing a 'remake'.
If you haven't got a copy, get one. It's worth every penny or cent or euro, and probably always will be.
(MARGARET TYZACK'S OBITUARY APPEARED IN 'THE DAILY TELEGRAPH' IN JUNE, 2011. I HAVE ADDED THE TEXT TO THE COMMENTS SECTION BELOW. WORTH READING.)
on 16 October 2005
Claudius has no wish to be emperor. He's been a republican all his life. His strongly held beliefs would have been the death of him if he'd not had the good fortune (under the circumstances) to be afflicted with a stammer, a limp and a twitch, all of which blinded the corrupt, ambitious murderers around him to his strength of character and intellect. They underestimated him and mocked him but at least they didn't kill him. So, seemingly, against all the odds, a sickly child who almost died of his childhood illnesses, survives while his friends and family are variously poisoned, stabbed, drowned (often by other members of his mad/bad family) and, when necessary, he flatters and placates the monsters that might otherwise destroy him on a whim. And eventually, after the undignified demise of his insane nephew, the emperor and self-proclaimed god, Caligula, Claudius is forced, against his will, to become emperor of Rome. His great passion has always been history and he decides to record the extraordinary, bloody history of his family - leaving out no detail, however repulsive - to be hidden for future generations to discover.
It's such a delight to watch this serial again after all these years. The script, the acting, the camera work, the music - the whole package - is a remarkable achievement. You could argue that some of the make-up is a bit obvious and overdone but when you consider that the actors are followed through the story from their character's early youth to their extreme old age, it's hard to image how it could have been accomplished without heavy 'pancake' makeup. George Baker for example, was in his 40s and had to play Tiberius from his fit, athletic 20s into his sick and degenerate 80s. And he and all the other actors who had to pull off this amazing trick, caked in rubber, powder and all manner of uncomfortable material, managed it with style. There are dozens of noteworthy scenes and the actors are allowed to pick their favourites on one of the special features on disc 5. One of my particular favourites escaped notice on the actors' interviews feature, so I'll just mention it here. Look out for Tiberius having an angry, impotent rant at his mother, Livia, over the injustice of Augustus' ingratitude and coldness towards him. It's worthy of Basil Fawlty. Very funny. There's a huge amount of humour throughout though, which is quite an feat amidst all the seriously nasty, ugly viciousness. These programmes hook us in at every level. The imperial family are depicted in a way that makes them seem ordinary and accessible, like soap opera characters. You can see how they could have been normal people if they hadn't been corrupted by power. They're ruthless in their determination to get what they want, but at the same time they have parent/child and sibling relationships, friendships and good natured rivalries, that make them seem reasonable, genial and even caring - but don't trust any of them, whatever you do. These people are complex, interesting and lethal. Corruption is the norm because most of the people who were found to be incorruptible have been eliminated.
There are 13 episodes of 50 minutes each (the first 2 episodes have been joined into one of about 1 hour 40 minutes so only 12 are listed) on the first 4 discs and the 5th disc has a nice collection of extras, including interviews with the actors, director and the author Robert Graves, who wrote the books "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God" that this production was based upon. There is an interesting 70 minute documentary about an epic film of the books that was never completed, officially because Merle Oberon, who was playing Messalina was in a car accident, but really because the director, Josef von Sternberg couldn't get on with his leading man (Claudius) Charles Laughton. Quite a lot of that old film survives and the contrast between it and the serial is interesting. There's also a very useful graphic of the family tree on disc 5. The relationships between the people in Augustus and Livia's family are so convoluted (and what we would regard as incestuous) that it really helps to understand how they're all related. All excellent stuff. Highly recommended!
on 19 January 2010
After not seeing this for more than twenty years I was a bit apprehensive about revisiting it; would it be as good as I remembered or would time have been unkind to it? The make-up on the characters as they age throughout the series is certainly dodgy at times (but that's no revelation: it looked dodgy back in 1976) and at times there seem to be big chunks of history missing, with characters ageing alarmingly between episodes, but these are minor niggles. In fact, the series is still excellent, and better in some ways than I remembered. For one thing, I had forgotten how very funny it was. Granted the humour is as black as pitch, but there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, especially those featuring Sian Phillips's Livia. Derek Jacobi is wonderful, and most of the supporting cast give it their all. One surprise was the sex and violence; possibly I had been fooled by watching "Rome" recently, but I remembered "I Claudius" as being wall to wall blood and nudity, and in fact it isn't; even the orgy scenes are decorously done. Only Messalina spends a great deal of time nude, and then only in a single episode. For once, revisiting a classic and a favourite of the past has proved an enjoyable experience, and not just for reasons of nostalgia. Highly recommended.
on 11 October 2002
When the series was first broadcast in 1976, many of us watched it in black and white. As with any big-budget BBC production, we could expect one repeat run after the BAFTA awards, but then the tapes would be locked away in the vaults of Broadcasting House. It was never intended for the scrutiny of repeated viewings on video or DVD. As with nearly all 1970s TV programmes, this has a mono soundtrack. The sharpness of the DVD mastering reveals many of the flaws in the actors' make-up -- the joins where Claudius's false nose and wig meet his skin can frequently be seen, for example.
There are no location shots at all -- all scenes were filmed inside the BBC studios. Aside from the excellent characterisations and acting by the main players, most of the minor characters seem flat. Most of the young men, including members of the imperial family destined to be poisoned, just seem dull princes with 1970s haircuts and no idiosyncrasies.
But it just doesn't matter. This is an absolutely glorious series, which brings back many memories of the 70s. One night a week for 12 weeks in 1977, we made sure we stayed in to watch the repeats of I, CLAUDIUS. From the moment that snake appears across the opening credits (later parodied in BLACKADDER) with the chainsaw buzz of the series' theme tune, we were hooked.
Derek Jacobi is superb as the shy, handicapped, intelligent historian who never wanted to be emperor but ultimately attained the heights. (You can almost seem him as an early role model for Hugh Grant in FOUR WEDDINGS or NOTTING HILL.) The message I personally took away from these viewings as a teenager was this: don't be ambitious for status; don't stick out; just be true to your heart and work hard at whatever task comes your way. Watching it again in as a repeatedly tactless 43-year-old, I see that I somehow overlooked Claudius's extremely diplomatic, even fawning nature.
There are lots of fantastic British character actors in minor roles -- e.g. Geoffrey Hinsliff, later to star in the excellent sitcom BRASS and the long-running UK soap, CORONATION STREET. Notice also, if you can, the actor who plays Gimli in the new LORD OF THE RINGS movies. Special mention should be made of Margaret Tyzack, who plays Claudius's mother outstandingly -- she is almost always ignored in reviews of this 12-part series, simply because there were so many major roles.
If you haven't seen this series before, then beware the first episode, which is twice the length of the others, and much the worst. It's a scene-setter, a vehicle for establishing some of the key early characters, but it doesn't do quite enough to get the viewer to commit to watching the other 11 episodes which, as it happens, all sparkle with brilliance.
At least two year after its US release, this DVD set is at last available in the UK. If it had been made by Americans, I guess we British would have criticised it for all its historical inaccuracies. But we must blame the original author of the books, Robert Graves, for these. Nearly everyone who saw the series has much affection for it, and we all hope we know a little more about Roman history. Perhaps what we learnt is really about the corruption that absolute power brings.
on 23 July 2007
I don't remember this series when it was first aired on TV in 1976 (hey, I was only three), but I do remember it being repeted in the eighties. I think that may have started my facination with the ancient Roman empire.
My dad bought it on VHS in the nineties. I watched it then & my love for this series grew. I practially begged my dad to get me my own copy of this wonderful series & he did on DVD about three years ago.
I make a point of watching it at least once every 6-8 months (FANTASTIC!!)
Historically, it is not all fact (but there are a lot of true facts within the program (as a reader of the classics I didn't worry too much about the plot, it just made great viewing)).
Kind of starts off where the new HBO/BBC series 2 "ROME" finishes. Trust me - you'll love it.
on 21 December 2005
First, the series is complete and uncensored in this DVD collection. Second, the sound quality is excellent. The only problem with the DVD is that each disc is in a cardboard slip that makes it dfficult to get the disc out. You have to grab it and hence smudge it a bit as you take it out. But this DVD is well worth getting. I saw the series when it aired in the U.S. in 1976 and was amazed at how well it still holds up, from the opening sequence with the slithering snake on. Derek Jacobi and John Hurt turn in excellent performances and the screenplay adaptation fo Robert Grave's novel is superb. I ordered this DVD edition after reading that the U.S. DVD edition is horrible (poor sound, poor image qulaity, and censored episodes). I'm glad I did.
I have to confess I'd never seen this before although I have read both of Graves' Claudius novels a number of times and love them. So when a friend bought me this I was a little unsure: I'd heard about the BBC studio staginess and wasn't sure how I'd react being more used to modern films.
But I needn't have worried: this is gripping despite, or maybe because of, the low budget. Instead of the focus being on props and big scenes, it's set surely on the acting. A plethora of British greats star in this, many of whom I've only known in much later incarnations. So we have a young Brian Blessed with no beard in sight, a very young Patrick Stewart with hair, and an amazingly effete John Hurt, as well as Derek Jacobi, of course, who ages before our eyes as the stuttering, limping, Claudius.
This production covers the timescale of both books (Claudius the God as well as I, Claudius) but dispenses with the Herod plot which takes up a large chunk of the second book, keeping the focus tightly on Rome.
Graves wrote these books as potboilers rather than as serious history and has a huge amount of fun here with Suetonius and Tacitus. So don't necessarily believe this is an authentic version of classical Rome; but it's certainly a great BBC classic.