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 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.
on 26 October 2002
The greatest television series ever to be made anywhere in the world has finally appeared on region 2 DVD with extensive restoration work done on the original master tapes.
'I, Claudius' charts the bloody and often terrifying reign of four successive Roman Emperors from Augustus through to Claudius himself. Rarely does any series deserve the status of classic but this thirteen hour series produced in 1976 contains some of the finest acting Iï¿½ve ever seen on TV. Derek Jacobi plays the role of the unfortunate Claudius who because of his stammer and other inflictions such as a limp is shunned by his royal family. He is widely mocked despite being of royal blood and considered an embarrassing fool by most of those closest to him.
Appearances are deceiving though and Claudius has a brilliant mind plus a keen interest in history and a longing for the return of the republic. Claudius soon learns that in order to survive the bloody power battles between members of his family (and the murderous games of poisoning instigated by his insane Aunt Livia), he must carry on acting the ï¿½foolï¿½. Whilst all those around them literally lose their heads in the often-barbaric struggles for power, Claudius remains unsuspected and begins to chronicle the real history of his royal family.
Based on the famous novel by Robert Graves, 'I, Claudius' is a gripping and thought-provoking story. The Roman Empire was the greatest civilisation the world had ever seen. Itï¿½s power reached all four corners of the globe whilst the Roman society itself was a complex one. 'I, Claudius' brilliantly exposes the fascinating conflicts within the Roman royal circle. On the one hand, you have this impressive civilisation that achieved many unique feats that havenï¿½t been repeated since (and we must pray that no one country ever has this amount of power ever again). Yet despite their complex and envied infrastructure, the Romans themselves were ruled by petty superstition and a fear of many Gods. For example, one characterï¿½s murderous path is driven by her desire to be made a goddess after death. With so many great performances from a wealth of top British actors (Star Trekï¿½s Patrick Stewart plays the ambitious and deadly Sejanus who will stop at nothing to achieve power over the senate and it puts his politically correct portrayal of Pickard to shame), itï¿½s difficult to pick out a leading actor. Brian Blessed, Fiona Walker, Sian Phillips & Derek Jocobi were all superb. Mention must go however, to John Hurtï¿½s unforgettable performance of Caligula who ends up marrying his sister then declares he has become a god.
As Caligula falls deeper into mental illness, he begins to rule Rome through fear and instant executions. Hurt is quite simply terrifying in this role.
'I, Claudius' has it all. The series is a potent mix of betrayal, murder, incest, orgies, humour, political intrigue, stunning dialogue and convincing characters. The camera work for a series made as long ago as 1976 is inspired compared to most of todayï¿½s TV that is static and dull in comparison.
Underneath it all however is a very series message ï¿½ a warning from history that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Because of the fact that 'I, Claudius' was shot on video as opposed to film, the whole production has an intimate feeling and you canï¿½t help but be dragged in to it. Itï¿½s like being in the front row of a classic play. You forget you are a viewer and take on the role, as observer such is its intensity at times.
Younger viewers more used to a diet of soaps, trashy drama and declining BBC standards may find some themes disturbing. Indeed, a few of the scenes including those featuring Caligula are pretty strong even by modern standards.
The region 2 release has been digitally remastered with no hint of grain and comes complete with a new BBC documentary that contains fascinating insights from the director Herbert Wise and several of the actors involved. Archive footage of Derek Jacobi and Sian Phillips (wearing a stunning dress!) is included from when they both won BAFTA awards in 1976 for their unique performances, and another extra allows the actors to choose their favourite scenes. There is also a handy, interactive family tree to help remind the viewer of the show's many characters and their complex relationships to each other.
A reminder of British TV's former glory days, 'I, Claudius' is thirteen hours of pure TV heaven....
Absolutely bloody gripping. Like a soap opera on steroids, except without the bad aftertaste (of soap operas I mean - don't know if steroids have an aftertaste, honest).
Be surprised at how blessed well Brian Blessed could act - puzzle over why Sian Phillips is not a fully fledged dame, as she gives an old-school masterclass in acting as Livia, inspiring to hate and later move to tears - find out why John Hurt and Derek Jacobi are allowed to spend a comfortable but still-respected old-age in bad movies - gasp at the dodgy make-up which upstages all the actors and later I think is allowed speaking parts on the Young Ones - gawp at Patrick Stewart with hair (wig) - thrill to the naughty bits, safe in the knowledge that you are indulging only in fine art.
This is grand theatre - the sets never make you miss on location filming - although the sound tape of the crowds might. A clear inspiration for Blackadder only this is diabolical history played straight and you will find your laughs to be evil cackles at the ingenious deviousness of it all. But better than any history lesson, watching this you will effortlessly be able to list the next 5 Caesars after Julius (in effect you will be aware of the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty)
Nevermind it was made in the 70s, it won 3 Emmys, 4 Baftas and puts anything new out there to shame.
on 7 September 2001
If anyone has ever wanted to understand how the early Roman imperial dynasty operated, they can do no better than to watch this. The drama brings it all vividly to life with a unsurpassed cast (I especially like the Empress Livia magnificently played by Sian Phillips). At times, dark, comic, disturbing and even camp, this is probably the finest production the BBC has produced. I would even recommend that the contented viewer pick up the original novels by Robert Graves which are literary gems and certainly complement this. Rather than constraining it, the confined studio acting brings it alive - you won't find this subtlety or realism in 'Gladiator' or 'Ben Hur'. These characters are real human beings with real weaknesses. You have to wonder why they don't put this on DVD instead of so much other rubbish.
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.