Long before Rome, The Borgias, The Tudors, Game of Thrones, and Spartacus: Blood and Sand made the apparently nonstop palace sex, violence, and intrigue of long-ago dynasties a more or less ordinary and unsurprising sight on our TV screens, there was the legendary and notorious BBC series I, Claudius. Shot and aired in 1976 (and subsequently rebroadcast to great success in the U.S. on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre--a then very rare delve into sexiness for that institution), and based on Robert Graves's sensation 1934 novels, the series covers about a century in the monarchical life of ancient Rome--the hundred-year period that straddles the line dividing BCE from CE--and tells the stories of Rome's first four emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and, finally, Claudius (to be succeeded by Nero, and you know what happened to Rome under his neglectful watch). It is Claudius, the accidental and very reluctant emperor, who is the common thread through those rulers' insane, unbelievable stories (including, to not much less a degree, his own), in which they are usually but the center and figurehead of a seething pit of royal and/or military vipers ceaselessly circulating the venom of murderous ambition, power, and self-indulgence. And it is through the patient, timid, posterity-minded writer Claudius's observant eye that we get to be flies on the wall for some of the most luridly spectacular makings and reversals of fortune in history as they play out against the backdrop of the vast, precarious Roman Empire.
Claudius (Derek Jacobi (The King's Speech in his definitive role) begins his tale a while before he was born, though we first see him as an old, hunched, paranoid-acting man scribbling furtively by candlelight. What he is chronicling is the scandalous, taboo truth about the endlessly duplicitous, treacherous royal family he has belonged to, whose machinations he has barely survived. In flashbacks that take off from and then return to these interludes in the elderly Claudius's presence, what unravels, in delicious detail and occasionally unbearable suspense, is this^: Claudius's grandfather, Augustus (Brian Blessed, Hamlet), has any potential male heir, and eventually his own person, systematically destroyed by his expert-poisoner wife and Claudius's grandmother, Livia (Siân Phillips), so that she can exert her own power through her son from a prior marriage, Tiberius (George Baker), after he ascends to the throne upon Augustus's death. Though Tiberius eventually cuts the apron springs in his old age, his reign then sees the deterioration of Rome's power and grandeur through military and other setbacks, and the erosion of his own integrity through ever-lower descents into self-indulgence and degeneracy.
Tiberius thus leaves himself dangerously open to a plot by his great-nephew and kindred spirit in excess, Caligula (the young John Hurt, never more outrageously camp than he is here),an utterly ruthless and amoral aristocrat who has cozied up his uncle and gotten himself designated as heir. After Caligula succeeds to the throne and his madness (fully present, as we have seen, since he was a child) goes beyond even the pale set by Tiberius's latter days, manifesting as his reckless squandering of Rome's dwindling wealth and his literally deadly-serious belief that he is the new Zeus, a military assassination/coup deposes him and drags an unwilling Claudius into the emperorship. This truly noble, humble, and gentle soul--a lame-legged stammerer who has been mocked relentlessly by his entire family for his entire life, despite being possessed of a formidable mind and a tremendous heart where they have only had cunning and ambition--has been pro-republic and opposed to the monarchy from the beginning, and he becomes so disgusted by his now personally crushing experiences as emperor (a station that demands he give up his most valuable possession, his faith in some possibility of human goodness) that he decides to "let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out," purposely making decisions that will facilitate and further the unremitting self-interest of the villains around him in the belief (accurate or not) that it will hasten the fall of the monarchy and give rise to his dreamed-of, more humane and progressive republic.
And that's only the bare skeleton of I, Claudius, a scaffolding upon which an incredibly elaborate, seemingly self-reproducing plot--with at least a couple dozen scheming, conniving, bed-hopping (often adulterously and/or incestuously), parricidal/infanticidal characters--is constructed. The narrative plays out more rapidly and stealthily (and it has more twists, turns, and kinks in it) than the evocative, very aptly symbolic serpent that slithers through each episode's opening credits. Among its crowd of characters, the performances that stand out most in a roundly fine cast are George Baker's as Tiberius, Jacobi's Claudius, Hurt's Caligula, future Star Trek: The Next Generation star Patrick Stewart as the seductive, social-climbing Captain Sejanus, and, especially, Siân Phillips as the heartless Livia, who's calculating, cold, and murderous to the bone, yet whose death, as played by Phillips, has a gravity that makes you somehow feel for her as she takes her terrified, devastated final breath. The theme of mortality and the desperation to somehow achieve immortality hangs heavy over I, Claudius, with its numerous, often imaginatively gruesome deaths pooling with its thrill-seeking, orgiastic sexuality in a way that would make Dr. Freud himself nod knowingly. It shies away from none of the bizarre, violent, warped manifestations of sex and death--those two Freudian constants of human experience--that seem to go hand in hand with belonging to the Roman nobility. We are thankfully spared, but only just, the sight of the aftermath of one of Caligula's madder, more inexorable god-delusion episodes, during which he's convinced that he must follow the Zeus script by cutting the fetus of his unborn son, whom he already considers a rival, out of his wife's womb and consuming it. And that's not the only time you'll be relieved that director Herbert Wise does bring some visual discretion to bear on certain things, even though there's never any coyness about what's transpiring and we're never in any doubt as to the horrors these people are capable of visiting upon each other.
Knowing when to cut to a less visceral angle (or, in that last instance, entirely away) isn't the half of the often astonishing visual cleverness and dynamism that Wise, cameramen Peter Hider and John Green, and editors John Barclay and Dave Hiller bring to the project, which is always impressive, allowing what is sometimes very clearly a low-budget program to come off very sophisticatedly through the kind of inventiveness and imagination that can't be bought, but comes through talent and experience. If this team couldn't afford location shooting, more elaborate sets, or many advanced special effects, they could use their blocking, tracking, panning, and rack-focusing into a surprisingly graceful (given the clunkiness of the video-shooting equipment at the time), convincing, quasi-cinematic ballet when it came to the look of the thing. That ingenuity becomes even more important when it's taking up the slack left by the occasionally obvious aging makeup or one of several creaky, over-expository lines in Jack Pullman's scripts (which are understandable given the rapid, practically exponential rate at which one character's story is connected to another and then another in turn, and so on, but it is impossible to ignore it when one character bluntly summarizes the plot thus far to another, or when the convolutions of familial relationships are spelled out via dialogue even though the characters surely don't need to remind each other of whom they're related to or how).
In fact, in retrospect, as well-structured and generally well-written as the script is (it does give the actors some memorably delectable monologues), it comes to seem the most conventional element in I, Claudius. It's the boldness with which the series has been made that really shines, with a cinematic vision that transcends its limitations in a way that still seems so fresh and fleet today, it must have been dazzling and felt revolutionary 35 years ago. It's unlikely that anyone involved could have imagined today's situation, where the cinema is being given a run for its money by TV's increasingly sophisticated artistic accomplishments and appeal to some of our best, most intelligent and creative filmmakers. But it is, finally, through how much like a movie it feels in some unique and important ways, more than anything dramatically or thematically original or innovative, that I, Claudius earns its classic status and retains such consistent re-watchability. Its suppleness and willingness to create aesthetically striking images for the small screen makes it a landmark in the annals of English-language television; like Fassbinder's TV works in Germany, Bergman's in Sweden, or Roots in the U.S. a year after I, Claudius, it throws off some significant shackles regarding both what you can show on TV and, more importantly, how you can show it, broadening the creative parameters of the entire medium in the process.
Each disc has, among the usual FBI copyright warnings and other legal business, a conscientious disclaimer from Acorn Media, the DVD's distributor, stating, "Due to the age of these programs and the improved resolution that DVD provides, you may notice occasional flaws in the image and audio on this DVD presentation that we were unable to correct." That's fair enough, and the series certainly has its mild but persistent instances of only-with-videotape color bleeding, comet trails, and overmodulation, which were almost unavoidable in color videography at the time (1976) that the series was made. Still, none of these glitches that have been left far behind by decades of advancements in video recording are due to the quality of the transfer to disc; the visual presentation is absolutely faithful to the original. And if one takes into consideration the fact that many viewers likely first saw these images in the context of broadcast screen-rolling, static, and having to adjust their set's rabbit ears, and quite possibly even in black and white (the final image of each program proudly bears the insignia of not just the BBC, but BBC Colour), then the anachronistic appearance at the level of technological sophistication is no distraction, and one is easily convinced that the series looks the best it possibly could as presented in this edition.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack offers the best possible sound for the series, the aural limitations of which are no more than that of standard in-studio, recorded-for-broadcast programming of this variety in the '70s, i.e., a slight "buzz" in quieter scenes due to the nature of the technology and conventional sound-recording practices of the period. That all seems perfectly normal for a program of this vintage, and the sound is overall vivid and clear, well mixed and layered, with surprisingly little distortion.
--"I, Claudius: A Television Epic, a juicy 75-minute BBC documentary from 2002 featuring the recollections of director Herbert Wise and various principal cast members (including Siân Phillips, John Hurt, George Baker, Christopher Biggins, and others, with many contributions from Derek Jacobi himself). The I, Claudius gang recalls the long and difficult casting process; the initial floundering around to find the right approach (balancing horror and humor was a challenge for writer and actors alike, with the director left to bring everyone together in mastering the series' tone); the tricky business of pushing the envelope content-wise; on-set joys and nightmares (the makeup made everyone's life hell); the camera fluidity that distinguished it as something mobile, lively, and cinematic; the 180-degree turn the critics took from their dismissals at the time the first few episodes were broadcast to high praise as it went on; and the series' soon-to-be-international, long-running acclaim and the positive effect it had on the careers of those involved.
--The Epic That Never Was, the extra most indirectly associated with the series, but the one cinephiles will probably flock to first. It's a 70-minute BBC program (evidently of mid-1960s vintage) in which actor Dirk Bogarde (Victim) appears on camera with a copy of I, Claudius in hand and narrates the absolutely fascinating story of an abandoned-during-shooting 1937 film version produced in England by British cinema magnate Alexander Korda, directed by Dietrich's Svengali, Josef von Sternberg, and starring Charles Laughton. Along with at least 25 minutes of invaluable footage from the two weeks of shooting that were completed, Bogarde's narration frames interviews with Claudius author Robert Graves, director von Sternberg, and cast members Flora Robson, Merle Oberon, and Emlyn Williams about the difficult experience of working on the film and the even harsher blow of having it all ended so abruptly (technically due to a car accident in which Oberon was injured, but there is speculation here that that came as a relief to Korda, who saw a project foundering on ill feeling between cast members and director).
--A 10-minute interview with Derek Jacobi conducted by the American writer/producer Mark Olshaker in 2010, in which Jacobi is invited to briefly recollect on his entire acting career on stage and screen.
--A half-hour favorite scenes compilation in which Jacobi, Phillips, Baker, Biggins, Hurt, and Wise appear onscreen to discuss their most fondly remembered bits from the series, each recollection followed by a clip of the scene in question.
--Extended versions of the original broadcast versions of the first two episodes, which have, in the series as presented here, been combined into one opening 98-minute episode (meaning you get about 10 minutes of additional footage over both extended episodes).
--A 10-page booklet featuring a context-enhancing essay on I, Claudius's relationship to historical fact and a most useful family tree in which you can trace the complicated genealogy across the generations of the series' multitudinous characters. (I referred to it more than once).
Both for its nimble, insightful, and extensive explorations of timeless themes--ambition, lust for power, and tyrannical egocentrism vs. empathy, humanity, and egalitarianism--as well as for its remarkably spry wit, bawdy gallows humor, and near-total lack of stuffiness, I, Claudius, despite being 35 years old and showing some superficial signs of its vintage, is classic television, a series for the ages. Its frankness in terms of sex and violence, unheard of when it was first broadcast in 1976, may seem relatively tame now, but equally timeless is how some of the acts of decadence, depravity, and brutality it depicts still seem lurid and shocking in themselves, not just for how envelope-pushingly graphic director Herbert Wise and writer Jack Pulman dared to be in depicting them. It's also ahead of its time in the richness and elasticity of its sprawling, generation-spanning drama, and despite the now primitive-appearing technology with which it was made, the use of that technology is extraordinarily cinematic; if the actors are sometimes a little too obviously more accustomed to the stage than the camera, Wise makes excellent, dynamic use of that camera's properties of movement and framing to invigoratingly remind us that what we're watching is moving pictures. It's not going too far to say that I, Claudius is a forerunner of the kind of more literate, more intelligent, higher quality (for its time, much higher quality) than usual, yet still addictive-as-soaps TV serials (The Sopranos, et al.) we've enjoyed in such abundance in more recent times; it's all the more exceptional for having been done with such modest means at a time when sitcoms were newly ambitious but nobody expected that much from television drama. It is also a truly epic series, one whose timeline covers about a century and whose 12 episodes run over 10 hours, so although it's Highly Recommended, be forewarned: It's very possible that you'll be dead to the world for that block of time solid due to the "let's watch just one more" virus that's long been associated with the series and is now being spread anew through this definitive edition.