The classic 1976 BBC drama I, Claudius has returned to our screens with it being rerun on BBC4 and available on iPlayer. To put it bluntly, this is one of the best television shows ever made and one of my favourites. It has a total of thirteen episodes and by today’s standards looks like they had a budget for set design of about £50 per episode, but the writing and acting are phenomenal. The show is based on the Robert Graves books I, Claudius and Claudius the God, the story of the life of Claudius and his family, the Julio-Claudians, the first emperors of Rome. Derek Jacobi plays Claudius, an intelligent and thoughtful person overlooked by his family because of his stutter; Brian Blessed is Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, at a time when Blessed did not simply shout every line; John Hurt plays Caligula, the pinnacle of power-mad tyranny, along with a host of brilliant actors.
Prestige Television Then & Now
At the time I, Claudius was held up as a great achievement in television, a medium that held very little respect in terms of making good art, so how does it compare to some of the most lauded shows of today? As a programme about a powerful, murderous, scheming family, full of betrayal, poisoning and deeply troubled individuals the obvious comparisons would be Game of Thrones and Succession. Now, despite being a drama about the Roman Empire, who fought a lot of wars, you will not see any battles in I, Claudius, people talk about them but they happen off-screen. In fact, forget battles, there are barely any scenes that supposedly take place outside, 90% of them taking place in a series of small rooms. For murder and plots I think I, Claudius may actually beat Game of Thrones not in total number but just about every death is murder or is suspected of being a murder, and usually murdered by a spouse, lover or close blood relative. At one point a conversation takes place between Claudius and one of the people behind a lot of these plots where he simply rattles off everyone who died around him and asks if they had them murdered. Characters are stabbed, poisoned, cursed, decapitated, poisoned, starved to death and poisoned. So many people in this show are poisoned you will develop an irrational fear of being poisoned (if you or someone you know is a candidate to be Roman Emperor it may not be irrational).
Extreme family dysfunction has been present in modern prestige TV from the beginning and I, Claudius has it in spades. Nearly all the characters are related by blood or marriage, sometimes blood and marriage, and many of the characters are adopted into the family. Succession has shown the dysfunction present in the Roy Family, White Lotus the tensions between couples, in I, Claudius family members are murdered for power, money, love, sex and revenge. Familial ties are not so much a bond of love but a potential liability or danger as any member of the family can be a candidate for the throne. Mothers hate their sons, wives poison their husbands, the younger brother laughs as his older siblings are murdered, and husbands murder their wives. There are a handful of vaguely positive relationships, usually involving Claudius.
Most of the violence of I, Claudius happens off-screen or out-of-shot, nevertheless, these acts can be extremely shocking. There are a number of incidents which – while not directly shown – leave a big impact. The cruelty and madness of Caligula makes for difficult watching. The determination of some to wipe out the entire Julio-Claudian family line goes to horrific lengths, and executions are not just to kill people but to make a brutal point.
Acting & Writing
It’s hard to deny that comparing it to many modern shows I, Claudius is a far smaller production, with far less money spent on it. However, in terms of writing and acting it sets the benchmark. The brilliant array of acting talent on display every episode is astounding. Derek Jacobi as Claudius leads us from the timid young man who wants only to be left alone to becoming emperor, Brian Blessed gives a very nuanced portrayal of Augustus, the first emperor, battling with inner conflict around who should succeed him or indeed – if anyone should. Sian Phillips is one of the great TV villains of all time as Livia, Augustus’ wife, is determined to put her son on the throne, and as with the best villains, she is not a completely unsympathetic figure. The acting between Blessed and Phillips is also a joy to behold, a marriage that goes on for decades while she slowly eliminates anyone standing in her way, yet she does seem to have affection for her husband. John Hurt’s portrayal of Caligula as a giggling unsettling maniac capable of making a practical joke or calling for your execution is unforgettable. And I’ve not even mentioned Patrick Stewart as the scheming Sejanus.
Watching I, Claudius in 2023 will perhaps be an adjustment for many. If nothing else, the show can be very slow and has a LOT of talking (with a surprising amount of time dedicated to the discussion of grain), but it is a genuine masterpiece of television.
Also Read: Fargo: A Movie and TV Masterpiece