Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I, Claudius (1976) -- Herbert Wise

Depravity and debauchery in imperial Rome is wonderfully entertaining in the 1976 TV mini-series, I, Claudius. The critically and popularly acclaimed BBC production has it all: incest; adultery; orgies and sexual manipulation; political intrigue; insanity; murder--lots and lots of murder; and suicide as common as a morning cup of coffee. Poison is the method of choice but there are plenty of daggers at play too, and off-screen, hungry lions in the arena. Perhaps the most outlandish scene involves a sex competition in the palace between the emperor's wife and the city's leading prostitute to see who can bed the most men. 

The thirteen-hour saga tells the tale of the five Caesars, starting with Augustus in about 34 BC, through his first three successors: step-son Tiberius, great-grandson Caligula, and grand-nephew Claudius. It ends with the latter's' death in 54 AD as the infamous Nero waits in the wings. Whether it's blind lust for power or inbreeding that propels the drama is hard to say, but it's immediately apparent that being related to the extended Julian/Claudian families puts one at great risk. This is a blood-thirsty bunch. Anyone in the line of succession needs to watch their back.

Part of the title sequences for the series.

Based on Robert Graves' 1934 novel of the same name, the production features a remarkably witty script (by Jack Pulman) and terrific performances by all. While Derek Jacobi is the headliner--his Claudius relates the story in flashback and appears in every episode--it is Sian Phillips as Livia, Augustas' wife, who is most memorable. Her performance is brilliant, convincingly menacing and quietly evil. Devious, extraordinarily patient and determined, she'll stop at nothing to ensure that her son, Tiberius, becomes her husband's heir. Over the course of the first seven episodes, her victims include her own husband, a brother-in-law, and two grandsons. She removes Augustus with poisoned fruit, telling Tiberius, "By the way, don't touch the figs."

At one point or another, all the characters become targets of Livia's cold demeanor. Claudius is one of her great-grandsons. With club foot and a stammer, he is thought to be a fool. But his physical nature hides a rare intelligence, at least until the last episodes when he becomes blind to his scheming young wife, Messalina. Of Claudius, Livia says, "That child should have been exposed at birth," meaning he should have been abandoned on a hillside.

Though truly evil, she claims her behavior is noble. She sincerely fears a republic and the inevitable civil wars she believes it would spurn, hence her dogged drive to maintain the monarchial form of government. Germanicus, Claudius' brother, holds a more objective view of the old woman's ambition, pegging her correctly when he says, "Between reading so many letters and arranging so many rapes, when does she ever sleep?"

Sian Phillips as the dangerous and lethal Livia.

The script is filled with humor. Livia gives a pep talk to gladiators, ready to fight in the arena. She insults and threatens them, and tells them she wants no "kiss in the ring stuff," and no "tricks of the trade to stay alive." Here's the clip:

And it's not just the script that's funny, but the way the actors deliver the lines. A few other great ones:

  • Caligula giggles with silly amusement when he instructs the guards what that evening's password will be: "Bottoms Up," "Give Us a Kiss," and "Touch me, Titus!"
  • About a sick Augustus, someone says to Livia: "It seems that it doesn't matter to you whether he lives or dies!," to which she replies: "Oh no! It matters a great deal to me whether he lives or dies."
  • Caligula to Claudius: "Do you think I'm mad?"
    Claudius to Caligula: "You set the standard for sanity for the whole world."
  • After Livia murders Marcellus:
    Livia: We know what he died of.
    Doctor: Do we?
    Livia: FOOD POISONING! You said so yourself.
    Doctor: Yes, but I couldn't swear to it.
    Livia (to self): No, but I could.
Each episode has at least one terrific scene, which allows all the featured players the opportunity to shine. Among the best are Augustus (Brian Blessed) dressing down fifteen or so senators who have been with his promiscuous daughter, Julia. He incredulously asks each man in turn if the report is true, getting more appalled as he goes down the line, finally exploding, "Is there anyone in Rome who hasn't slept with my daughter?!?" He banishes the girl to a small island where she starves.

Derek Jacobi as a young Claudius.

Reflecting the age of myth, soothsayers, and multiple deities, Tiberius (George Baker) relies on an astrologer to predict the future. His best scene takes place on the island of Rhodes. Convinced that Augustus hates him, and sick of the machinations back in Rome, he has voluntarily retired. Though he still harbors aspirations to the throne--in large part driven by the dominating Livia--he has given way to Augustus' favorite, Marcellus. When he learns that Lucius has died (poisoned by Livia), he can't contain his laughter at the sudden turn of events. The character is one of the most fascinating of the series. He starts as a decent enough sort, unlikable surely, but an effective military leader who can't seem to get out from under his mother's thumb. By the end he has assumed most of her unsavory traits, and has added a fetid layer of sordidness to boot, reveling in pornography and unseen acts of depravity. The change in his makeup over episodes is wonderful. Beginning as a rugged, swarthy, young man, he finishes with bluish veins visible just beneath his skin and open red sores on the top of his balding head. He eventually gets smothered under a pillow.

By the time the story gets to Caligula (John Hurt), royal behavior delves into insanity. Caligula sleeps with and impregnates his sister. He hears voices. His best scene takes place with Claudius. Summoned to the emperor's room for what he suspects is his execution, Claudius instead learns that Caligula has undergone a metamorphosis. He now believes he is a living god and commences to act increasingly outlandish. He later guts his own sister to remove the unborn foetus. When a senate faction assassinates Caligula, Claudius inexplicably is tapped by the guards to be the next emperor. He'll eventually meets a similar fate.

Caligula (John Hurt) dances.

Near the end of the last episode, as Claudius makes his last speech to the Senate--he knows that his wife and Nero are plotting his death--his eyes glass over and he appears to go into a trance. You wonder if he hasn't had a stroke, but it's a nice device by director Wise to re-introduce some of the best characters from the series. Long dead cast members Livia, Augustus, Caligula, Tiberius and Claudius' mother, Antonia (Margaret Tysack), come to him in his imagination to offer comment. It's a touching moment, reminding the viewer how much you miss these great actors, and leaving you lamenting that the series is over, a feeling that is all too rare in film and books, but one that marks a special experience.

Phillips and Jacobi won BAFTAs for their work, and art director, Tim Harvey, an Emmy. That none of the actors were nominated for an Emmy is surely one of the most egregious omissions in the history of the award. The production was shown in the United States in 1977 on PBS' Masterpiece Theater.

The entire production takes place in the studio, though Harvey does a wonderful job depicting the gladiatorial arena, showing just the imperial box; the Senate chamber; and certain outdoor scenes, such as the palace gardens and Tiberius' retreat. Dick Bailey did the intriguing graphic design for the memorable opening, a large venomous black and purple snake, crawling across the title card, depicted on colorful ceramic tile.

As to how closely the novel and screen adaptation mirror history is up for debate. No doubt some events are suspect, but the consensus of modern historians is that it's a fairly reasonably accurate portrayal, though surely embellished. In any case, it captures the spirit of the day and continues to be one of the best productions ever made for television.

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