|Based on||I, Claudius and|
Claudius the God
by Robert Graves
|Written by||Jack Pulman|
|Directed by||Herbert Wise|
|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|No. of episodes||12|
|Running time||50+ minutes per episode|
|Original release||20 September -|
6 December 1976
I, Claudius is a 1976 BBC Television adaptation of Robert Graves's 1934 novel I, Claudius and its 1935 sequel Claudius the God. Written by Jack Pulman,[note 1] it stars Derek Jacobi as Claudius, with Siân Phillips, Brian Blessed, George Baker, Margaret Tyzack, John Hurt, Patricia Quinn, Ian Ogilvy, Kevin McNally, Patrick Stewart, and John Rhys-Davies. The series covers the history of the early Roman Empire, told from the perspective of the elderly Emperor Claudius who narrates the series.
Among many other productions and adaptations, Graves's Claudius novels have also been adapted for BBC Radio 4 broadcast (2010) and for the stage (1972).
I, Claudius follows the history of the early Roman Empire, narrated by the elderly Roman Emperor Claudius, from the year 24 BC to his death in AD 54.
The series opens with Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, attempting to find an heir, and his wife, Livia, plotting to elevate her own son Tiberius to this position. An expert poisoner, Livia uses the covert assassination and betrayal of all rivals to achieve her aims, beginning with the death in 22 BC of Marcellus. The plotting, double-crossing, and murder continue for many decades, through the reign of Tiberius, the political conspiracy of his Praetorian Prefect Sejanus, and the depraved rule of the lunatic emperor Caligula, culminating in the accidental rise to power of his uncle Claudius. Claudius' enlightened reign is marred by the betrayals of his adulterous wife Messalina and his boyhood friend Herod Agrippa. Eventually, Claudius comes to accept the inevitability of his own assassination and consents to marrying his scheming niece, Agrippina the Younger, clearing the way for the ascent of his mad stepson, Nero, whose disastrous reign Claudius vainly hopes will bring about the restoration of the Roman Republic.
The series was produced by Joan Sullivan and Martin Lisemore, and directed by Herbert Wise. Production was delayed because of complex negotiations between the BBC and the copyright holders of Alexander Korda's aborted 1937 film version. This did, however, give the scriptwriter Jack Pulman more time to fine-tune his script.
The series was shot on videotape in the studios at BBC Television Centre, for artistic rather than budgetary reasons.I, Claudius was made at a relatively low cost of £60,000 for an hour of broadcast material (£435,000 in 2019), in a series that had a total running time of 650 minutes.
As discussed in the 2002 documentary I, Claudius: A Television Epic, the scene in episode 8, "Zeus, by Jove!" where Caligula cuts the fetus from Drusilla's womb was considered too shocking and was therefore re-edited several times, even on the day of its premiere by order of Bill Slater, then head of Serials Department. After initial broadcast and a rerun two days later, the shot of the fetus was removed so that the episode now ends with Claudius looking in shock and horror but without the audience seeing what he sees. The deleted shot was only shown twice in 1976 and is now lost since the BBC no longer has a copy of it.
The 2002 documentary, which features extensive interviews with all the principal cast members, revealed many previously unknown facts about the casting and development of the series, among them being:
John Hurt said that he declined the role of Caligula when it was first offered to him. Because of the time-span of the production, the fact that Derek Jacobi would be the only actor to appear in every episode, and the subsequent commitments of the other actors, it was decided that rather than the customary "wrap party" at the end of the series, there would be a special pre-production party instead, to give the entire cast and crew the chance to meet. Hurt explained that series director Herbert Wise deliberately invited him to attend the party, hoping he would reconsider, and that he was so impressed on meeting the cast and crew that he immediately reversed his decision and took the part.
Siân Phillips has spoken about her initial struggle to perform the character of Livia, because she focused more on making the character sympathetic and justifying her motives rather than playing her as straightforwardly evil. "I wasn't achieving anything much... I knew it, and they knew it. They would stand there and look faintly worried." Eventually Herbert Wise told her not to be afraid of playing her camp, saying to "Just be evil. The more evil you are, the funnier it is, and the more terrifying it is."
Most VHS and DVD versions of the TV series include the BBC documentary The Epic That Never Was (1965), about the uncompleted Korda film version of the first book, featuring interviews with key production staff and actors as well as most of the surviving footage. The 2002 UK DVD edition also contains a documentary on the series, I, Claudius - a Television Epic, as well as some alternative and deleted scenes. The US DVD release was updated on 2 December 2008 with superior audio and video to the 2000 US DVD version, but it was met with hostile reviews from some customers, citing that some parts were either cut or censored from the original version, and no subtitles or closed captioning was included.
A 35th anniversary edition was released on 27 March 2012. It includes all 13 episodes (uncut except for "Zeus, by Jove!", which in 1976 originally contained a shot of the fetus that Caligula cut from Drusilla's womb, cut from all later repeats and now lost) on four discs, with SDH subtitles and one disc of bonus features.
The initial reception of the show in the UK was negative, with The Guardian commenting sarcastically in its first review that "there should be a society for the prevention of cruelty to actors." However, the series went on to become a huge success with audiences.
During its original airing in 1976, the BBC estimated that I, Claudius had an average audience of 2.5 million viewers per episode, based on rating surveys.
The series was subsequently broadcast in the United States as part of PBS's Masterpiece Theatre series, where it received critical acclaim. Tim Harvey won a 1978 Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction. The producers and director received Emmy nominations.
I, Claudius is frequently cited as one of the best British television shows and one of the best shows in history. In 2007, it was listed as one of Time magazine's "100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME", and placed at #9 on BBC America's poll of the 10 best British dramas of all time. In 2016, it was ranked #8 out of 11 on The Daily Telegraphs list of groundbreaking British TV moments.
Contemporary critics are unanimous in their praise for the quality of the screenplay and the actors' performances, particularly those of Siân Phillips and Derek Jacobi.The Daily Telegraph opined that the "...lust for power, devious plotting and mesmerising machinations" displayed in the show foreshadowed later series like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and House of Cards. The creators of the hit 1980s soap opera, Dynasty, acknowledged that they were seeking to make a modern-day version of I, Claudius. Jace Lacob of The Daily Beast compared the character of Livia Soprano to the character of the same name in I, Claudius, saying that "... there is a whiff of familiarity about his Livia, as though the ghost of Phillips's ancient Roman empress had echoed through millennia to rain chaos upon yet another dynastic clan."
With its complex characters and multi-toned narrative, not to mention the high quality of writing, performance and direction, I, Claudius established a timeline that would eventually include the rise of HBO and all its cable competitors. This in turn expanded the palette and quality of network drama and, most recently, persuaded AMC executives to begin original programming.
Criticism is sometimes leveled at the series over its outdated appearance and relatively poor production quality compared to modern TV drama, with Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian writing that "it's hard to suppress a giggle in the opening scene at Derek Jacobi's make-up and stringy wig."