|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 (list of episodes)|
|Running time||50+ minutes per episode|
|Production company||BBC/London Films|
|Original release||20 September –|
6 December 1976
I, Claudius (stylized as I·CLAVDIVS) is a 1976 BBC Television adaptation of Robert Graves' 1934 novel I, Claudius and its 1935 sequel Claudius the God. Written by Jack Pulman, 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' Claudius novels have also been adapted for BBC Radio 4 broadcast (2010) and for the stage (1972).
Main article: List of I, Claudius episodes
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 (£442,000 in 2020), in a series that had a total running time of 650 minutes.
As alluded to in the 2002 documentary I, Claudius: A Television Epic, the original version of episode 8, "Zeus, by Jove!", included a closing shot after Caligula has cut the fetus from Drusilla's womb, which was considered very shocking. It 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 scene was edited again, so that the episode is now "somewhat attenuated". The "slightly nastier version" of the episode's closing (a scene that used "makeup on her belly") was allegedly shown twice in 1976, but is now lost since the BBC no longer has a copy of it. Pulman noted that the original script for the episode ended with "a long shot showing the butchered woman hanging on a chariot".
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:
Wilfred Josephs wrote the title music. David Wulstan and the Clerkes of Oxenford ensemble provided the (diegetic) music for most episodes.
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 the lost footage in "Zeus, by Jove!") 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. Among other awards, the series won three BAFTAs in 1977 : Derek Jacobi, Best Actor (TV); Siân Phillips, Best Actress (TV); Tim Harvey, Best Design (TV). Director Herbert Wise won Outstanding Contribution Award at BAFTAs in 1978. In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, I, Claudius placed 12th.
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 Telegraph's 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’ ancient Roman empress had echoed through millennia to rain chaos upon yet another dynastic clan."
In 2012, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times credited I, Claudius with transforming the quality of television drama:
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.
However, 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."