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After reading the reviews on IMDb, I bought the DVD set. I have watched
the series countless times since and still continue to marvel at the
quality of this work.
For anyone unfamiliar with the early Roman principate, the Julio-Claudian dynasty was in power for a period of about 80 years from Augustus to the death of Nero in 68 AD. This TV series covers the period from about 20 BC to 54 AD - the death of emperor Claudius.
The story is semi-autobiographical, written by Claudius towards the end of his reign and covering the history of his family from Augustus down to the young Nero, his successor.
Murder is the dominating theme, as Augustus' wife Livia artfully dispatches one imperial contender after another so that her son Tiberius can be emperor. It is not simply vanity that drives her machinations, but she is convinced that only Tiberius can keep the principate intact. Should any other candidate take over from Augustus, Rome would descend into civil war and anarchy. It is mostly Livia's actions that drives the story forward.
The acting is top notch. Much has been made about Derek Jacobi's performance, as the lame, stammering, clumsy Claudius. His family does not think much of him, but it is obvious to the viewer that he is a lot smarter and observant then he looks, as he absorbs all the goings on around him to chronicle them later in his book. Jacobi's performance deserves to go into legend, but the quality of the other performances does not allow him to run away with the film. Brian Blessed as the benevolent Augustus, Sian Philipps as Livia are fantastic. George Baker as Tiberius is very good in a particularly difficult role while John Hurt has the most interesting role to play - that of the madman emperor Caligula. The vast supporting cast are all excellent, particularly Patrick Stewart as Sejanus - Tiberius' tough, ruthless and scheming head of the Praetorian Guard.
Considering this is a BBC series with limited budget the production values are great. Direction is first class. Herbert Wise handles the vast story and the army of superb actors with great assurance.
For a drama series the story is quite accurate with history. Just two minor gripes. First the part of Tiberius as written portrays him as very much under the thumb of his mother, with a weak will and indecisive nature. Certain historical facts have contributed to this impression, such as him divorcing the wife he loved to marry Augustus' daughter. But the real life Tiberius was also very efficient and competent, keeping the empire stable during his 23 year reign and leaving the treasury rich. In this series his virtues are not highlighted enough.
Secondly the performance of John Hurt as Caligula. Herbert Wise himself expressed his astonishment at the greatness of Hurt's performance and Hurt certainly gives it a real go. But personally I was disappointed in the way Caligula was portrayed by Hurt. In his interpretation Caligula is a one dimensional madman with cruelty as his dominating urge. No one could disagree given the historical facts, but perhaps due to the freedom allowed in this role Caligula could have been portrayed with more depth, rather than a screaming shouting spoilt young man who believes himself a god. The real Caligula did believed himself to be a god, but perhaps as a result of the absolute power he held in his hands rather than some sort of mental disease. In the way Hurt has chosen to play the role he plays it well. But a more sophisticated interpretation would have rendered Caligula even more believable, and more frightening.
This series has everything, even length - it runs to over 600 minutes. The quality is unwavering throughout. A real treasure to own. It is extremely rare for a work of this quality to be to be realised over such a length, all the more pleasurable for the viewer.
Several writers here have commented that I, Claudius is the greatest ever TV series, the series by which all other TV work should be judged. I cannot agree more.
In writing his epic novels `I, Claudius' and `Claudius the God', from
this series is adapted, Robert Graves reinvented the genre of historical
fiction. And he could hardly have chosen a more fascinating subject than
the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Even a tame retelling, based strictly on
verified historical fact, would have made an interesting tale. But by
embracing the lurid, sensationalistic hyperbole heaped upon the founders
the Roman Empire by later writers (Suetonius and Tacitus in particular),
Graves concocted the ultimate in dysfunctional families, weaving a tale
scandal and debauchery capable of shocking even the most jaded of modern
audiences. The more eminent classicists, naturally, sneered, as eminent
classicists tend to do toward anything that threatens to make the ancient
world more accessible to `hoi polloi'. One is forced to admit that, as
history, Graves' juicy narrative is bunk. But o ye gods, what enjoyable
bunk it is!
The drama gives an insider's view of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, the first emperors of Rome. Over the course of his long reign, Augustus has managed to bring peace to his nation after nearly a century of off-and-on civil wars. But he remains a man divided, hoping for the eventual return of the old Republican government, but knowing that the best hope for a lasting peace is the continued concentration of power in a single person. Augustus therefore sets himself to the task of grooming a successor, one who shares his dream and will continue laying the foundations for the restoration of the Republic. His wife, however, Livia Drusilla, is determined to thwart his plans, and embarks on a slow, murderous scheme to place her own son (whom she fancies she can control) on the throne. The tale is told through the eyes of Claudius, step-grandson to Augustus, who suffered from the crippling effects of a childhood illness and was thus despised and ignored by much of his own family. Regarded as an idiot and of no threat to anyone, he alone remains standing while the poison flows and the daggers flash. To the surprise of all (none the least himself) this drooling, stuttering, limping old fool turns out not to be such a fool after all, and in one of history's great ironies, wins the prize everyone but he is after: absolute power.
Again, the historical facts alone make this an interesting tale. But it is the tantalizing glimpse into the inner workings of the world's first `First Family' that makes `I, Claudius' so much fun. Bill Clinton's philandering and the endless public spectacle that is the British Royals just seem so incredibly dull and tame compared with the bad behavior of Augustus' clan. Matricide, patricide, fratricide, regicide, suicide, incest, rape, pedophilia.and that's on a slow day. Poisonings, stabbings, betrayals, double-crosses, triple-crosses, madness. And one gentle soul sitting in the corner watching it all. Robert Graves' story brings out the tremendous irony of a nation finally at peace with itself, but ruled by a family embroiled in its very own civil war. It's the sort of sordid tale one finds only in the most disreputable of tabloids, but then rendered in gorgeous prose and delivered by the finest actors. To the uninitiated, it might best be described as a guilty pleasure cleverly masquerading as a stuffy British period drama.
I don't think anyone could have hoped for a more faithful transition from book to film than what the BBC achieved. Working with a 12+ hour running time, screenwriter Jack Pulman was not forced to content himself with a `Cliff's Notes' version of the story. Events progress in a naturally expansive manner, and characters grow and mature (or fail to do so) believably over time. In recreating the novels for the stage (after all, let's face it - this is predominantly a televised stage play) Pulman was constrained only by a modest budget and the limitations of the television studio. Action is confined to indoor sets, and the more spectacular aspects of daily life in ancient Rome (attending the Circus Maximus, for example) are left to the viewer's imagination, hinted at by the sounds of roaring crowds but never actually seen. For those audience members not put off by such, or by the drab color and lighting usually reserved for daytime soap operas, the entire production is a treat from beginning to end.
The acting is superb at every turn. Derek Jacobi lends tremendous dignity to his portrayal of Claudius, whose physical handicaps might have come off as insulting or hammy from a lesser actor. He is utterly believable as the `wise' fool, the only person in the entire family NOT scheming for power, and therefore the only one worthy of it. As Livia, Siân Phillips is a study in controlled, cunning evil. The role is reminiscent of Eleanor of Aquitaine in `The Lion in Winter', except that even Katherine Hepburn's Oscar-wining performance in that film is utterly outdone here (ironically, Siân Phillips also played the role of Queen Eleanor, in the BBC's adaptation of `Ivanhoe'). John Hurt's gleefully decadent turn as Caligula is fascinating to watch. Hurt's eyes, throughout his portrayal, remain chillingly cold and lifeless even as he smiles and laughs - except of course, for his expression of shock upon realizing that his sister Drusilla is, in fact, mortal. The most impressive moment in the entire production, however, came from Brian Blessed (Augustus), whose slow, quiet, passing away remains the most convincing screen death I have ever witnessed.
There are simply not enough superlatives in the English language to express my opinion of the towering triumph that is `I, Claudius'. And seeing the 9.5 user rating here on the IMDB, apparently I'm not alone.
What can one say that has not already been said about this true masterwork of television? Well, I, Claudius has been a part of my life since I was very young, when me and my mum used to sit and watch, totally rapt in the labyrinthine shenanighans of this most horrid little story...although, at 12 hours long, the story is hardly tiny, but horrid it most certainly is. Every episode is filled with intrigue, murder, violence, nudity, back-stabbing, plotting, incest, insanity and everything else one usually connects with this barbaric, nasty little page of history. The Roman Empire was probably the most corrupt moment of history and Robert Graves' epic novels, here turned into stunning drama by Jack Pulman's brilliant script, blows every other BBC drama clean out of the water. And as for the acting...Brian Blessed is a tornado as the weak-willed Emperor Augustus, while John Hurt gives one of his finest performances as the insane, decadent Caligula. But the true star of this fabulous course of debauchery is Sian Phillips' scheming, evil bitch of Rome, Livia. In one of the finest scenes in the drama, she confronts Claudius and reveals the treachery which has singlehandedly rid herself of all those who have stood in her way, including her own husband. It is a powerhouse performance, and her departure from the second part of the show is sorely missed, but this is compensated for when Hurt takes centre-stage when his unhinged Caligula (nice boy!) plunges Rome into lower depths of depravity and madness. Derek Jacobi, as the foolish, but wise Claudius gives us just enough of his presence to make us aware he is watching quietly while the murders occur, but his presence pervades the entire piece due to his diction, his amazingly baritone voice and because he narrates, even when his birth has not actually occured yet. All in all, a stunning, marvellous piece of entertainment which will never be beaten. I happen to own the entire series on video, and it gets an airing at least once a year...with each new watch revealing subtleties i missed last time. I implore anyone who lives Ancient Rome, good drama or just likes a long wallow in unrepentant horror and blood to watch this drama. You will not be disappointed. Brilliant!!
Nobody, absolutely nobody on planet Earth could do such an intelligent,
superbly acted and brilliantly directed drama series like I, Claudius than
the British. If one wanted to learn how to act, they should watch I,
Claudius, if one wanted to learn to write drama, they should watch I,
Claudius. In an age of dull, repetitive and childish immature television, I,
Claudius stands out as a show that seems to good to be true. The viewer is
spoiled with the staggering quality offered by the series.
With all due respect to American actors, and there are some very fine ones, they could never have achieved what the British actors did in I, Claudius. What we see are actors doing what they love so effortlessly without the benefit (or hindrance??) of mega-Hollywood bucks.
The show is, and I know this from my own experiences and from seeing the reaction of others, incredibly addictive. One simply cannot get enough of it. The series treats its audience as intelligent individuals which is such a refreshing change from the attitude of most current and past programs.
Without any hesitation, watch this series. Television can never get any better than this!
Based on Robert Graves' famous novel, I, CLAUDIUS is the ultimate soap
opera, vicious, cruel, manipulative--and this famous English miniseries
grabs the attention and holds fast throughout the entire length of its
complex tale of ancient intrigue.
The great strengths of I, CLAUDIUS are in the driving pace, sharp wit, and ferocity of Jack Pulman's script and the host of brilliant performers who play it out. Chief among these are Sian Phillips as the calculating, murderous, and unspeakably cold Livia, wife of Augustus; although Derek Jacobi gives a justly famous performance in the title role, it is Phillips who dominates and drives the story with this, the most brilliant performance of her career. But this is not to disparage the overall cast, which is remarkably fine and includes such noted artists as Brian Blessed, John Hurt, Patricia Quinn, Patrick Stewart, and a host of others.
Like the serpent that appears in the open credits, the story twists and winds--and covers several generations of the ruling family as Rome slips from the republic to royal rule, largely due to the manipulations of Livia, who has few if any scruples in her determination to rule first through her husband and then through her son. Although the look of the film is somewhat dated, it in no way impairs the power of the piece, and I, CLAUDIUS remains one of the handful of miniseries that actually improves upon repeated viewings. Strongly, strongly recommended.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
The best miniseries ever made! Smart and sexy, with characters that live and breathe. Just some of the most marvelous characters include Brian Blessed as the benevolent Augustus, George Baker as the wounded Tiberius, and Siân Phillips as Livia. Includes one of John Hurt's finest performances, and I'd go into Derek Jacobi as Claudius, but they say I have to keep it below 1,000 words. The Canadian channel Bravo runs it occasionally, or try renting it from Blockbuster, but I recommend shelling out for the entire collection on video!
Absolutely glorious series. All the actors in this series are in or have been in American films but they have always been underrated and are some of the best actors alive. There are more dames and knights than you can believe. Derek Jacobi is breathtaking in his performance. Sian Phillips is subtly evil. John Hurt as Caligula shines with madness. The sets are unbelievable considering the small budget they had. The most shocking thing is that everything in one sense or another is true. These people really did die these ways. It will take you completely out of your everyday life and deposit you in the world of the Romans.
The serial I, CLAUDIUS is one of the best epics on the Roman Empire one
can ever encounter. Although it is based on the novel by Robert Graves,
the director, Herbert Wise, together with the producer Jack Pulman and
other crew proved a respectful independence of portraying particular
characters from ancient times. This film stands out among other
historical movies at multiple levels.
First of all, I, CLAUDIUS is one of the rare examples of films showing the real core of the Roman Empire. The action takes place ONLY within the walls of the imperial palace. Everything that happens appears to be perceived by the members of the ruling dynasty. REAL WINGS OF IMPERIAL ROME! Conspiracies, poisoning, hatred, bloody desire for power... these are the topics of the film - ABSOLUTELY FAITHFUL TO HISTORY!
Besides, the empire is showed VERY realistically. It is not the glory of victories, it is not the power and triumphs of its leaders, IT IS THE REAL ROTTEN DECADENCE OF ITS REALITY! "Trust no one" as Herod says once to Claudius, his dearest friend. "The battle of Aktium did not look like that" says Augustus to a poet who attempts to glorify the deeds of the warriors. In fact, only Claudius manages to survive, but not to the end. Even he is poisoned by his fourth wife...
The film is realistic, but it is important to state that it does not exaggerate anything. There is nudity but with respect to film art. It is not the focus. Cruelty is also not the focus as being the goal in itself. The evil is only "embedded" in the action. It is not Guccione's CALIGULA which destroys any classics of the movie art by disgusting pornography and horrific cruelty. I, CLAUDIUS is, first of all, a film art.
Finally, it is significant to mention the cast. There are few films, really few, which have such excellent stars. All people perform WONDERFULLY. You watch it and you forget that these are actors and actresses. You think they are real Romans of that time and totally set your mind on the action! It is a very rare experience and that is another reason why I absolutely appreciate this movie!!! Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips, Brian Blessed and many many others make the film a real pleasure to watch. Especially Sian Phillips as cruel Livia, Augustus' wife, gives her finest performance here. MASTERPIECE!!!
I would recommend everyone to see this mini-series. It is a wonderful experience. The history lesson that this film offers is better than studying history in high school for four years. I, CLAUDIUS is the splendor of CLEOPATRA combined with the violence of SPARTACUS, GLADIATOR and the decadence of CALIGULA. Everything is there with an utmost harmony. SPLENDID!
If you are interested in a more in-depth analysis of the serial, I invite you to read my comments on all thirteen episodes of I CLAUDIUS from "A Touch of Murder" to "Old King Log"
....When so many people have done a better job than I ever
When I rented this on video, a few years ago, my mother (who has passed away since) commented on how she would watch this back in the 70's, absolutely fascinated by it. I'd rented it because I'd seen it during its replay in the 80's, and was equally fascinated. It was rare to see a historical drama with so much lurid character detail.
What fascinates me today is the sheer number of character actors who appear in it.... Most of which were little known then but have since gone on to become better-known. Everyone from Brian Blessed, John Hurt, Sian Phillips, George Baker, Patrick Stewart and John Rhys-Davies to lesser-known actors like Kevin Stoney, Bernard Hill, Christopher Guard, Fiona Walker, Stratford Johns, Sam Dastor, Guy Siner, Darien Angadi, James Bree, George Pravda, Simon MacCorkindale, Sheila Ruskin, Bruce Purchase and Denis Carey. And they were _all_ good, no matter how small their roles were. Where the Brits find actors of this caliber, I'll never know.
You have a kid who hates Ancient History? Check this set of 6 videos out of
your library or buy the whole set. Well worth it, either way. Now I'm all
anxious to find out what the History books say about this period in our
past. As the 'gods 'intermarried, you can see the result of the DNA codes
gone berserk. Of course, there is also the element of the insanity
producing power of absolute power itself!!!! Who's to say which ingredient
was the worst?
With all this killing, one wonders why people complain about the video game killing? This really happened and with people who were supposedly the most superior of the Roman Empire. (See paragraph above for reasons.)
Each episode is a gem unto itself, and the acting is superb. What more can I say? Needless to gild the lily!! Amen to the vote on Best Series in TV History
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