It took until I was in my thirties for me to discover Robert Graves’ wonderful world of the scheming Roman royal family. I only waited so long because my degree was in classics and I was warned off both the book and the celebrated BBC Television series by my tutors, who worried about its exaggerations and its disregard for strict historical veracity, and I certainly didn’t want my imagination to replace facts for sensationalism.
Naturally, once freed of my studies, the first novel I read, in the summer of 2000, was Gore Vidal’s Julian the Apostate – a mangificent tome that, to my delight, put the boot in Christianity. It’s a title I’ve yet to return to, partly out of fear that it won’t live up to my memories (I was younger and more easily impressed in those days, having lived and read much less).
Once a classicist, always a classicist, and I have pontificated knowledge over historically significant pieces of rubble ever since, with gradually diminishing returns. “Ah, yes, that’s clearly a bust of Hadrian. Or is it Marcus Aurelius? Or Antoninus Pius? It’s definitely one of the bearded emperors, anyway…”
As well as an unbridled joy over piles of rubble, I also have a passion for classic British television, so when the box set of I, Claudius came out on DVD, I expressed interest and received it as a Christmas present about seven years ago. Being busy, I kept it in its box for a few months until a trip to the orthodontic department of my local hospital ended with a diagnosis: the troublesome lower wisdom teeth would have to come out – under general anaesthetic. My NHS experience, dear reader, was superb, and notable for an amusing exchange with a form-filling nurse:
Her: “Christian name?”
Me: “I don’t have one.”
Her: “Then what do people call you?”
Her: “So that’s your Christian name.”
Me: “But I’m not a Christian…”
Some time later…
A pause. The pen hovers…
Her: “Can I put C of E?”
Me: “No, you can tick the ‘no religion’ box…”
I can’t help but wonder what Welby would have made of that.
Anyway, the point about having my wisdom teeth excised is that the hospital sent me packing delightfully full of painkillers and with a week’s supply of strong co-codamol – the good stuff. I spent a week at home, eating through a straw… and watching I, Claudius. I was hooked from the episode one cliffhanger.
Yes, it’s all shot on tape and looks incredibly cheap, and the studio sets look, well… like studio sets – but what an ensemble cast! And they’re all playing it for melodrama. Brian Blessed, who shortly after I, Claudius, would settle for a career of eccentric shouting, is still trying, and his Augustus is full of subtlety. Blessed is brilliant in it! He brings a great deal of humour to the part too, even when Augustus is in a rage (such as over the sexual exploits of his nympho daughter, Julia).
With back-stabbings, murders, plots and cliffhanger endings, I, Claudius is pure soap opera, albeit somewhat higher-brow than your average soap. It’s one of those compulsive shows where, having seen one episode, you’re desperate to see the next. In my dosed-up state, I, Claudius distracted me from the pain and I had the whole thing watched in five days. Now, I’m returning to it again, and a second time it’s every bit as good…
Out of an amazing cast, it’s Siân Phillips who steals the show as Augustus’ wicked wife Livia. Her BAFTA award was truly well-deserved. Sly, brutal and too clever by half, Phillips’ Livia is one of the all-time great screen villainesses, and her poisoning of her husband sends shivers down the spine. “Oh, and Tiberius,” she says to her son, casually turning as she leaves the bedroom where her husband lies dead by her hand, “don’t eat the figs.” Subtle, brilliant, hair-raising. And the whopping close-up of Augustus’s face which locks on him for several minutes as he breathes his last whilst Livia finally disabuses him of her monstrous nature is incredibly brave – we don’t see TV drama like that any longer, and more’s the pity.
I, Claudius is closer to theatre than film, as television was in those days, and was all the better for it. A lot of it’s about what you don’t see.
“Don’t go in there,” John Hurt’s Caligula tells Jacobi’s Claudius, keeping the door closed on the audience, the blood on his beard telling you everything you need to know. Ah, magic!
A few years ago I took a tour of BBC Television Centre with a chum, since we knew the tour operator who could smuggle us in for free. We were shown behind the scenes of TC1. There was much excitement amongst the tourists as they were setting up for Strictly Come Dancing. “All sorts of shows were made in TC1,” our guide enthused. “Who’s seen I, Claudius?” My friend and I shot our hands up and made excited noises. The other tourists looked at us like we were mad and asked questions about Strictly.
How quickly we forget…
The BBC too. When Margaret Tyzack (Antonia in the series) died in 2011, the BBC News obituary used a clip of I, Claudius… depicting Siân Phillips. Who is still alive. What obscene ignorance of their own history, and how disrespectful to both actors. Unforgivable. I dashed off a complaint and received the usual excuses. How did that get past an editor? Well, the conclusion is that the editor is equally ignorant.
Anyway, more recently I finally got round to reading Robert Graves’ book – though only the first one. I still have Claudius the God to look forward to, and I picked up a Penguin orange-cover edition from a second hand bookshop during a recent trip to Blackpool.
Published in 1936, I, Claudius is the product of an earlier epoch. Verbose, certainly. A lot of it is compelling, and funny, but its very different from the TV series in that it doesn’t strive for tight narrative. Graves had a good innings, croaking as recently as 1985, so he still had nearly a decade of life left when the TV series aired, yet memory loss and poor health means he may never have seen it, or been in a position to give a verdict.
Now, having experienced the book and the series, I’d say both are excellent in their respective fields, and well worth delving into. The book is memorable for rich descriptions, the series for colourful characterisations. And I choose to believe that, yes, Siân Phillips’ Livia is the true depiction, and she really did kill all those people…
I, Claudius is one of those exceptionally rare examples where the filmed version has as much artistic merit as the prose source it’s derived from (and I’m differentiating literature from fiction here – there’s a reason Stephen King film adaptations tend to be better than the awful books they’re based on). Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is perhaps another example. The best example of all is Mann’s Death in Venice compared to Visconti’s. Both equally sublime.
So… watch the series and read the book. But don’t base your Roman History dissertation on either….
Theatre and book critic for Entertainment Focus, freelance writer and one third of the Doctor Who podcast The Complete Menagerie (Almost).