Robin Brooks on dramatising Robert Graves for radio
Head of Interactive, Radio 3
Robin Brooks dramatised 'I, Claudius' for BBC Radio 4. Here, he writes about the pleasures of adapting Graves for radio. His post begins with a clip from the current episode - SB
As material for dramatisation, one of the best things about 'I, Claudius' is that it starts very well and then gets better as it goes on. As the dynasty unravels - Graves produces more and more splendid villains for our delectation: grandma-serial killer Livia, her son the morose and sexually perverted Tiberius, ghastly Gnaeus Piso (to whom the telly version devotes virtually an entire episode), Tiberius's slimy sidekick Sejanus, nephew Caligula, who can now be heard waiting about on the fringes of the action, ready to reveal himself as the most glorious psychopath of all, even Claudius's monstrous, murderous wife Urgulanilla, will now get her moment in the spotlight. Livia herself is still hanging grimly on, and in episode 3 she has a long scene with Claudius, in which she finally reveals to him the extent of her villainy. These characters are a gift to the writer, and to the actors, who, as I hope you've noticed by now, attack them with delightful relish.
One of the more unusual aspects about this production has been the golden memory of the television version. I have heard some people claim that this is definitive, and that no further version need be made. I think that's nonsense; I, Claudius is a classic, and deserves re-interpretation as much as any other. But there's no denying that the 70's series is remembered vividly by everyone who saw it, and that it is a very, very hard act to follow.
One of things that makes it possible to attempt our own version is the difference between the two media. Take the scene in episode 1 in which soothsayer Thrasyllus announces Tiberius's recall to Rome because of the drowning of his rival. In the book, Thrasyllus talks to a little wren which perches close by to deliver the good news. (One of the things I like most about Graves is that he takes magic and ancient superstition very seriously). In the TV version a trained wren is not a practical possibility. Jack Pullman has a centurion come in and deliver the news, and then turns this to his advantage by showing the centurion's appalled reaction to Tiberius's delighted laughter at the drowning.
With the magic of radio, the original presents no problem - the wren arrives, chirrups, flutters off - and the same might be said of many more such scenes: gladiatorial combat and mutinying legions are all rather easier to do on radio than elsewhere, unless you have Ridley Scott or Charlton Heston on board, of course. I suppose what I'm saying in a nutshell is that radio adaptation - certainly as far as 'I, Claudius' is concerned - allows one to be more faithful, really extremely faithful, to the book, and this is very satisfying to me personally, because I have always loved the novel. What it comes down to in the end, is that Robert Graves wrote a truly wonderful book.