Don’t Let Dated Sets and Stagey Acting Keep You From This Brilliant BBC Drama

With compelling characters and unforgettable scenes, this sexy, funny and surprisingly historically accurate series, now back on BBC iPlayer, deserves to be on everybody’s watch-list.

Sian Phillips and Brian Blessed in I, Claudius
Photo: BBC

In my other life, I am an Ancient History lecturer at a UK university, which means I am often giving my students recommendations for films and TV shows to watch about Ancient Rome. None of them are especially historically accurate (a totally historically accurate film would probably be a boring film) but as long as you don’t take anything in them too literally, they are a nice introduction to the world of ancient Rome. Gladiator might make Rome a Republic again about 1600 years too early, but it shows how the Colosseum functioned, trapdoors and all, very well. The Eagle’s history of the Ninth Legion and depiction of Iron Age Picts might be a bit iffy, but it gives you a taste of life in the Roman provinces. You get the idea.

TV shows are particularly useful for getting to grips with a large cast of characters and learning everyone’s names and more or less where they all slot into the turbulent political history of the last century BCE and the first century CE. The Romans were not very imaginative with names; by the first century CE there were only about 18 first names in general use, for example, and daughters were often given the female form of their father’s names (Julia daughter of Julius, Octavia daughter of Octavius, and so on). They also liked to change their names when they were adopted – which could happen as an adult, not just in childhood – or for political reasons, leading to a confusing mess of long dead men with similar names, which keep changing. Watching a TV show, however historically inaccurate, puts a living, breathing face to the name and gives them a memorable character arc, helping someone studying complex history for the first time to remember who everybody is and how they relate to everybody else.

I’ve had a lot of success recommending the BBC/HBO series Rome, which ran 2007-2009, to my students. I’m pleased about that; although the ending was cut short and horribly rushed, it’s a great show full of memorable characters and offers a mangled but vaguely appropriate version of the history of the fall of the Roman Republic. A few of those with stronger stomachs are willing to watch STARZ’s Spartacus as well. But the one show I cannot get them enthusiastic about is my absolute favourite, the series that got me to do a degree in Ancient History in the first place – the BBC’s 1976 adaptation of Robert Graves’ novel I, Claudius and its sequel, Claudius the God. Originally broadcast in 13 episodes in 1976, I, Claudius tells the story of the first four Roman Emperors – Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius – and their families.*

*Not Julius Caesar, who was technically a Dictator, not an Emperor.

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A Shoestring Budget, Wobbly Sets & 1970s Acting

The basic problem with getting students, many of whom were born in the 21st century, to watch I, Claudius is the production values. The series was made by the BBC in the 1970s on a shoestring budget. Everything is filmed indoors on small sets with wobbly walls. Any time there is a scene set in an amphitheatre (not the Colosseum, which was not built yet), all we see is the Imperial box, with some sound effects implying hundreds of people seated around them and gladiatorial action happening below. Whenever there is a battle, a mud-covered messenger turns up to tell the lead characters about it in a tent or a room. At one point there is rioting on the streets of Rome, and about half a dozen extras turn up to throw a tomato at Empress Livia (Sîan Phillips) before she shuts the door and goes back inside. The closest this series gets to action is a stabbing in a corridor.

The acting style does not always help either. That is not meant to imply that the performances are bad – far from it. This series is wall-to-wall acting greats doing amazing work, including Phillips as Livia, Brian Blessed as Emperor Augustus, Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, Margaret Tyzack as Antonia, George Baker as Tiberius, John Hurt as Caligula and of course Derek Jacobi in the title role as eventually-Emperor Claudius. But the fact that the cast is drawn mostly from the Royal Shakespeare Company means that everyone is used to projecting to the back of the auditorium, and not every member of the cast adjusts their acting technique to suit tiny rooms in a TV studio. The style of acting that was popular in the 1970s can look a little strange to modern viewers.

It’s a real shame that these slightly dated aspects of the series seem to put off viewers who have not seen it. While many of my students have taken up my recommendation of Rome, hardly any of them have shown any interest in I, Claudius. Even Star Trek fans don’t seem enticed by the promise of seeing Captain Picard with hair. And they are really missing out, because I, Claudius is so much more than a tiny budget and dated production values…

Compelling Characters

You can see the quality of the cast from the list above, and the characters they are playing are some of the most memorable on television. Brian Blessed’s Augustus is a genius creation; a man who works very hard to make himself seem like a “man of the people”, a first among equals, a humble guy who just can’t imagine how he ended up fighting several wars and having hundreds of people killed just to get to where he is. But if you cross him, Blessed reminds you of exactly how much blood is on Augustus’ hands, and just how much power he has, with a look, or a hissed reproach, or just occasionally with some really loud shouting (“Quintilius Varus! WHERE ARE MY EAGLES??!!”). Derek Jacobi’s Claudius is a great, likeable everyman just trying to survive in the chaos, George Baker’s grumpy Tiberius was the inspiration for Game of Thrones’ Stannis Baratheon, and John Hurt brings an almost unbearable level of tragedy to Caligula, so that you feel sorry for him even as he terrorizes everyone around him.

Perhaps most memorable of all is Sîan Phillips’ Livia. There is a reason that Tony Soprano’s mother was called Livia, and that Rome squeezed this character into its over-stuffed final two episodes. Livia is a Machiavellian genius, a quietly evil serial killer who runs roughshod over everyone’s lives for half the series, and then makes you weep for her and feel sorry for her when she dies. Phillips’ Livia is the black heart and soul of this series, and although half the story takes place after her death, her shadow hangs over all of it.

Sexy and Funny

I, Claudius is from the 1970s, not the Victorian era, so although it may be lacking on the battle action front, when it comes to the naughtier side of Roman history, it delivers. Granted, most of the actual nudity falls to the extras rather than the leads, and the characters are often so awful they do not come across as terribly attractive. The nude dancers in one of the opening scenes were pretty clearly thrown in there to shout “hey, we’re doing sexy stuff!” at the audience before an opening two-parter than is largely palace intrigue. But this is Roman history and writer Jack Pulman and director Herbert Wise knew what is expected of Roman history – orgies! And there are several.

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More importantly, the role of sexuality in political turmoil is explored throughout, from female characters who use sexuality as the best tool available to them for their political ambitions, to highlighting the double standards around male and female sexuality, and the desperate consequences of stepping outside of the boundaries of accepted sexual behaviour. The treatment of Caligula’s gender identity could have been more sensitive – it was still the 1970s – and it’s a shame that there’s no exploration of non-heterosexual sexuality, but overall the series might feel more up-to-date than you expect.

Far more important than including adult content, though, this show is absolutely hilarious. It is a subtle, very British sort of humour. Claudius, the narrator and main character, is very self-deprecating in the face of the abuse hurled at him by just about everyone else. And just about everyone is drily witty, often in a fairly mean way, but it’s very funny. You can see this from lines like “There is nothing in this world that occurs to you that does not occur to me first. That is the affliction I live with” (Livia to Tiberius) and “As for being half-witted: well, what can I say except that I have survived to middle age with half my wits, while thousands have died with all of theirs intact! Evidently, quality of wits is more important than quantity!” (Claudius to a Senate who are not at all convinced he should be Emperor).

Surprisingly Historically Accurate

Being a TV series based on a novel, you would be justified in assuming that I, Claudius’ relationship with actual history is a bit distant. But on this occasion, you would be wrong. I, Claudius is actually one of the most historically accurate dramatized TV series set in ancient Rome (not counting docu-dramas) to date. That does not necessarily mean everything in it actually happened – but most of the things that happen in it were at least rumoured to have happened back in the first century CE.

Ancient Roman historians were not, shall we say, sticklers for accuracy. They were usually more interested in telling a good story, or making a point, than they were in telling the truth about the past. Historical sources for the lives of the Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius include Suetonius (a biographer who reported every bit of gossip that came his way, especially about Caligula or Nero), Cassius Dio (who was writing 150 years later and quite often made up speeches to put in), and Tacitus (who did not entirely like Emperors in general and was very suspicious about the influence their wives might have on them).

Robert Graves, who wrote the novel, was very familiar with the history and actually wrote the Penguin translation of Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars. So nearly everything in I, Claudius and Claudius the God actually comes from an ancient source. There are still bits Graves made up, of course, and places where he has filled in gaps. There are things that are most likely not true – like Tacitus’ portrayal of Livia as a wicked stepmother and serial poisoner – that Graves puts into his version. And like just about everyone else who has ever written about Caligula, he takes a line from Suetonius, “it is also said that [Caligula] planned to make [Incitatus, his favourite horse] consul” (i.e. this was a rumour spread about an unpopular emperor who gave his horse an ivory manger), and beefs it up so that Incitatus the horse becomes an actual senator (and future consul). But generally speaking, as historical fiction goes, this version is at least genuinely what Romans at the time believed about their emperors, even if it is not what actually happened.

Because the TV adaptation was a BBC “classic serial”, it sticks quite closely to the book, meaning that the TV version is surprisingly accurate too. The BBC is publicly funded, so these adaptations are supposed to be vaguely educational, which is partly why BBC versions are usually closer to the text than most others (have you ever tried reading Pride and Prejudice without hearing the 1995 BBC version in your head? It’s impossible, because just about every line is in the adaptation). This adaptation did change some things around, and the most violent, disturbing and notorious scene in the show (we won’t spoil it, but it involves Caligula, his sister, and a wildly dramatic interpretation of a Greek myth and you should make sure you are not eating when you watch it) is purely an invention of Pulman’s, extrapolating on a brief line about a mysterious death from the book. But if you are fed up of Googling characters in Vikings only to discover the real people lived centuries apart from each other, you might want to give I, Claudius a go.

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Unforgettable Set-Pieces

We are going to be vague here, because we don’t want to spoil the enjoyment for anyone watching this for the first time. But here are some irritatingly foggy allusions to some truly great scenes from this series: Brian Blessed’s favourite scene involves him shouting, but in quite possibly his best scene, he is totally and utterly silent and acts with only his eyes (don’t touch the figs!). George Baker’s favourite scene has his Tiberius and Thrasyllus (Kevin Stoney) in such hysterics, you’ll find yourself laughing hysterically along with them, Nick Willatt’s hapless courier’s confusion only making it funnier. Claudius’s final dinner with Livia allows both actors to pull together all the different sides of their characters into a tense but weirdly affectionate farewell. And just about every scene featuring John Hurt as Caligula is an expert blend of tragedy, humour, and horror, in which the possibility that he might suddenly murder anyone else in the room at any moment adds a distinct sense of tension to conversations with a person who is undeniably suffering himself, while acting out in a really extravagant way.

I, Claudius is an unforgettable piece of television. Give yourself half an hour or so of the first episode to settle in to the unfamiliar production styles, acting techniques, and cheap sets, and I promise, by the time Livia says “it must have been something he ate”, you’ll be hooked.

I, Claudius is currently airing on BBC Four on Wednesday nights in the UK, with episodes also available to stream on BBC iPlayer. It’s available to stream on Hoopla and Acorn in the US.