When the BBC does historical epics well, and believe me they can, they do them extremely well. I mean look at The Tudors, a great show albeit horribly inaccurate… and Canadian…Oh well what about Spartacus: Blood and Sand..which is actually American…Oh wait now. I have a killer, the greatest Historical Drama ever made. With one of the greatest casts ever assembled, some of the finest examples of acting ever seen on-screen not to mention a fantastic balance of humour, horror and seriousness.
This is gonna be a long review because the entire series lasts 12 episodes with around 10 hours viewing time but I’m gonna review the series as a whole, nevertheless there’s a lot to talk about. Shall we?
The series revolves around the Emperor Claudius (Played by Derek ‘I played Claudius in Hamlet too’ Jacobi) writing the history of his family, focusing on the 5 Emperors who ruled from the family. Augustus (Played by BRIAN ‘MY VOICE CAN KILL A HERD OF BULL ELEPHANTS’ BLESSED!!!), Tiberius (Played by George ‘I’ll have no career after this’ Baker), Caligula (Played by John ‘I would kill to have his voice’ Hurt), Claudius and finally Nero (Played by Christopher ‘wtf am I doing here’ Biggins). The show is mostly historically accurate although it is based on a book which uses a lot of Suetonius’s twelve Ceasers which is mostly just sex, murder and suspicion so in all honesty any mistakes made are all down to Suetonius…although they did use some of Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome which is less based on rumour and seemingly more factual based…Anywho I digress. It looks at Livia (Played By Sian ‘call me a weathergirl one more time’ Phillips) and her plot to place her son, Tiberius on the throne, the plot to kill Caligula, the plot to kill Claudius and place Nero on the throne…In short there are a lot of plots…anywho I’m gonna try to do this in a more meticulous way than usual so, as my old Catholic Priest said before I turned to a life as a staunch atheist, hold on tight because it’s gonna be a big one…
Do I even need to caption this?
Firstly I should talk about the cast. Holy crap in a fig tree is it brilliant. Remember when I did my Philosopher’s Stone review and I said how the cast in the Harry Potter series could so a really could stage show of Hamlet? Well this cast have done Hamlet…And Macbeth…And King Lear…In the 70’s you had some of the finest thespians in history and you can find some of the best in I Claudius let me run down a few of the names, Brian Blessed, Sian Phillips, Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, George Baker, David Robb, Patrick ‘I WENT FROM THIS TO FUCKING STAR TREK!!??!?!’ Stewart, Fiona Walker; the list is endless. This is such a brilliant cast, I can’t think of Augustus or Livia without picturing these actors. They all really suit the roles and you can tell that they’re all friends. Little bit of trivia, in the 50’s there was an attempt to make I Claudius into a feature-length film starring the then great Charles Laughton. It failed and some people speculated that the ghost of Claudius had something to do with it.
‘Fuck Charles Laughton I want Jim Carey or failing that Derek Jacobi!!!’
The characters are also made very memorable when brought to screen and I think that the cast and the acting has a lot to do with this. In a change from my usual outlook on any sort of fiction, I actually think I like all of the characters. Let’s look at three of them just so I feel like I’m really reviewing the series. Livia, Caligula and Claudius. There’s Claudius. Born with a stammer and limp, Claudius plays the fool so that he doesn’t die eg be poisoned by Livia. He’s a nice, interesting character and he’s very intelligent which means that the audience feel comforted by his acting as a guide throughout the series. Livia is just a bitch but she is so enjoyable. She is manipulative, intelligent and above all patient. She will wait 40 years if it means she will see her son succeed her husband as Emperor. Livia has some wonderful scenes but I feel I ought to group them with the acting section…BUZZKILL ALARM. Next we have Caligula who is just a monster. He is incest, a murderer, arsonist and psychopath who believes himself to be a God and marries his own sister. Hell even Livia, the woman who poisons utmost of 5 freaking people, says he is a complete monster. Well I suppose even evil has its standards…unless your Caligula…
He’s so vile he actually eats good, regurgitates it as evil, kills it, rapes it, makes it a Senator and then eats it again
Alright so now lets talk about the acting. It. Is. brilliant. When you have such a well-trained cast you can expect it to be this perfect. Brian Blessed is excellent, his voice is something that I now find indistinguishable from Augustus himself. Several scenes stick out in my mind, “IS THERE ANYONE IN ROME WHO HAS NOT SLEPT WITH MY DAUGHTER!!” and “WHERE ARE MY EAGLES!!!” stand out in particular, but by far the best example of Blessed’s acting ability comes when Augustus dies. Livia is speaking but the camera is alway on him. It’s not a still shot, it’s Blessed actually acting a mans final moments. This scene lasts for a good minute and you can actually see the light leaving Blessed’s eyes. It really is a brilliant piece of acting.
Would’ve been better if he had shouted something…
Next I want to talk about Sian Phillips. She plays Livia very well, brilliantly portraying her as a manipulative, scheming woman, always weighing things up in her head before she makes her move. Like Blessed, Phillips has some wonderful scenes like the one where she and the poisoner are having dinner and they’re comparing different poisons like housewives exchanging recipes. Her best scene is, like Blessed, her death scene. She is desperate to be made a Goddess because, lets face it, she’s done some shitty things in her life and she’s terrified about the prospect of going to hell. If she is made a Goddess then she cannot go to Hell. She makes a deal with Caligula saying that she will keep his secret about him murdering his own father if he makes her a Goddess. When she is on her deathbed she brings the matter up again at which point he promptly and casually states “what makes you think an old hag like you could ever be a Goddess?”. Livia just sits there as Caligula goes into some speech about how he is the only one deserving to be a God because of some prophecy, all the while she just sits there, staring at the ceiling, eventually crying. It really is a great bit of acting and shapes the character of Livia just a little bit more. George Adams is also a pretty good actor, although from what I know his career isn’t exactly extensive. One scene stands out in particular and that is when Tiberius is threatening to kill his prophet if a messenger coming from a recently docked ship doesn’t bring him good news. Luckily the messenger brings a letter telling Tiberius that his political enemy is dead meaning that he can return from exile. He and his prophet just burst into laughter while the messenger just stands there looking dumbfounded. It is a brilliant example of a hilarious scene in what is generally a pretty serious series. Christopher Biggins is great as Nero, he actually looks a lot like statues show, plump. He has some very good scenes including one where is mother comforts him after he has been refused by a woman. How does she comfort him? I hear you cry. By letting him have sex with her of course, like any good mother would…If she were fucking sick… Anywho Biggins is brilliant at portraying that camp, artistic, cultural wannabe that Nero was…even if he was insane…and incest…and slept with everything…
You do not wanna know why he’s making that face…
Derek Jacobi is great as usual, even if the whole stammer thing can get really annoying at times, although this is testament to his amazing acting talent. He plays Claudius playing the fool excellently and you can tell he’s really putting a lot into it. The best scene of his comes when he is in the library, talking to the historian. His stammer really comes out then and it is obvious that the performance requires a lot of effort which Jacobi is dutifully providing. But by far the best performance is that of John Hurt. He is simply magnificent. He is perfect as Caligula, absolutely perfect. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with him, it is flawless. There are many scenes to choose from. The one in the senate where he collapses, the one where he gets pissed that no one was there to greet him, the one where he is murdered, the one where he cuts the child from Drusilla, all are excellent but two really stand out. The first is the one where Claudius and two others are called to Caligula and naturally they believe he will kill them. Instead he dances for them…In makeup and women’s clothing…
There are only a handful of other places where you can see John Hurt like this…Belive me I know…
Also here’s a link that I thought was freaking hilarious: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=I+Claudius+John+Hurt+dance+&qpvt=I+Claudius+John+Hurt+dance+&mid=69A4FB51A8EBF7220A1569A4FB51A8EBF7220A15&FORM=LKVR24#
The second scene is when Caligula believes himself to be a God. He summons Claudius and then reveals his thoughts to him. It is such an exquisite piece of acting that I find it difficult to properly say…All in all the acting is very good but, being on a tight budget, they only had time for a certain number of takes and so there are some instances where actors fluffed their lines but it was left in the finished thing because they couldn’t afford to do it again. It doesn’t diminish the acting as a whole, in fact I quite like it, makes it seem more real and adds some form of charm.
Next I want to talk about are the sets and costumes as well as the camera work, I did say I was going into detail. The camera work is very good and I think a shining example of this is Augustus’s death where the camera is always on Blessed never on Phillips, other than at the beginning when the shot actually goes through her veil. Suffice to say, it’s a very nice shot. Another good shot is during Augustus’s reign when he’s confronting the senators who’ve slept with his daughter, they are in a line and the camera scales down it showing only their backs but Blessed’s face. I think this escalates the drama of the scene. The costumes and sets are also done very well. They had a proper consultant on the show, the 1970’s answer to today’s Mary Beard.
The Jessica Rabbit of the Classics world
The sets are pretty accurate even by todays standards and the costumes suit that. I especially like those of the Emperors which, although they don’t differ much, seem to suit each of them differently.
Finally let’s get on with the writing. I like the way the entire series is the work of Claudius being relayed to us towards the time of his death which gives us some nice scenes of him hallucinating, especially one of his final moments in the senate where he see’s all the other characters, rom Augustus to Caligula to Nero. The best testament of the writing though, are some of the lines. I mean my God this series gives us some of the best dialogue I have ever heard, certainly some of my favourite, and now, because I know you want it, my Top Five I Claudius lines!!!!
5) WHERE ARE MY EAGLES!!!??? (Augustus)
4) There is nothing that has occurred to you that hasn’t already occurred to me, that is my curse. (Livia to Tiberius)
3) I can’t give him this one. There are elephants on it. (Claudius)
2) IS THERE ANYBODY IN ROME WHO HAS NOT SLEPT WITH MY DAUGHTER!!!???!!??!! (Augustus)
1) Our mother? They say a snake bit her once and died. (Tiberius about Livia)
Well there you have it. My review of I Claudius, a drama with a great cast, brilliant acting, fantastic story, excellent writing, memorable characters, great camerawork and accurate sets and costumes. I love it dearly and it rightly deserves to be on my Top Tv Show list..If I ever update it..which, in all honesty, looks unlikely…
I Claudius. I love it.