I, Claudius: An Epic that Changed Television

Midway through rehearsals it wasn’t working. They had assembled some of the best talent available: writer Jack Pullman’s credits included Jane Eyre (1970) for film and War and Peace (1972) for television; the director Herbie Wise had started his career at the Shrewsbury Rep and worked in television for twenty years; the cast mixed well-known names, such as Brian Blessed, Siân Phillips, George Baker and Margaret Tyzack, with newer but impressive talent - Patrick Stewart, David Robb, John Hurt and Derek Jacobi. Yet something was not right. There was no gel. The production, at £720,000 (£14 million in today’s money), was relatively low-budget but there was a danger that the BBC’s adaptation of Robert Graves’ classic historical fiction books - I, Claudius and Claudius the God - would be an embarrassing flop.

Embarrassment was not to be. The curse, associated with the books since Alexander Korda’s unfinished film in 1937, did not re-appear. Eventually someone hit the nail on the crumpet: they were not a family, they were The Family. The subject matter may have been the familial politics of the early Roman empire but Graves’ tale of plots, intrigue and murders was just like something out of the Italian mafia.

When aired from September 1976 over twelve episodes, I, Claudius gained 2.5 million viewers. Its lead actors, Phillips and Jacobi, won BAFTAs for their performances. Undoubtedly, it influenced Wise’s Outstanding Contribution BAFTA in 1978. Forty years later it still tops “best television” lists. It is loved by both historians and television buffs. It became iconic epic television.

That poet Robert Graves’ novels (published in 1934 and 1935) were ripe for a wider visual audience is unquestionable. They span seven decades (roughly 25 BCE to AD 54) to tell the story of the nascent principate’s descent into authoritarian corruption. They cover the reigns not just of Augustus and Claudius himself but the two emperors in between - the tyrannical Tiberius and the insane Caligula. The days of ‘great’ politicians, such as Cato, Cicero and Julius Caesar, were over. Mark Antony’s defeat at Actium in 31 BCE meant that there was to be one performance, the emperor’s. But behind the scenes there massed a teeming swarm of characters, consumed by self-absorbed petty politics.

Each episode is high-octane drama but does not lack intelligence

There is undoubted misogyny; women, forbidden from playing a direct role in politics, are never far from schemes and murder. Graves strayed from the predictable source material (Plutarch, Suetonius and Tacitus) to develop an intriguing, though far-fetched, theory: that the series of misfortunes which led to Augustus’ stepson Tiberius accession to the principate over his own blood relations were, in fact, orchestrated by Augustus’ wife Livia, who wanted to ensure her side of the family’s domination. Graves then goes further.

Claudius, who had only briefly held public office during his nephew Caligula’s reign, was not only a reluctant but destined leader. He does not become emperor just because of a series of plots and accidents but because it is prophesied. Seeing the absurdity of his own elevation, he yearns for the days of liberty and great politicians, and himself schemes for the downfall of the system of government which he leads. Thus his promotion of Nero was designed because he realises his adopted son would fail. It was also predicted by the Sibyl. Graves electrifies the intrigue to the point just before absurdity.

When selecting an actor to play Claudius, Wise originally considered comic actor Ronnie Barker and Hollywood star Charlton Heston. The eventual choice of the then little known Jacobi was inspired. He manages to convince as Claudius not just as a young man but also the elderly emperor; not only does he narrate the story of his strange family but later becomes its centre when all the others have been murdered. Lame, with a host of afflictions and a stammer, he is the epitome of the implausible leader. It is only because of the quality of the cast - Blessed as an understated Augustus, Baker as a moody Tiberius, Hurt wonderfully maniacal as Caligula - that Jacobi does not walk away with the production.

Phillips as Livia provides a dynamic contrast to the ineffectual Claudius. She fascinates not because she presents nuance but because she revels as the personification of evil. Hers is an enduring performance. Her mask only slips briefly when she witnesses the death of her husband, whom she has poisoned; then later when close to death, she confesses her crimes - which include murdering his father - to Claudius. Neither moments of contrition last long. There is much more fun to be had with wickedness.

Shot with multiple cameras I, Claudius has an almost claustrophobic atmosphere, accentuating the stifling political intrigues. There are no big budget crowds scenes. It is almost like theatre. The plot rattles quickly whether it is the demise of the upstart Sejanus (Stewart) as he tries to usurp power from Tiberius, or the dramatic downfall of Claudius’s wife Valeria Messalina (Sheila White) who does the same in Claudius’ reign. Each episode is high-octane drama but does not lack intelligence. It is a study of power. And like all such studies, it is as its best when the point of view is slightly detached from the centre.

I, Claudius revelled in its sensationalism. At the time it was revolutionary and provocative

Forty years after its first airing I, Claudius remains compelling viewing. This is not just down to great writing and quality performances, but because it became, partly by accident, daring television. It also has a claim as one of the most influential pieces of television ever made, a demonstration of its ability to elevate and titillate simultaneously. Previous epic television - The Forsyte Saga (1967) springs to mind - had pioneered large-scale adaptations, but Wise’s production extended that and progressed the idea that television had a role beyond adapting work: I, Claudius reinterprets Graves. Put simply, while faithful, it adds to its source material.

The production’s direct legacy may be pretty dismal: later BBC productions The Cleopatras and Borgias were costly failures. Indirectly its legacy goes much further. Would ITV have made its near definitive production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited without Claudius?

More recently, shows such as the HBO/BBC hybrid (too criticised) Rome and Showtime’s The Borgias are obviously influenced. I, Claudius revelled in its sensationalism. At the time it was revolutionary and provocative. In a memorable scene, Caligula kills his sister, whom he has impregnated, by cutting her stomach and eating the foetus inside. The scene is grisly. The only thing is, editors cut the actual death as going too far for a 1970s audience. However, many viewers were convinced they had actually watched it. Rome was able to be far more explicit - and to good effect.

The Borgias (cancelled after three great seasons) takes Alexandre Dumas as its basis, in the same sense that Wise took Graves as his source, and mixes it. Fiction has to be fiction. Portrayals of history have to be interpreted with a modern eye. We can never accurately represent the past and understand it emotionally. The Borgias become the original “crime family”: they are every bit as duplicitous and murderous as their Julio-Claudian predecessors but the setting is 15th century papal, not imperial, Rome. History blends brilliantly with modern perspectives.

Too many programmes are influenced - both intentionally and unintentionally - by I, Claudius to mention. Improbably amongst them, but obvious upon watching, is David Chase’s The Sopranos. Like Jacobi’s Claudius, Tony Soprano (Paul Gandolfini) is an unlikely, even reluctant leader. It is no coincidence that the family’s matriarch (Nancy Marchland) is called Livia, almost equally scheming and malicious as her forebear. Both programmes are epic in their conceit and involve near generational feuds. Morality finds an unlikely bedfellow in murderous glee. Sopranos might have been made without I, Claudius, but one of the greatest recent TV shows would have been inferior.

It is quite a legacy. And to think that but for sudden insight, as they faced failure, none of it would have happened.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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