I, Claudius Poisonously Good Drama
by Kristin Battestella
Everybody – and I mean everybody – who's anybody makes an appearance in the 1976 BBC saga I, Claudius. Based upon the books by Robert Graves, these super-sized twelve episodes pack in plenty of history, ruthlessness, scandal, and irony, remaining delightfully cutthroat and timeless television.
The senile emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi) writes his autobiography and reflects on his turbulent fore-house with grandfather Augustus (Brian Blessed) and grandmother Livia (Siân Phillips). Heads certainly roll as Claudius recalls the degenerate reigns and decadent times of Tiberius (George Baker) and his successor Caligula (John Hurt). Poison and ambition lead to unceremonious ends for most of his kin, not to mention prefects Sejanus (Patrick Stewart) and Macro (John Rhys-Davies) as well as Messalina (Sheila White) – Claudius' own much too raunchy wife. Despite a rocky start to his leadership as young Claudius plays the fool to stay alive, his peaceful reign will yet meet with more fiery relations to come.
I, Claudius debuts with “A Touch of Murder” as the late in life and paranoid Claudius fears spies in Rome. This writing his memoirs narrative frame gives the presentation a stage-like telling rather than showing slow to start design. However, fine performances and strong delivery anchor this slim television structure despite numerous names, quick exposition, and head hopping inner monologues. The audience must pay attention to the talkative scene chewing for who is who as men and women gossip at the gym or the bath. The orchestrated deaths or arranged marriages sometimes play like a soap opera, but the action picks up in 24 B.C. with Roman feasts and testy political talk waxing on a return to the republic versus striving for the dynastic. Everyone watches all they say and do or brown noses for the senate and against rival heirs, complete with poisonous – er medicinal plans for the sickly. Be it a cameo appearance, historical brevity, time transitions, or nefarious intervention, I, Claudius packs a lot of people into this pleasing ninety minute start, which aired as a two-part opening with a second half titled “Family Affairs” for the thirteen episode PBS airings. More mysteriously late successors, horoscopes, omens, and prophecies accent “Waiting in the Wings.” Where will the unfortunate young Claudius fit in to such schemes with his troubles? His grandparents grumble no one would marry Claudius while they secretly mastermind a network of lovers and spies to dispose of anyone in the way. Banishments, unheard pleas, threats – whatever it takes to get one more person gone. Some may find the melodrama hokey at times, but I, Claudius spices up the betrayals with juicy tit for tat, quiet personal moments, and guilty revelations alongside bemusing but not vulgar adultery and saucy affairs. While it's tough to tell who is going to be important or last more than one episode with wrong-sayers being tossed off cliffs and suspicious boating accidents, these budget friendly offscreen demises add to the scandals in “What Shall We Do About Claudius?” Deliciously unlikable complaints about Claudius the twitching idiot fainting at the gladiator games pick up the action alongside shrewd manipulations, fatal whispers in the ear, and reinforcements ready to literally stab commanders in the back. On I, Claudius, one hurried soldier's pointing to the decimated map and reporting massacred German legions, false intelligence, and military fallout in Gaul builds more suspense than if we had seen some now dated battlefield spectacle.
Time also moves fast on I, Claudius with five years later bickering, travels to Corsica, and confrontations between father and son peppering “Poison Is Queen.” Unsuspecting Claudius inadvertently usurps ascension plans while scrumptiously tricked vestal virgins could sway the fate of Rome. There's nothing wrong with two women in a tiny little conspiracy, using someone else's imperial seal, or breaking a few vows for the cause, right? Deathbed premonitions and celestial signs add humorous doubts, too. Does that one hundred mean you'll die in a hundred weeks – or is it months? Maybe you'll live to be one hundred instead! Tender moments, unfortunately, are few and far between on I, Claudius. The elderly grasp for late amends and dignified departures, and watching the face of the dying while the ruthless confess makes for an excellent finale with award winning performances. The suspicions of witchcraft and toxic tampering continue in “Some Justice” with senate trials, missing witnesses, and incriminating letters to match the creepy effigies, eerie omens, and falling on sword disgraces. Poison professionals complain about not being able to practice more while the court of public opinion, superstitious victims, and a little belladonna help dispose of emperors. Cowards, scapegoats, which “little shit” coughcaligulacough is setting the house on fire – I, Claudius has a sardonic perspective countering the empires hanging in the balance. Another stunning finale leads to more entertaining, drinking, and treason ten years later in “Queen of Heaven,” where ladies must comply to beastly behaviors as the nudity, kinky dialogue, astrologers, weeping mothers, and suicides mount. It's surprising such foul language and sensitive topics were so dramatically filmed in this seventies television adolescence, but republican ideals, commitments to decency, and the proper Roman lifestyle have given way to impeachment, public arrests, amoral affairs, and the drugging of one's husband, as you do. Crowded marketplace scenes add to the shocks, however, no sweeping music or fancy editing is needed for meaty dinner conversations or handy rundowns on who was who, who killed them, and why. I, Claudius brilliantly serves Rome's epicness via small, disposable, flawed little people full of their own self-importance.
Narrating bookends catch up on the many sins of the father and mother coming back to haunt one and all in “Reign of Terror.” To some, family members are nothing but pawns – which makes them everything to others. Shackles, whippings, exile, or worse punishments are doled out as Claudius must use his literary work to reveal traitors who put ambition over integrity. Those speaking out against the emperor are coerced into signing confessions with torture and no trials. It's tough keeping up appearances when you can't wait for one emperor to croak so you can have your turn – leading to superb assassination attempts and ruthless downfalls sparing no one. Caligula has become emperor for “Zeus, By Jove!” and his unstable, diva ways show. Comas, metamorphosis, gods in disguise as mere mortals – I, Claudius adds more humor this episode to alleviate the prior head rolling while Claudius must grovel at the demented divinity to save his own neck. There's some nudity, naughty shenanigans, and incestuous drama, however I, Claudius provides more heady in warped soliloquies or wild analogies – the sun burst a shooting star into her womb and all that. Rome goes from bad to worse, and powerful offscreen suicides contrast the subsequently censored worst with class and grace. Brothels are set up in the palace for “Hail Who?” and reluctant doorman Claudius struggles to tame the scantily clad orgies, carousing boobies, and gay romps in all definitions of the term. Rebel rousing, mutinous armies, and conspiracies are everywhere thanks to the emperor's mischief – although Caligula's interpretive drag dance and lingering depravity are somewhat slow compared to earlier, more heavy hitting episodes. Fortunately, screams and sound effects make a terrifying impression, giving I, Claudius another deadly fine topper.
"Fool's Luck” adds more dangerous times as Claudius finds himself in the unlikely and precarious position of Emperor Elect. Friends and foes come out of the woodwork, wondering if the so-called hard of hearing half-wit will be any more fit to leadership than his relatives. Meddling wives and selfish aides are all around, leading to precious little trust, affairs, turning weaknesses into smart politics, and a few slaps in the face for good measure. Greedy builders, swindling businessmen, assassination threats, and lingering seeds of republicanism add more trouble alongside crocodile tears and history coming dangerously close to repeating itself. This is a bit of a reset episode for I, Claudius with less scandal, new players, and not a lot of cast left, however Claudius' rocky start takes a turn for the worse in “A God in Colchester” thanks to his infamous wife's embarrassing sex challenge. Though probably tame today, the nudity, on the back races, and prostitute guilds provide raunchy toppers and pillow talk to match. I, Claudius has witty conversations and juicy double entendres amid serious drama, execution plots, and talk of the Jewish Messiah. Unfortunately, old friends are long dead and there's no one to help against scandals or usurp attempts. The dramatic head choppings aren't enough for young Nero, either, who can't wait for Claudius to kick the bucket in “Old King Log.” These last two episodes have more manipulation than Claudius himself as the narrative now meets his final years. This winding down lags slightly, but creepy mama's boys, gross relationships, and old prophecies accent Claudius' surreal end. Old republic hopes, visits from the not so dearly departed, and conversations with Sibyl make for an excellent end. The ferrymen have come, the old guard is gone, scrolls are burned, and books buried – so much for posterity.
At first, the old age makeup on Best Actor Derek Jacobi (Cadfael, Vicious) is a bit hokey, and Claudius talking to himself establishes his wavering, elderly state of mind better – even if I, Claudius begins with his telling of events before he was born. Claudius inserts himself into the action to comment or transition time jumps and bookend each hour, however his bumbling, absent minded, more hermit than emperor is endearing rather than humorous. Sir Derek's voice is strong, but most pay the young, stuttering, club foot Claudius no mind except to insult him. Not as stupid as he seems, quiet Claudius spends his time in the library – he's swiftly self-taught and able to better his elders with sardonic conversations. His stammering isn't annoying but believable and charming, accenting the punchlines when playing the fool or studying those poisonous family ways. Claudius reads Etruscan and writes dismissed histories while everyone laughs at his long engagements and awkward wedding. Fortunately, Claudius himself sees the humor in his circumstances, and he stands up to Livia – unless she's inviting him to dinner, that is. His cousins respect his wisdom, and Claudius give nasty little Caligula a good talking to about why sisters aren't for marrying, doing his duty even when he's appalled by what Rome has become. Initially it's a sincere understanding, but Sheila White's (Oliver!) Messalina wraps Claudius around her finger with sob stories and resorts to using her body to get what she wants. Though fooled and in love, we sympathize with Claudius as he mourns, bitter and ready to eat the wrong mushrooms. Claudius becomes almost a confessor, an absolver of sin for those who have gone before, and his only solace is in hoping that the truth doesn't die with him.
Best Actress winner Siân Phillips (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) has the style, poise, and slightly severe look needed for the deliciously merciless grandmother of Claudius, Livia. While she compares herself to Cleopatra, Livia's power must come through the men her life, and she intends to see her son succeed just as she only married to be an emperor's wife. Slick with a dry wit where she says one thing then does the devious opposite – Livia's gladiator pep talk insists on no pussyfooting because she wants her money's worth. She disposes of popular potentials and would be successors, positioning players to keep the family in line or avoid scandal. Livia is vain, claiming she was once the most beautiful woman in the world before prophesying her own divinity. She vows to keep her forked tongue in everyone's business right through her deathbed, and the amazing makeup designs match her cruelty toward Claudius as she calls him a twitching jackass who should have been exposed at birth. She's aware she deserves hell even if her terrible doings have saved Rome, but Livia is sincere when she asks Claudius to make her a goddess and forgive her sins. Despite her deceit, Livia gives a great rundown of her crimes and regrets, making the audience surprisingly sympathetic at her end. George Baker (The Ruth Rendell Mysteries) as Livia's son Tiberius, by contrast, is impatient and hating his life. Others go off to fight while he's meddling at home regretting his arranged marriage, but the depressed and ready to leave Rome Tiberius becomes tired of others dominating his life. He's angry at waiting for Augustus to name him heir, and Tiberius soon becomes greedy once he's in power. Popularity eludes him as he grasps for control with heavy handed trials, and at times, Tiberius wonders whether he or his mother really holds the empirical power. He invites important daughters to his kinky room with erotic art and naked slaves, and the aged makeup designs echo Tiberius' murderous, insufferable, and corrupt depravity with pockmarks or worse.
Brian Blessed's (Z-Cars) Augustus, meanwhile, is a fast and loud talker – a strong voice who's used to having what he says goes. He knows his rule is only as secure as his heir and favors each coming and going successor, but Augustus is often blind to Livia's doings or his daughter's indiscretions – making for an angry, embarrassing, and powerful exposé. At once comforting and cruel, Augustus wonders if his family is cursed and admits he doesn't tell Livia everything. He doesn't want to know what's really happening – later coming to realize he deserves his fate for looking the other way to the orchestration in his house. But hello Captain Picard has hair! Patrick Stewart's Sejanus is slick and seemingly so polite when done up in his centurion finery, but he isn't afraid to stab someone and enjoys the subterfuge. Tiberius doesn't see the opportunistic power of his right hand man – Sejanus has his own spies, uses Livilla, and even commissions statues and merchandise in his likeness. He tricks Claudius, using him for marital connections and higher imperial ties. Sejanus orchestrates himself very well indeed – but his popularity doesn't go unnoticed when he's willing to romance both mother and daughter to increase his standing. John Hurt (Alien) as Caligula, however, takes the cake in naughty family relations on I, Claudius. As a boy, Caligula aides in the poisoning of his father and claims he was born a god. He shares erotic scrolls and crafts a charming facade but keeps secrets from Claudius and at times does show his monstrosities. Caligula gives his aged great-grandmother Livia one heck of a kiss on the mouth complete with a major tit grab, but he's much more cruel on her deathbed and later gleefully pounces at the chance to snag the imperial ring off Tiberius' dead hand. Caligula's pasty look is albino and unnatural, matching his sickly delusions of his own glory. He dresses like Cupid, and his attempt to be like Zeus ends in despicable, bloody results. John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings) as Praetorian prefect Macro spews a lot of crap on Caligula's whim, too. Fortunately, he's more than happy to undo Sejanus or, you know, smother one with a pillow as his emperor needs. Like most of the players on I, Claudius, Macro will do whatever it takes to stay at the top.
Of course, everyone and their grandmother really is in I, Claudius including Margaret Tyzack (The First Churchills) as Antonia Minor – the reserved daughter of Marc Antony and mother of Claudius who can't love her son. Antonia grows disgusted by the behaviors during Tiberius' reign but treads carefully after all the madness she has witnessed, ultimately apologizing to Claudius for not being a better mother. Such subdued longevity creates a pleasing parallel to all the debauchery as seen with Frances White's (May to December) Julia. The oft-married, slapped, and passed around daughter of Augustus becomes bitchy and gluttonous – making a name for herself by gossiping and getting it on with her son's best friend before Livia takes care of that. Fiona Walker (The Asphyx) as Agrippina stands up to creepy Tiberius' hypocrisy as well, but her ambition for her children can only go so far and David Robb's (Downton Abbey) Germanicus runs back to Augustus with all the details since there isn't a lot of time or money for I, Claudius to show his campaigns outside Rome. Instead of spectacle, more coming and going stars such as Patricia Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean), Ian Ogilvy (Witchfinder General), and James Faulkner (Da Vinci's Demons) pepper I, Claudius alongside another Lord of the Rings alum Bernard Hill. Numerous players visit for two, three, or four episodes while other fine performances spotlight an episode or less. While it's frustrating when likable people depart, this rotating cast proves that everyone in I, Claudius' scope is fair game.
It's short, dated, and oh so British, yet the slithering snake, opening tiles, and tense music from composer Wilfred Josephs perfectly set this cut throat era. Scrolls, togas, robes and reclining amid the oil lamps, goblets, and fruit add that Roman feeling – along with naked tribal dances, sheer orgies, and nude bedroom romps, because, of course. The muted yet colorful designs are probably seventies cheapness at work, however the quiet palette matches our ruinous, long time ago, archaeological perspectives. While the obviously staged outdoor scenes are brighter with senate steps, marketplace bustle, greenery, and fountains, the gladiator locker room is hokey with near toy looking swords and shields. On I, Claudius, we hear tell of a rhinoceros and clashing sounds of the games but don't see them. Up close camerawork hides the cut corners affordability, and echoing speeches, large temples, and hefty statues accent the hedonistic drama. Lyres or harps and simple pipes create diegetic music, keeping I, Claudius from straying into over the top soap opera crescendos. Whether the ladies' jewelry is cheap or inaccurate, the gradual aging make up, graying hair, and progressing wrinkles on the surviving cast throughout series are amazingly well done. Today's vanity would see most stars unrealistically remain the same age, but these designs set off the bittersweet, decades spanning performances. The titles of the episodes are also spoken lines from each hour, but subtitles are a must for the confusing names, secret conversations, and uneven volumes on the elderly whispering or booming speeches. Names and dates onscreen would have been tremendously helpful to those unfamiliar with the source material, too. I, Claudius moves fast – perhaps too fast when we are accustomed to several seasons of twelve episodes with more Roman folly to tell. While some people or events are glossed over and historians may find places to nitpick the liberties taken, I, Claudius packs major punch alongside bonuses found on the 35th anniversary DVD and the 2002 I, Claudius: A Television Epic retrospective documentary.
I, Claudius provides heaps of Roman mood, flair, and ruthlessness – we'd like to visit but by choice or poison, not many people linger. Despite dense material to adapt and a revolving cast door, the middle episodes here are especially exceptional. I, Claudius ties its generational saga together by putting the bang for its buck in the superb casting. The structure may be so seventies in presentation and design, however I, Claudius remains modern in its cutthroat politicking even if the majority of the series is little more than people standing around in the same few sets arguing. We think we know the history of it all and that this will be a quick, casual weekend viewing, but I, Claudius excels in can't look away drama at its finest.