Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Epic That Was: Musings on the BBC's "I Claudius"

When I think about my favourite television programmes, as I sometime do, one of the TV programmes at the very top, if not the top of my best television programmes of all times list is the BBC's 1976 12 or 13 part (the BBC transmitted the first two parts as one, PBS as two) I Claudius.

I Claudius was not the first time ancient Rome had appeared in fictional form on British television screens. Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-1989, 2005-) took the Doctor and his companions back to ancient Rome in the fourth serial of the second series, "The Romans" in February of 1965. ITV's The Caesars took viewers back to the Rome of Augustus through Claudius in 1968. Frankie Howerd brought his comedies Up Pompeii and Further Up Pompeii to the BBC in 1970 and 1975.

Nor was the BBC I Claudius the first attempt to adapt Robert Graves's faux memoirs of the Julio-Claudian Roman Emperor Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (41-54), I Claudius and Claudius the God (1934 and 1935) for the screen. That "honour" belongs to producer Alexander Korda, his London Films, famous director Josef von Sternberg, and actor Charles Laughton, who attempted to bring Graves's classics to the big screen in 1937. That attempt failed, however, thanks, in large part, to a run of bad luck that included an injury as a result of an automobile accident to one of the stars of the film, Merle Oberon, who was to play Messaline, a string of bad luck that gave rise to the belief that there was curse associated with the attempt to adapt I Claudius for screens big or small. In 1965 the BBC incorporated 25 minutes of the existing footage of the Sternberg I Claudius into the documentary The Epic that Never Was. This fascinating documentary can be found on the BBC and Acorn 35th Anniversary DVD box sets of I Claudius.

It wasn't until the 1970s that another attempt was made to break the I Claudius "curse". Adapted by Jack Pullman, who had been working in television since 1958 and who gained a reputation as an adapter-extraordinaire thanks to his critically acclaimed adaptions of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (BBC, 1965), Henry James's Portrait of a Lady (BBC, 1968) and The Golden Bowl (BBC, 1972) and Lev Tolstoy's War and Peace (BBC, 1973), and directed by the Austrian born Herbert Wise, who had been working in television since 1956, I Claudius finally hit the small screen on 20 September 1976 breaking the I Claudius curse, though not without a few scary moments during taping, once and for all. Though I Claudius was, like many British programmes of the era, studio bound "electronic theatre" and recorded on videotape, Wise and his cameraman, as Graham Nelson notes in his superb analysis of the show, used a moving camera and interesting camera angles to bring a dynamism to the production that makes, along with the magnificent stage sets and the superb costumes, I Claudius an interesting mise-en-scene watch even today.

I Claudius starred a cornucopia of noted British actors of stage and screen at the time along with a number of up and coming ones, many of whom had also cut their acting teeth on the stage. The then relatively little known Derek Jacobi played Claudius. Another relative newcomer John Hurt, who had just finished playing Quentin Crisp in the superb ITV adaptation of Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant (1975), played Caligula. The newcomer Patrick Stewart, who would go on to fame as Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation (syndicated, 1987-1994), played Sejanus. Veteran actors Siân Phillips, Brian Blessed (here on his best behaviour), and George Baker took on the parts of Livia, Augustus, and Tiberius. The ensemble cast was, to say the least, brilliant, and produced acting of a very high quality, and though it is absurd to single out any one performance as any more brilliant than the others, Sian Phillip's performance as Livia, the woman behind the throne who is killing off anyone who gets in the way of her son Tiberius becoming emperor, including her other son, Claudius's father, the "noble" pro-Republic Drusus, all in the name of saving Rome, is fantastic.

Mixing and matching gallows humour with, for the time, groundbreaking depictions of depravity, nudity, and violence on British television, I Claudius depicts Rome's imperial household from 24 to 54, from the Emperor Augustus through the Emperors Tiberius and Caligula to Emperor Claudius, who managed to survive the sometimes deadly schemings of some in his extended family by playing the fool. The show was not an immediate critical hit but it was a hit with viewers (all that sex and violence?). Soon the critics would come around too. In 1977 PBS and Masterpiece Theatre brought I Claudius to American shores where it pushed the limits of violence and nudity on American television just as it did in British television earlier.

I watched I Claudius on PBS when it was rerun on Dallas's PBS affiliate KERA around 1984 and was immediately hooked. I have watched it several times since including twice on DVD, the first time after I purchased the region two box set and recently just after I bought the region one box set released this year by Acorn in honour of I Claudius's 35th anniversary. Like the Acorn Upstairs Downstairs box set the Acorn I Claudius box set is superb, with video and audio quality probably about as good as we are going to get it. The Acorn 35th Anniversary I Claudius also includes a host of wonderful extras beyond The Epic That Never Was that I mentioned earlier, a 70 minute plus documentary about the making of the series "I Claudius: A Television Epic" (2002), a 12 minute interview with Sir Derek Jacobi, and a 36 minute featurette in which the cast talks about the show and tell us their favourite scenes from the series. If you have wanted to buy I Claudius for awhile but haven't yet, have never seen I Claudius but want to, or want to upgrade from the earlier and inferior US transfer of the show, now is the time.

I Claudius, by the way, would have an immense influence on television in its wake from the obvious, Rome (HBO/BBC, 2005-2007) to the less obvious, Dallas (CBS, 1978-1991) The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007) and Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-) all of which, like I Claudius, explored the dark and decadent side of family, extended family, and imperial, in its broadest sense, "politics". Perhaps that is one of the reasons that I Claudius is about to be remade by the BBC and HBO for a new generation of viewers who have fallen in love with "imperial" decadence and depravity.

Graham Nelson, I Claudius, The Digital Fix, http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/58338/i-claudius.html

Postscript Note:
I Claudius, like Upstairs Downstairs (ITV, 1971-1975), is filmed theatre or as Up Down creator Alfred Shaughnessy once put it, "electronic theatre". I have to say that it has been a pleasure to rewatch, as I did recently, both shows. It was a joy to watch television shows which, as theatre television does, allows actors to act and be more than simply cattle to be moved around amidst special effects, and scenes they act in to breath, something rare in an American and British film and television landscape increasingly devoted to the cult of jump cutting and limited attention spans.

Watch the first episode (British version) of I Claudius here:

Watch the opening credits of I Claudius here:

Watch the opening credits of Blackadder II which parodied the I Claudius opening credits here:

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