By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 31, 2012)
She preys like a Roman with her eyes on fire: Sian Phillips as Livia
I Claudius 35th Anniversary Edition – Acorn Media DVD set
“Political questions, if you go back thousands of years, are ephemeral, not important. History is the same thing over and over again.”
35 years ago (best to my hazy recollection), I was living in a house in Fairbanks, Alaska with 4 or 5 (or was it 6 or 7?) of my friends. Being 20-something males, ragingly hormonal and easily sidetracked by shiny objects, it was a rare occasion when all the housemates would be congregated in one room for any period of time. But there was one thing that consistently brought us together. For about a three month period in the fall of 1977, every Sunday at 9pm, we would abruptly drop whatever we were doing (sfx: guitars, bongs, Frisbees, empty Heineken bottles and dog-eared Hunter Thompson paperbacks hitting the floor) and gather round a 13-inch color TV (replete with Reynolds Wrap-reinforced rabbit ears) to rapturously watch I, Claudius on Masterpiece Theatre.
While an opening line of “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus…” could portend more of a snooze-inducing history lecture, rather than 11 hours of must-see-TV, the 1976 BBC series, adapted from Robert Graves’ 1934 historical novel about ancient Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasty, was indeed the latter, holding U.S. viewers in thrall for its 12-week run. While it is quite possible that at the time, my friends and I were slightly more in thrall with the occasional teasing glimpses of semi-nudity than we were with, say, the beauty of Jac Pulman’s writing, the wonder of the performances and historical complexity of the narrative, over the years I have come to realize that I think I learned everything I needed to know about politics from watching (and re-watching) I, Claudius.
It’s all there…the systemic greed and corruption of the ruling plutocracy, the raging hypocrisy, the grandstanding, glad-handing and the back-stabbing (in this case, both figurative and literal). Seriously, over the last 2000 years, not much has changed in the political arena (this election year in particular finds us tunic-deep in bread and circuses; by Jove, what a clown show). Although it’s merely a happy coincidence that a newly minted 35th anniversary edition of the series was released on DVD this week by Acorn Media, the timing couldn’t be more apt. I’ve been finding it particularly amusing the past few days to zip through the nightly network newscasts on the DVR, then immediately follow it up with an episode of I, Claudius so I can chuckle (or weep) over the parallels.
Kawkinkydinks with the ongoing decline of the American empire notwithstanding, the series holds up remarkably well. In fact, it still kicks major gluteus maximus on most contemporary TV fare (including HBO and Showtime). What’s most impressive is what they were able to achieve with such austere production values; the writing and the acting is so strong that you barely notice that there are only several simple sets used throughout (compare with Starz’s visually striking but otherwise chuckle-headed Spartacus series).
It’s hard to believe that Derek Jacobi was in his mid-30s when he took on the lead role; not only does he convincingly “age” from 20s to 60s, but subtly unveils the grace and intelligence that lies behind Claudius’s outwardly afflicted speech and physicality. Another standout in this marvelous cast is Sian Phillips, with her deliciously wicked performance as Livia (wife of Augustus) who will stoop to anything in order to achieve her political goals (Machiavelli’s subsequent work was doo-doo, by comparison). George Baker excels as her long-suffering son, Tiberius, as does Brian Blessed, playing Augustus. And John Hurt’s take on the mad Caligula is definitive, in my book. The new transfer on the Acorn release is excellent, making this DVD set well worth your denarius.