Good drama never dies – it is digitally re-mastered and marketed a generation later. Nor does good literature ever die – reprints are constant for canonical works that have stood the test of time against more modern rivals that may appear for a brief print-run, fail to make the grade, and end their lives on the remainders table. When good drama is based on good literature, there is usually an instant recipe for lasting success and critical acclaim. The BBC’s original adaptation of Roberts Graves’ I, Claudius has received constant repeats on British television in the 31 years since its release; it can still be seen at quarterly intervals or so on one of the BBC’s satellite or cable channels, and for a few years now it has been available on VHS and DVD. It is not a bad lifespan for a thirty-year-old studio drama.
Studio drama is a TV genre that was popular in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and the BBC excelled in producing quality work on a fairly low budget: Elizabeth R, The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth, were just two of the critically acclaimed costume dramas produced in the early to mid-‘70s. Adaptations of classical works of literature – Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Persuasion – were commonplace to the British viewer in an age where drama was immediate and intimate and stress was on script and performance rather than set and production. In fact, small budget studio drama was everything that the latest big budget dramas are not. The studio is now reserved for sit-coms, while drama has been taken over by the corporate enterprise. For drama lovers everywhere, this progression should be welcomed rather than regretted. Drama is now a total experience, with as much emphasis on the visual aspects as the interaction of the characters themselves.
For this reason a modern viewer may well expect the BBC’s I, Claudius to look old-fashioned, and to a large extent, it does. There is no such thing as ‘special effects’, for instance, and although groundbreaking at the time for its use of make-up, such great strides have been made in this direction that the rubber-masked characters look like the villains in a pantomime. And therein lies the key: British television drama in the 1970s was still influenced largely by the theatre, and the make-up reflects this. Sets built on ‘flats’ is also a hangover from the theatre, and although the walls of the Imperial houses in I, Claudius accurately reflect the landscape wall-painting of the Late Second Period of Republican Roman art, they now look tired and almost shoddy compared to the sumptuous reproductions in such dramas as HBO’s Rome. Lighting is largely flat and non-atmospheric; props and costumes are not over-stressed. But all these things are cosmetic, and if a drama is performed to distinction, based on a first-class script, they should not detract from the viewer’s enjoyment. As in the theatre of the times, performance was the central factor – everything else was simply background.
Translating Graves’ wordy novels, I, Claudius and Claudius, the God into a screenplay was the task of Jack Pulman, whose wife, Barbara Young, played Agrippina the Younger (Agrippinilla) in the series. Pulman managed to create dynamic, witty dialogue, while incorporating sections of Claudius’ narration taken directly from the novels. His script retained the lively flavour of Graves’ prose and brought out the wit which earned the series its tag of ‘black comedy’. The novels themselves are largely based on the work of Suetonius and Tacitus, with a bit of Dio thrown in for good measure. Graves himself was a poet and classicist who translated Suetonius’ Lives for Penguin Classics and published a compendium of Greek mythology in two volumes. He was not a historian, and like any novelist, he wished to present an interesting and entertaining story, therefore he takes some liberties with historical fact; but there is little in the novels that cannot be found or hinted at in one of the three above-mentioned primary sources. The eponymous hero, ‘Cl-Cl-Claudius, or Claudius the Idiot’, the fourth emperor of Rome, relates the history of his family from the winning of sole power by the Emperor Augustus, through the reigns of the gloomy Tiberius and mad Caligula, down to his own reign and subsequent death in 54AD. It is a rather traditional view of the dynasty that began with a well-meaning, benevolent despot and progressively deteriorated through unworthy successors – ‘All power corrupts’, muses Claudius as the reign of his uncle Tiberius declines into terror. Amid all the carnage and insanity, the reign of Claudius himself offers a brief hope of something better, but by this time the Imperial Court is infiltrated with petty place-seekers and power hungry, corrupt freedmen. As Claudius lies dying, he is visited by the Sybil of Cumae who offers him a prophecy on the future of the Julio-Claudian dynasty: it will dissolve into further murder and mayhem before burning itself out with his successor Nero. ‘It all sounds depressingly familiar’, quips the Emperor.
Leading the cast as Claudius himself is Derek Jacobi, whose BAFTA winning performance is still held up today as one of the triumphs of British drama. So relentlessly does Jacobi draw the viewer in to his character that it is very hard not to sympathise with him. His delivery and timing are both excellent, especially in the scenes with his mad nephew Caligula, admirably played by John Hurt. Hurt’s performance as Caligula deserves a special mention. A recent award-winning actor himself for his portrayal of Quentin Crisp in ITV’s The Naked Civil Servant (1975), he brings a chilling dimension to Caligula, who laughs and jokes one moment, descends into insanity the next, and then, at a word or nod, can order some poor unfortunate to be killed on the spot. He brings out the full range of complex emotions at work inside a warped brain, without the performance descending into caricature. His scene with Jacobi in Episode 9, where he has awoken from his illness to proclaim himself a god is one of the highlights of the series. Claudius shows that he is no witless fool by his constant humouring of Caligula in an effort to survive his many changes of mood, and these scenes are worked beautifully by both actors.
But if Claudius himself is the central character of the series, its real ‘star’ is his grandmother Livia, second wife of Augustus. Livia is the archetypal anti-heroine, removing, one by one, every human obstacle that lies in the way of her son’s succession, and manipulating the Empire behind the scenes. That Graves himself grudgingly admired the woman he paints as the Imperial mass murderess is expressed in the novel, especially after her death in 29AD when Claudius wistfully reflects that he would ‘give anything to have her back again’. Once the matriarch’s influence has been removed, her son Tiberius and his agent Sejanus throw off all restraint and instigate the ‘Reign of Terror’ as vividly recounted by Tacitus. The viewer, who, with Claudius, follows Livia through each episode, losing count of her intrigues and murders, can still feel a twitch of sympathy for the ancient 86-year-old who plaintively begs her grandson to make her a goddess. Claudius himself places the coin in her mouth to pay the ferryman while sobbing at her deathbed. To win sympathy from the same viewers who have hated her machinations in earlier episodes requires a very special kind of performance from an accomplished actress, and Sian Phillips is still applauded today for her portrayal of Livia. The performance won her a deserved BAFTA award and probably represents some of the actress’s greatest work.
Graves’ Augustus is easily duped by Livia and remains unaware of her intrigues until information reaches him via a long circuitous ‘Chinese whispers’ sort of route, but even though he suspects her of poisoning him he is powerless to change things. There are very few glimpses of the historical Augustus in Brian Blessed’s blustering performance, but the Emperor is deliberately portrayed as a lovable, well-meaning man whom everyone admires and respects. His successor, Tiberius, Livia’s gloomy elder son, presents the picture of a man soured by other people’s intrigues and neglect. George Baker turns in a convincing enough performance as the son of a domineering and interfering mother, yet seems to lose his focus as the later, ageing Emperor. Ian Ogilvie’s congenial and honourable Drusus makes a good contrast, and if Phillips’ is the female star to whom the greatest plaudits must be given, she is supported beautifully by an accomplished performance from Margaret Tyzack as Claudius’ mother, Antonia, who is the epitome of the sober, virtuous Roman matron whose world is crumbling around her. ‘Rome is sick,’ Antonia reflects during the carnage of Caligula’s reign. ‘He’s just the rash it’s come out in.’
Other notable performances are given by a wealth of well-known British thespians: Stratford Johns is excellent as Piso; Frances White turns in a warm, engaging Julia; Sheila White takes Messalina from stammering timid child to intriguing trollop; and Fiona Walker’s deliberately over-dramatic Agrippina captures the Amazon perfectly. Established actors from the British theatre abound: Patrick Stewart gives us a slimy, manipulative Sejanus; John Rhys-Davis is a brutal Macro, jovial in his menace; Bernard Hepton and John Cater as Pallas and Narcissus, Claudius’ freedmen, triumph in their little scenes together; and Kevin Stoney’s cameo as Tiberius’ astrologer Thrasyllus has a tragi-comic feel that sums up his Greek origins.
It is this glorious cast that still sells I, Claudius to a modern audience. With very few exceptions the performances are excellently focused and the limits of Graves’ novels also prevent the producers from introducing unnecessary storylines. Graves himself, in an interview in the TV magazine Radio Times in 1976, stated that he had insisted on being consulted by the scriptwriters and producers, and only in one area did he allow sensationalism to creep in at their insistence: nowhere in the ancient sources used by Graves, and nowhere in his own novel, are we given the story of Caligula cutting the foetus from Drusilla’s womb and eating it! However, this one aberration does not deter from what is still an excellent piece of work. It is the ‘history’ of Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio, together with all their rumours and reported tales of intrigue, but above all else it is the Julio-Claudian family saga of one of England’s greatest poets and authors. It may be short on trimmings, but the level of performance is timeless, and it still remains, for many critics, the pinnacle of Roman drama portrayed on TV.
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