Of emperors and prophetic chickens

I, Claudius Ashamed as I am to admit this, I feel compelled to tell you: I saw the 1976 I, Claudius BBC television serial before I ever read Robert Graves staggering, breathtaking books, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. I know; it would’ve been so easy for me to just lie. But I first watched the miniseries when I was nineteen, so I feel there is some wiggle room as I would’ve been unlikely to really absorb the books properly too many years before that.

I, Claudius is probably the best miniseries of all time. In fact, I think the miniseries format in general should enjoy a resurgence. So many fantastic books with great story-beats—ideal for episode breaks—get compressed down to the admittedly more-ideal format of film, and in the process shed the extra weight of some of truly rich story aspects. But the slower pace that so many miniseries thrive within is not as en vogue today as it was in the 70s, now that the storytelling ideal for any entertainment genre is so tightly-edited and succinct. Get in, say your piece, and move on.

But I, Claudius is anything but slow. Every moment of it is riveting and it’s THIRTEEN HOURS. I have heard the thirteen-episode epic fall under the “pop” or “camp” umbrella—mostly because it’s 34 years old and has metallic eyeshadows—but I still think of it as ART. Art, plus the naked. I should pretend to be so artsy that I was unfazed by the naughty bits, but I noticed them. They come right away in the second scene as if to say, “Don’t turn that dial! This may be a dense, literary, beautifully acted period piece, but there’s sex! We promise!” Oh those lovely Brits and their progressive laws on television nudity. And on nudity’s place in the arts. As is typical of British productions, the sauciness of I, Claudius in no way detracts from the artistry of it, nor from the fact that it sports some of the most respected actors of the era, giving some of the most memorable performances of their careers.

The books are from the point of view of downtrodden, punching-bag-turned-honest-to-goodness-Roman-Emperor Claudius, whose story is told though Graves’ interpretations of a number of ancient sources—letters, texts, and the telltale holes in found in both: gaps attributed to the family’s embarrassment of, apathy toward, and derision of Claudius, who is now believed to have had cerebral palsy. The most significant absence of information of course is the Emperor Claudius’ real, actual eight-book autobiography, mysteriously lost forever, like the London After Midnight of Roman times. The loss of archaic historical tomes is no laughing matter, although some may argue it a blessing in this case because without the autobiographies’ absence, Graves would never have drawn the concept to craft his now-revered works, which in turn basically created the entire genre of historical fiction in 1934.


Derek Jacobi as Claudius

Sir Derek Jacobi heads up the series in the title role as Graves’ most relatable character. I had already fallen in love with Jacobi in my own introduction to the actor as Brother Cadfael, the mystery-solving monk in the 90s British TV series from the novels by Ellis Peters. Jacobi-as-Cadfael is one of my holy trinity of “actors as characters whom I wish I could glean advice and wisdom from in real life”; the other two being Stephen Fry as Jeeves in Jeeves & Wooster and Sr. Ian McKellen as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings (McKellen himself is said to have had a crush on the one-year-older Jacobi while they were both students at Cambridge in the 1950s: “a passion that was undeclared and unrequited,” McKellen has said.)

Augustus and Livia

Phillips as Livia and Blessed as Augustus

A founder member of the Royal National Theater, Jacobi of course had a long previous history on the stage in the 60s and 70s, playing pretty much every other historical or Shakespearian role to magnificent acclaim. In I, Claudius he ages from approximately 20 to 64, complete with the historically-cited stammer, limp, and tic, as well as Jacobi’s own courageous, tenacious tenderness that sucks your heart and empathy into the screen. Followed up by Jacobi are the incomparable Brian Blessed as Emperor Augustus and Sian Phillips as Augustus’ love-to-hate-her wife, Livia. Blessed uses his trademark booming voice (he has been called the “loudest man alive”) and warm intensity to paint Augustus as a human, reluctant ruler, and Philips in turn is perfect as the beautiful, cold, ruthless matriarch and driving force behind many of the men and much of the tragedy in the piece.

It would take too long to go down the entire roster of the fantastic, enormous cast (look for a very young, curly-headed Patrick Stewart as the ambitious and virile Lucius Sejanus, as well as Patricia Quinn—almost unrecognizable to those who remember her as Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show only a year earlier—as Livilla), but it would also be impossible to talk about I, Claudius without mentioning the actor who played one of history’s most famous, colorful and despicable Roman Emperors: John Hurt, in the role of Caligula. Hurt is one of my favorite actors of all time, and in fact when I was in Chicago recently with my fiance and his colleagues, and found out I’d missed eating at a restaurant two blocks away where John Hurt was dining at the very same moment, I kind of wanted to drop to my knees on the sidewalk and weep.


Jacobi and John Hurt as Caligula

Hurt blows Caligula out of the water in I, Claudius, and even though other actors have taken on the loathsome and puzzling ruler in various manifestations before and since, I’m afraid Hurt has ruined me for all other portrayals of Caligula. Anyone who has seen the series will clearly remember Hurt’s impassioned, uncomfortable Dance of the Dawn in drag, or when he slinks out of his bed chamber with blood all over his false beard after the butchering of his pregnant sister Drusilla, and just breathes the words, “Don’t go in there.” But perversion and spectacle aside, it’s Hurt’s downright disturbing and haunting portrayal of Caligula that makes it so memorable, showing him as a raving mad, childlike sadist who should never been given any moncrum of power, and who truly, truly didn’t know what to do with it.

I’m delighted to learn that there is a new brand new audio dramatization of I, Claudius being chipped away at right now for BBC Radio 4, and happy to add to the heaps of excitement, anticipation and reverence already surrounding the new production. Jacobi is returning to the drama, this time in the role of Augustus. I can’t wait. And I’m sure the folks over at Not My Head! The I, Claudius Drinking Game website are looking forward to some new inspiration too.

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