The history of the Roman Empire,
in my uneducated view, appears to be sketchy at best, based on the evidence
of a number of websites Ive visited. The events happened thousands of
years ago, and involved a different world and culture from ours, and, from the
little Ive read, theres probably just as much gossip, guessing,
and outright exaggeration in the original sources as there is truth. So this
is only natural that any dramatic interpretations of the era would have to play
a little loosely with the facts (well, such things do anyway, but thats
Sometimes playing with the facts
is the only thing you can do, however, if your intent is not solely to write
the truth, but, also to entertain, and to capture, if not the letter, at least
the spirit of the time. The BBC series I, Claudius is definitely a fine example
of a work that gives us a sense of the time, even if the genuine events can
be called into question.
The 13-episode series, based on Robert
Graves novels, takes a very unique approach in depicting the Roman Empire.
It is told from the point of view of Claudius (Derek Jacobi), who, as Emperor,
is writing his life history, which seen the rise and fall of numerous Emperors,
from Augustus, to Tiberius, and to Caligula, whom Claudius replaces -- reluctantly
-- after his assassination. This device is not entirely a gimmick -- Claudiuss
past involves Emperors at constant peril, and Claudius himself appears to be
at peril as well, although its not until the end when we discover the
threat against him. Claudius desires to write his history -- to tell the truth
-- before it is too late, and all the secrets of the Empire die with him.
Claudius will not be everybodys
idea of a protagonist, or a Roman Emperor, for that matter. Historically, Claudius
was depicted as a stuttering, crippled, drooling, old fool, and this series
plays up those attributes without mercy. Most everybody around him makes fun
of him. Even his own mother is utterly disappointed in him. He is called a half-wit
by nearly everyone, and is never once taken seriously. Yet the series makes
the case that Claudius, despite his physical appearance, was far from a half-wit.
For one, he is deeply into history, even as a child; frequently he can be found
in the archives, pouring over ancient texts, and writing his own histories.
And of course, he knows a lot about the people around him; a lot more than he
probably would if he acted normally, and were taken seriously. A
good thing, because if he did act normally, and were taken seriously, and had
the knowledge that he had, he probably would have been killed long ago!
Speaking of which, death is a constant throughout this series, because the treachery in this supposedly noble family runs so deep. The first 5 episodes are the best in this regard, as it depicts Augustuss (Brian Blessed) reign, consistently undercut by the maneuverings of his wife, Livia (Sian Phillips). Livia has no scruples at all; she either directly or indirectly wipes out almost all of Augustuss possible successors and favorites, and a few others besides, so she can get her son Tiberius (George Baker) on the throne. The tragedy is that Augustus never gets whats going on, until it is too late, and not before hes destroyed lives (including that of his own daughter) with his lack of information.
After Augustuss death, things
get worse, first with Tiberiuss reign, and then with Caligulas.
The series is a little wobbly about Tiberius, as it is more interested in Sejenus
(Patrick Stewart), Tiberiuss right-hand man who has ambitions of his own.
Things pick up again with Caligula (John Hurt), Claudiuss nephew, who
goes mad, and does some truly insane things, the least of which is making his
horse a senator.
Of course, Caligula is knocked off,
and Claudius is made Emperor by some Imperial Guards who are desperately in
need of an employer. Claudius does not want to be a ruler, and, indeed, has
republican sympathies (in other words, he wants the power to go back to the
senate, and into something hopefully more democratic). Yet he has no choice
but to keep the status quo. But this doesnt stop him from wanting to write
the truth about his family, and to expose the system for what it truly is. Yet
Claudius is not immune to the threats that targeted all the other players of
As usual, I Claudius was shot in
the standard BBC style, on live videotape on a soundstage, creating the effect
of watching a stage play. Viewers of today will probably scoff at such low
production values, yet such production does have its benefits. The story feels
more intimate and far less glamourous when captured on harsh videotape (and
the ugly and gory scenes look more ugly and gory on tape as well). And the theatrical
nature of the production is a definite rebuke to the high-gloss look of American
television dramas; these old BBC plays are totally lacking in the usual tricks
of American TV dramas of the time. Youll never hear melodramatic (or any
other kind of) score music, and youll rarely see any fancy camera work
-- youll only hear the acting and the words, and youll only see
(usually) detailed sets.
Of course, some of these plays can
be pretty tedious. Even Upstairs Downstairs and Elizabeth R had its too dry
and static moments. But tedious is not a word I would use to describe I Claudius.
This is quite simply the best BBC production of its time, and no amount of cheap
videotape will dilute that fact. Most of the reason this series is the best
is because it dares a whole lot compared to the other series Ive seen.
The camerawork is pretty innovative, often telling the story visually as opposed
to just sitting there to record the action. The content of the episodes occasionally
involve some pretty graphic violence and nudity. And the script is far from
a dry slog. This has elements of melodrama, soap opera, and comedy......yes,
comedy. And there are a lot of priceless moments of comedy, both of the low
and of the really, really, REALLY black variety.
The funniest episodes involve Caligula
(it also goes without saying that some of the most disturbing moments are here
too). Naturally, Caligula is a lot of sick laughs; the man is historically depicted
as a complete crackpot and the series milks it for all its worth. This series
doesnt go to the sick depths of the infamous pornographic film Caligula
(I can say that even though I havent seen the damn thing!); these episodes
focus mainly on his delusions, but thats good enough. Caligula falls ill
of some sort of mental affliction, and, after awaking from a coma, is convinced
that he is a god, of Zeuss stature, or better. This creates a lot of comedy,
but is also disturbing, especially since he, like Zeus, begins an incestuous
relationship with his own sister, which ends chillingly. Possibly the single
most funny moment in the entire series is how the crown is passed from Tiberius
to Caligula; put it this way, normally I wouldnt be laughing at certain
details, but the way this scene is set up is a fine example of a morbid sort
The rest of the series also strikes
a balance between history, soap, and black humour, rarely descending into static
boredom (which is more than I can say for Elizabeth R, which did that often,
as interesting as it was). Blessed, Phillips, Hurt, and, of course, Jacobi do
great jobs with their characters. In a way, the only real flaw of this series
is that it ends too soon. I think four or five more episodes would have worked;
I found that some plot strands and ideas could have actually been expanded.
Also, I do think that some people may not enjoy all of the characters, especially
some of the females. The script thinks nothing of creating a couple of crucial
female characters who are unashamedly (almost unbelievably) sexual, and who
get punished for it. Ugh!
All TV series (and most all else art) have some flaws, however. Overall, I Claudius is the best of the BBC, and one of the great mini-series. I was glad to have watched it, and will certainly have it on my mind for quite a while.
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