by Allan Fish
(UK 1976 652m) DVD1/2
Old King Log
p Martin Lisemore d Herbert Wise w Jack Pulman novels “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” by Robert Graves m Wilfrid Josephs art Tim Harvey
Derek Jacobi (Claudius), Siân Phillips (Livia), Brian Blessed (Augustus), George Baker (Tiberius), John Hurt (Caligula), Margaret Tyzack (Antonia), Patrick Stewart (Sejanus), Patricia Quinn (Livilla), David Robb (Germanicus), Fiona Walker (Agrippina), Beth Morris (Drusilla), Sheila White (Messalina), James Faulkner (Herod Agrippa), Kevin McNally (Castor), John Castle (Postumus), Frances White (Julia), Ian Ogilvy (Drusus), John Paul (Agrippa), Barbara Young (Agrippinilla), Christopher Biggins (Nero), Bernard Hepton (Pallas), John Cater (Narcissus), John Rhys Davies (Macro), Stratford Johns (Piso), Charles Kay (Gallus), Freda Dowie (The Sibyl/Caesonia), Ashley Knight (Young Claudius), Kevin Stoney (Thrasyllus), Donald Eccles (Pollio), Bernard Hill (Gratus), Charlotte Howard (Scylla), Esmond Knight (Domitius), Moira Redmond (Domitia),
There are few more beloved BBC serials in history than this immensely detailed adaptation of the two Claudian novels of Robert Graves. In truth, the second novel is rather sparsely translated, forming barely 20% of the series at its finale, entirely missing out the massive section on the conquest of Britain and the subduing of Caractacus. But no matter, for as an adaptation of the first book, one could hardly have done a better job than Jack Pulman. For a long time it seemed as if Claudius would have the last laugh, for everyone recalled the disastrous aborted film of 1937, with Charles Laughton, Alexander Korda and Josef Von Sternberg going together like oil, water and cement. One mourns its never being completed, if only because of the décor and the promise of the performances of Laughton and Emlyn Williams from the surviving footage, but it was left to the Beeb to finally complete the job nearly forty years later.
Graves’ work is a tapestry, an inside diary so to speak, a novelised history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty from the grandeur of Augustus through the increased depravity of Tiberius, the insanity of Caligula and the temperance of the eponymous Claudius. It may be liberal with the facts – the real Claudius wasn’t really the gentle soul depicted here, though he undoubtedly was compared to most of his family – but this is hardly the point, for it’s in exaggeration that the best drama lies, as Shakespeare proved so readily in his caricature of Richard III. The series may indeed be a relic of those thankfully gone days of awful cheap sets and costumes left over from BBC Shakespeare productions, with absolutely no footage shot outdoors, but the quality of the script and the performances make up for it. It also gained controversy in its time for the nudity and sexual frankness which, though perhaps tame by today’s standards or compared to say Brass’ infamous Caligula, it still adds a bit of realism to proceedings that it lacks visually.
At the time of its release, it was of course compared to the Philip Mackie series The Caesars eight years previously, which itself had been hailed as a small screen masterpiece. If one is honest, Baker, Hurt and Stewart in particular are outshone by their earlier counterparts, but the rest of the cast are peerless, with the supports including Tyzack as the imperiously cold mother Antonia, Faulkner’s inimitable Herod and Stoney’s astrologer (repeating his role from the earlier series). At its heart, three performances dominate. Firstly Blessed, never better than as the father of Rome, Augustus, finding a role perfectly suited to his unique bluster. Then there’s Jacobi as the eponymous stutterer, a worthy successor to the imperious Freddie Jones. Yet even so the real star of the show has to be the truly wicked Phillips, in her second golden part in twelve months after her Beth Morgan in How Green Was My Valley. Could there be two more disparate mothers imaginable? Here’s one of the truly most evil women in history, the sort who could eat a Medea or Clytemnestra for breakfast, yet Phillips makes her a human monster, and the dinner sequence with Jacobi is justly fêted. One might say “let all the poisons that lurk in the mud, hatch out”, and onto our TV screens.