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The Sunday Post: I, Claudius

Claudius (Derek Jacobi), established as Emperor of Rome, contemplates the conquest of Britain - this time, Brexit would take several hundred years to come into effect

Forty years ago this week, on 20 September 1976, BBC2 broadcast the first episode of one of its best  remembered classic serials, I, Claudius.  

Based on the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves, it was the story of one of the lesser-known Roman emperors and the dynasty he belonged to, whose family business, as producer Martin Lisemore memorably put it, was ruling the world. 

At this time, adaptations of novels on BBC television fell into two camps, the more popular works shown on BBC1, while more challenging or obscure novels went to BBC2 (at this time billed as The BBC2 Serial).  These would go out in longer episodes – typically forty-five to fifty minutes – while BBC1 adaptations were twenty-five to thirty minutes for each installment.

Despite being just the latest in a long line of BBC adaptations, I, Claudius stood out from the rest.  To begin with, the novels, written in the mid-1930s, are in a very accessible style.  Although Robert Graves was a poet and a classical scholar, the novels were written as popular fiction to earn money, so Graves’ writing is not dry, but very readable.  He is adept at bringing life to the historical characters and events, derived from his knowledge of classical authors such as Suetonius and Tacitus.

The adaptation for television is also skillful, with the dramatist Jack Pulman bringing his own light touch, and making it his own while being true to the spirit of Graves’s books.  It’s no mean feat either, because of the complicated relationships between the characters, most of whom are related to each other.  As with The Forsyte Saga back in 1967, Radio Times helpfully included a family tree in their preview article.  There was also a short introductory programme In Nineteen Hundred Years… presented by the series’ historical adviser Robert Erskine, to give the background to the series.

The Claudian family tree, vital to make sure you don't accidentally marry someone you're not already related to...

Jack Pulman had been writing for television and radio since the late 50s, and he adapted his first of many classic serials, Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, for BBC2 in 1965.  In 1972 he gained his longest and most challenging commission when the BBC asked him to tackle War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy’s mammoth tale of upper-class Russian families during the Napoleonic wars, which ran to 20 episodes.  He also wrote the first four episodes of the 1975 version of Poldark, before being approached by producer Martin Lisemore to adapt I, Claudius.

Lisemore himself had come up through the ranks of the BBC drama department, before producing his first serial, Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, in 1970.  Since then he had worked on BBC2 classic serials (with one exception, 1975’s The Master of Ballantrae, for BBC1), including Heinrich Mann’s Man of Straw, in which the lead role was taken by a young actor called Derek Jacobi.

After completing How Green Was My Valley (starring Stanley Baker and Sian Phillips), I, Claudius was his next production, with experienced director Herbert Wise given the task of realising the drama.  There was one contractual hiccup:  Graves had sold the film rights to Alexander Korda’s London Films, and an abortive version starring Charles Laughton was commenced in 1937.  The rights still remained with London Films, who were credited on the BBC series as a result.

Though thirteen 50-minute slots were allowed for the dramatisation, it was decided that since the first episode only featured Claudius’s birth at the end, it would make more sense to combine episodes 1 and 2 into a feature length episode so that viewers could see the character as part of the action in week 1.  Thus it was transmitted as 12 parts, although a 13-part version was available for foreign markets (the extra episode was called Family Affairs).

Filming for the I, Clavdivs title sequence is ruined when the Director General's pet snake, Neville, escapes from his vivarium (that's yer actual Latin that is...)

Claudius did appear at the beginning and end of almost every episode, in framing sequences of him as an old man at work on the history of his family.  The rest of the story was thus largely depicted in flashback, gradually coming closer to the ‘present’ time.  These sequences allowed us to see the mature Claudius and gave an idea of his true personality.

It was decided to feature no location filming for the serial, for artistic reasons rather than a result of low BBC budgets, though it meant more money could be spent on other aspects of the production.  The only film used was for the title sequence:  a simple but arresting shot of a snake slithering across a mosaic representation of the main captions. 

Apart from music featured within the action – trumpets announcing the entrance of emperors, for example – the sole piece of music was the title theme, composed by Wilfred Josephs and performed by early music specialists David Wulstan and the Clerkes of Oxenford.

One of Herbert Wise’s first tasks as director was to cast the large array of major parts the production required.  Firstly, there was Claudius himself, who was one of several roles who had to age several decades through the series, starting as a callow youth and ending as an old man, with the help of the BBC make-up department.  The actor had also to contend with Claudius’s physical afflictions – a limp, a twitch, and a stutter – without losing sight of subtlety of characterisation.  (Ashley Knight had the task of portraying Claudius as a boy – with the same range of impediments as his older self.)

Claudius, while being thought a simpleton by most of his family, was a survivor, and the series shows his range of response to the changing political situation around him.  After much deliberation (with candidates including Ronnie Barker), Derek Jacobi was chosen as someone who could convey all these things.  Early scenes with Claudius and his contemporaries, however, employ child actors, and Other major characters included the Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, plus Augustus’s wife Livia, whose scheming to ensure the succession of her son (by her first husband) Tiberius provides the driver for the plot in the first half of the series. 

The second half shows the consequences of what Livia has unleashed, after her death.  Sian Philips, fresh from How Green Was My Valley, was cast in the role, and she also had to be ‘aged up’, from middle-age to decrepit old age by her final episode, Queen of Heaven.

The other three emperors were played by Brian Blessed, (in one of his few beardless roles since Z Cars), as Augustus, the reigning emperor at the start of the series, George Baker as Tiberius, and as Livia’s grandson Caligula, an extraordinary performance by John Hurt.  

Hurt, who had just been in the much-lauded The Naked Civil Servant, was reluctant to take the role at first, but was persuaded by the quality of the actors he would be working with.  Herbert Wise organised a pre-production party, in contrast to the usual 'wrap' party at the end of a series, as too many actors would have moved on to other jobs by then, which enabled the cast to get to know each other before starting work.

Derek Jacobi with Robert Graves when the latter visited the set of I, Claudius. Both men had German ancestry, and both went to St. John's College - Jacobi at Cambridge, Graves at Oxford

Blessed plays Augustus as an ordinary man, who makes the best of his unsought role as emperor and is very successful.  By the time the series opens he has been doing the job for many years, and he is considering the succession. Despite Livia constantly badgering him to pick her son Tiberius, there are plenty of other suitable candidates. 

Tiberius himself doesn’t really want the job, he enjoys being a soldier, but Livia forces him to divorce his wife and marry Augustus’s daughter Julia to edge him towards the throne.  Sian Phillips gives another of the series’ outstanding performances as the ruthlessly ambitious empress, who discovers after all her machinations that her son Tiberius is a disappointment to her, and in her final hours reveals she wants to be made a goddess after she dies.

When Tiberius eventually succeeds, he leaves the running of Rome to his ambitious lieutenant Sejanus (Patrick Stewart) until confronted by evidence that Sejanus is plotting to depose him, at which point the rebellion is crushed.

By the time Tiberius finally dies – he is memorably polished off when he seems to be coming back to life by an ambitious centurion – the heir apparent is the young Caligula, who has connived in amoral behaviour up to and including the death of his own father.  Soon after assuming the throne Caligula falls ill, but on recovery is convinced he has become the Greek god Zeus.

Claudius, who has reluctantly become a confidant of the new emperor, realises Caligula is mad and expects him to be quickly deposed.  Claudius’s folly throughout the series is his desire for Rome to be turned back into a republic, as it was until Julius Caesar’s time. 

The episodes featuring the reign of Caligula are notable – in an overall fairly gory series – for some of the most brutal and shocking scenes in the production.  In episode 8, Caligula has incestuously impregnated his sister, and, convinced that the child will be a greater god than himself, cuts open her womb to kill – and it is implied, eat – the foetus.  The scene caused concern even before it was transmitted, and the episode had several re-edits before the head of BBC drama serials, Bill Slater, was satisfied – even then the master tape was edited again afterwards, so that the original, slightly nastier version of the scene no longer exists.

In the following episode, Caligula’s tyranny and irrational behaviour increasing, and having appointed his horse a senator, a conspiracy arises to assassinate him – and the whole imperial family.  However, though Caligula is bloodily struck down, the Praetorian Guard find a terrified Claudius hiding in the palace, and make him emperor, quite against his will.

All other candidates having been eliminated, the Praetorian Guard decide Claudius, who doesn't want the job, should be emperor (if only all leadership candidates were like that)

The rest of the series shows the progress of Claudius’s reign (the narrative is now adapted from Claudius the God), once he has been persuaded by his friend Herod (yes, that Herod) that he needs to accept the throne in order to stay alive.  He still wants to return Rome to the Republic, but finds it harder than he thought.  Meanwhile, his wife Messalina, who he was forced to marry by Caligula, is gaining a reputation for extreme decadence, with orgies and infidelities that are causing resentment against Claudius.

Again just in time, the conspiracy is revealed to the emperor and Claudius is disillusioned again.  At the conclusion of the series, Claudius is nearing the end of his life, and having led the conquest of Britain has become ironically successful. He has married his niece in an attempt to finally convince the Roman people to reject monarchy, by showing how corrupt an institution it is.  His own son, however, tells him that no-one want the Republic to return.

Claudius eventually allows himself to be poisoned, and although dead, converses with the prophetic Sybil who predicted his fate (as seen in the first episode).  She tells him of what will become of Nero, and Claudius realises he is powerless to shape history in his idealistic way, but that things will, in a way, sort themselves out.

I, Claudius, which has an epic sweep despite being produced entirely on video in Television Centre studios, does bear up to repeated viewings, even if its production standards now seem primitive (but then they probably always did – though when Sian Philips was visited at the BBC by her then husband, Peter O’Toole, starring in a rival Roman epic, he was impressed by the quality of the BBC’s Roman armour compared to the second-rate costumes his film was using.)

It was usual for Classic Serials on BBC2 to be given two showings in the week of their first transmission, but I, Claudius was repeated another two times in the next two years (including, again like The Forsyte Saga, a showing on BBC1, to far higher audiences), with another outing in 1986 to commemorate Robert Graves who had died the previous December.  Further repeats came on BBC4 in 2006, making it one of the most frequently re-run of all archive programmes.

The finished series was recognised in the following year’s BAFTA awards, with Jacobi, Phillips and set designer Tim Harvey being honoured; Herbert Wise also later received an Outstanding Contribution award.  I, Claudius has been consistently highly regarded by successive generations and in industry polls. 

When rehearsals of I, Claudius got underway, at first the actors were not sure what to make of the scripts, and struggled to get the key to the story.  The vital clue that enabled the cast to get the nub of the piece was given to them by Graves – that it is an Italian family saga, where power is the key, and people will do anything to get it and ruthlessly hold on to it.  Don’t think Roman Empire – think the Mafia.

Foreshadowing The Sopranos, I, Claudius also gave rise to a mini-wave of BBC historical sagas such as The Devil's Crown, The Borgias and The Cleopatras, with varying success...  but tell us which is your favourite.  And if you haven't seen I, Claudius, it's available on BBC Store

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