Tony hails Caesar.
It’s difficult in 2016 to really convey the impact of I, Claudius when it hit TV screens forty years ago. There have been attempts to make similar shows in recent years, and for the most part, they haven’t worked anything like as well. To explain the impact of this enormous but surprisingly concise TV series that unfolded the lives of four of Rome’s first Caesars through the eyes of one of them, you actually have to get your Classics on for a moment. Bear with us, we promise this won’t hurt.
The Roman writer Suetonius set out with a mission to tell a ‘real history’ of the first twelve Caesars. Different in style from all the official accounts, many of which were very self-serving or fact-altering, Suetonius’ version of Roman history was essentially the soap opera version, the version from which we largely get our idea of Roman debauchery, insanity and excess. It merged ‘official history’ with slave gossip, and the things that ‘everybody knew’ – meaning deaths were attributed to murderous conspiracy, everybody was falling into bed with everybody else, and the destiny of the Roman Empire was decided by plot and plunder. Actually, it wasn’t the soap opera version of history, it was the tabloid version. Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars. Worth a read. Just saying.
From that, and a range of other sources, Classics scholar and author Robert Graves had an idea that would largely revolutionise literature, practically creating – or at least popularising – a whole new genre: history from a fictionalised first person perspective of someone who was ‘there.’ Philippa Gregory? Graves was there first. He rewrote a chunk of The Twelve Caesars from the point of view of the Emperor Claudius, largely regarded by both his predecessors and by many subsequent historians as a pervert and a fool, but, simultaneously, only the second Caesar to be declared a god, and a man who, by letting his freedmen have more of a free hand in the government of the empire, got a shedload of stuff actually done. The dichotomy took Graves two big books to explore, from Claudius’ youth in the time of the first genuine emperor, Augustus, through the time of the misanthropic tyrant Tiberius (for those of a religious persuasion, the one who ordered the census on the road to which Jesus is said to have been born), through history’s favourite debauch-hound, Caligula, to Claudius’ own rule and the ascension of that other stranger to sanity, Nero. The books – I, Claudius, and Claudius The God – have a great deal of good things in them, but are written with a dryness that feels as though their main purpose was to rub dead skin off your feet. Like James Joyce, Captain Corelli and much else in the ‘literary’ world, people read them because they felt they should, but actively enjoying them wasn’t something you particularly aimed at.
When the BBC got hold of the rights to turn both books into one series of twelve hour-long programmes, they were given to a man it wouldn’t stretch reality to describe as a genius, Jack Pulman, to rewrite for television. Pulman essentially took the dry stuff of Graves’ mammoth novels and made them…erm…wet again, putting back the verve of Suetonius’ original, but keeping the inspired idea of the story being narrated from Claudius’ point of view.
What happened next is hard to describe. It was as if the BBC upended every major theatre company in Britain and shook them till their best fell out, at which point they were given a toga and an exotic hairstyle and sent onto the set of I, Claudius. Forty years on, the cast list looks like one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ dream events, for the very simple reason that it was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ dream events. You can go down the list with your geek head on if you like, and find who was whom in what classic geeky show you love, but it’s actually more fun to do it with the simple criteria of superb acting talent – then you can talk about the cast of I, Claudius all day long.
Ahem – sorry, don’t know what came over me there. Of course we should do it the geeky way. Top of the league – BRIAN BLESSED as the Emperor Augustus. George Baker, of many, many things including Doctor Who, Full Circle, as Tiberius. John ‘War Doctor’ Hurt as Caligula. Derek ‘Professor Yana/The Master’ as the stammering, limp-footed Claudius. Patrick Stewart with hair as Sejanus, right hand man of Tiberius and would-be emperor. Kevin McNally (Hugo Lang, The Twin Dilemma besides so much else) as Castor. Ian ‘the second Saint’ Ogilvy as Drusus, Tiberius’ brother. Patricia Quinn of a hundred Hammer movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Doctor Who, Dragonfire as Livila, granddaughter of Augustus and lover of Stewart’s Sejanus. Christopher ‘The One Doctor’ Biggins as Nero. Simon ‘Manimal’ MacCorkindale as Lucius. And so on, and so on, down the cast list – Guy Siner, Denis Carey, Stratford John, Kevin Stoney, John Bennett, Bernard Hill, Patsy Byrne, John Castle, David Robb, Peter Bowles…
The BBC had a grand tradition of costume drama, and a technically even grander history of delivering filmed Shakespeare plays for the education of the masses (all without commercials, American readers). And it would be a massive overstatement to say that I, Claudius was at all alone in either pushing literature into a TV format or bringing the remoteness and complexity of history to TV life – within a few years either way, British viewers also had The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, and several others to learn from.
What made I, Claudius special was its combination of ancient pedigree and salaciousness, its heavyweight ‘literary’ credentials matched with the savvy of Jack Pulman in bringing the human dimension front and centre. It was also special in that it had that narratorial element, which most similar shows didn’t have. It brought all the tricks of the TV set-dresser’s trade to bear to look as though it had a lavish budget, without ever resorting to the ghastliness of special effects, giving it the intimacy of twelve hour-long plays, rather than the pretension of a movie. And of course, it had the performers, giving their all as far as each role would allow them – Blessed, playing against the stereotype of later years, is hypnotic as a smiling, soft-spoken, beardless Augustus. Sian Philips, the Welsh Dowager Duchess of her day as his poisonous queen, Livia is positively spellbinding, the Frank Underwood of Ancient Rome, weaving a house of cards around the imperial throne and securing her son’s accession to it, much against his will. George Baker bringing a lumpen, heavy-hearted melancholy to every frame as Tiberius. A young John Hurt terrifying viewers with his quixotic mood-changes as the insane Caligula. An equally young Derek Jacobi in the anchoring role of Claudius, his every word hard-wrung through an authentic stammer, except when he narrates his thoughts, when he speaks clearly and fluently.
I, Claudius was a perfect storm of three great writers, Suetonius, Graves and Pulman, each doing what was necessary to translate a salacious version of the lives of the emperors through popular literary fiction and into digestible, hypnotic television, a broadcaster with a commitment to public service rather than profit margins, and the very best of a nation’s acting talent coming together to add their input to a rollicking, enormous story, the Game of Thrones of its day, only based in real Roman history.
In fact, that’s the right comparison. Plenty of shows since 1976 have tried to re-bottle the lightning that was I, Claudius – shows like The Borgias, the Cleopatras and Rome. I, Claudius, forty years on, remains untouched by any of them, its timeless quality still making it compelling viewing today. In its literary pedigree and its ability to attract the very best actors, it was actually the Game of Thrones of its day, bringing to life the grandeur, the squalor and the horror that was Rome.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk