September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

I Claudius – best historical TV drama ever?

6 min read
In 1976, the BBC broadcast the Roman drama series I Claudius but as Tony McMahon discovers, some TV critics savaged this TV gem
I Claudius

In the mid-1970s, British TV viewers tuned in for a weekly fix of murder and intrigue such as had never been seen before. I Claudius hit our screens and was a national sensation. The TV series was based on two novels by the British writer Robert Graves (1895-1985): I Claudius and Claudius The God. Today it’s almost universally recognised as one of the best historical TV dramas of all time. But back in 1976, the BBC came under fire from critics who intensely disliked the series. It was audiences in living rooms across the UK and United States who ensured it would come to be regarded as TV gold.

The lost movie version of I Claudius

So why did UK newspaper critics hate I Claudius? It seems inexplicable now. The reasons in retrospect come across as a combination of snobbery and an ingrained attitude to what a historical drama should look like. We still get these kind of objections today when the BBC and other broadcasters adapt other historical novels with diverse casts or modern interpretations. So, some things never change.

Many older critics in 1976 looked back wistfully to 1937. In that year, the celebrated film maker Alexander Korda began producing his movie version of the two books by Graves. Josef von Sternberg was the director and the actor Charles Laughton played Claudius. From the excepts that remain, I find Laughton’s performance reminiscent of his Quasimodo in the movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, made two years later. Though I am a huge fan of Laughton both as an actor and director. If you’ve never seen Laughton’s 1955 directed film The Night of the Hunter, please watch it. An astonishingly gripping triumph.

Filming on Korda’s I Claudius was suddenly halted and the movie abandoned. For decades, film fans and critics bemoaned the classic that never was. This wailing and gnashing of teeth continued for decades, even after the deaths of both Korda and Laughton.

In 1965, a documentary presented by Dirk Bogarde tried to piece together what the finished Korda movie would have looked like. From the surviving footage, we see that the sets were sumptuous. Laughton presented Claudius as a pathetic creature mocked in public. The cast was stellar and the screenplay allowed for some delicious moments of furniture chewing by the veteran thespians. But it all tanked. The official reason for the project being abandoned was that one of the actors, Merle Oberon (playing Messalina), was involved in a severe car crash during filming. But many suspected the whole thing imploded as lead actor Laughton and director Von Sternberg ripped clashed on set repeatedly.

The contrast between Korda’s never finished movie and the BBC TV series was stark in many ways. There would be no lavish sets in the BBC version. Scenes at the Roman arena for example were filmed in a studio version of the imperial box (a plasterboard screen and a few chairs) while audio engineers provided the cheers and applause of a crowd you never saw. Derek Jacobi in the lead role was a relative unknown as opposed to Laughton who was at the height of his powers in the 1930s. Set against the slick cinematography of 1937, some of the camera work for the 1976 BBC series now looks clunky, even messy, compared to the cinematic brilliance three decades before.

One critic sneered that while he remembered well the Bogarde documentary from a decade before, the TV series was already fading from his mind even though he had watched it just four days before. Here is the Bogarde documentary on Korda’s movie (article continues below).

DISCOVER: Best five movies of 1981

Why did some TV critics hate the BBC version of I Claudius?

Two things irked the TV critics about the 1976 TV adaptation of the Graves’ novels: the casting and the screenplay, written by Jack Pulman (1925-1979). Turning to the latter first. Director Herbert Wise (1924-2015) didn’t want a stodgy script from Pulman laden with historico-speak. He was more than happy with some modern turns of phrase creeping in. But traditionally minded critics squirmed at the Empress Livia (played by Siân Phillips) telling a rowdy Roman mob busily pelting her with rotten vegetables: “You wait till my husband gets home”. Meaning the Emperor Augustus.

Other lines that infuriated one critic included: “It must have been something he ate”; “there’s been a lot of it about”; and “goodness has nothing to do with it” (very Mae West). Why, this critic asked, not just go the whole hog and refer to Augustus as “Gus”? This bile came from a generation of journalists who studied Latin at grammar school, knew their Greek and Roman classics by rote, and revered both the author Graves (who was still alive) and the director Korda (who was not). But they possibly failed to appreciate that Romans at the time didn’t address each other like ham actors. Personally, I thought the above mentioned lines were delivered with wit and have remained very memorable indeed.

Graves wrote his novels in the early 1930s with the horror of victorious Nazism on view in Germany. The insanity of these emperors with absolute power had a huge resonance at the time. By the 1970s, the Third Reich was still remembered but Pulman and Wise opted to portray the family of Claudius more like a murderous mafia cabal. People who annoyed Augustus, Caligula, or Nero got rapidly bumped off – only with daggers and poison as opposed to guns. Worth bearing in mind that the early 1970s had seen The Godfather, Godfather II, and a slew of very dark gangster movies. These exercised an influence on the series.

The casting of I Claudius

Having watched the series aged 13 in 1976, I’ve never been able to get out of my head the mental image of Claudius being Derek Jacobi; Caligula being John Hurt: and Livia being Siân Phillips. A weaker association is Brian Blessed as the emperor Augustus – but he carried off the role brilliantly. This was years before his image was transformed in the movie Flash Gordon! The interaction between Augustus and Livia was thoroughly engaging with a huge amount of dramatic tension as the TV audience knew that Livia was poisoning members of the imperial family while Augustus was oblivious to why everybody was dying around him.

There are weaknesses that have become more obvious over time. Being filmed entirely on a set at BBC TV Centre means it does come across now as very stagey. The script can be a little on the nose at times. And I’m forced to agree with one critic in 1976 who thought the orgy scenes were laughably British – in other words, a bit awkward. The requirement for the actors to spend a lot of time reclining on couches made some of the scenes very stilted and the camera work could be a bit shoddy by modern standards. One scene where three characters are plotting the murder of Caligula – and the camera darts from one to the other shakily – is almost unwatchable now.

One unexpectedly good performance was the South African actor Stratford Johns (1925-2002) playing the corrupt senator, Piso. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was well known as an on-screen police officer, firstly in the hit series Z Cars and then in a spin-off, Barlow. His depiction of a devious upper-class Roman forced to commit suicide by the emperor Tiberius is still a gripping watch today. Brian Blessed and director Herbert Wise had all been involved in Z Cars so it was something of a police series reunion for them swapping modern criminality for Roman intrigue.

And finally, I still chuckle at the scene where John Hurt as the insane emperor Caligula introduces his horse who has just been enrolled into the senate. He notes drily but with lashings of vicious camp: “His life has really opened up since I made him a senator”. And to think some critics would have denied us gems like that!

5 thoughts on “I Claudius – best historical TV drama ever?

  1. Still remember watching with my parents the scene where Caligula (John Hurt) is shown with blood dripping from his mouth having just eaten a baby which he’d cut from the mother’s womb – possibly his sister’s womb and possibly fathered by Caligula, so incest as well as cannibalism. I was only 12ish and allowed to watch it because it was meant to be educational. Re-watched the whole series a few years ago and it is still, shaky sets and the rubbery make-up aside, a magnificent piece of drama. So much good acting but Sian Phillips was the one who stands out the most in my memory. And a nuanced performance by Brian Blessed!
    Tony, what about a post on When the Boat Comes In. Did it influence your political views at the time?

    1. When the Boat comes in – blimey! I think somebody actually bought me the single from a record shop. I was more Onedin Line – taking to the high seas and all that. That John Hurt scene eating a baby – I’m told that it was still being edited on the day of transmission and as children we may have seen an even gorier version that was re-edited again later.
      Is this Mr Bennett, formerly of Liverpool Guild of Undergraduates btw? 🙂

      1. I’m enjoying watching it again. The performances are better than I remembered, especially Brian Blessed. It works best when the camera pulls back and the big sound set allows the cast to act as if they were in a theatre. It’s less effective in the tight shots, where any intimacy seems horribly awkward.

        For me, the thing that dates it most is the sound quality, which is very flat and lacks ambient richness. It also seems that the BBC could only afford one microphone and characters any distance from the centre of attention are frequently inaudible.

        But all in all, a classic of its time and well worth another viewing.

      2. Once you get past the first episode, the whole thing moves along brilliantly. Sian Phillips dominated the screen. Agreed on the close ups. The scene where three characters plot the assassination of Caligula is so badly filmed I’ve got to fast forward at that point. But for me, those actors defined those Romans forever.

Leave a Reply