“And if What Comes Next May Seem Incredible, Believe it”

Ian Jones on I, Claudius

First published April 2003

“Rome is sick,” an elderly mother quietly informs her son, “sick to its heart.” Such is her overwhelming disgust at what she sees around her, she then exits the scene – an impeccably well-realised Roman parlour – seeks out a nearby bathtub, and kills herself. But while her newly orphaned offspring, overcome by tears, reflects on this wholly unexpected turn of events, an elderly attendant suddenly appears to rather fussily insist the deceased’s hand is cut off and a coin placed in her mouth “to pay the ferryman.”

It’s an uncomfortable mix of emotional bereavement, an almost slavish attention to the rituals of the period, plus an expert re-creation of classical interior design. Such incidences repeatedly crop up during I, Claudius; yet for all the time and money self-evidently spent on double-checking historical accuracies and authentic fineries, it’s a creation that not once forgets a fundamental obligation of all TV drama: to reach out to the anonymous viewer, strike up an instant rapport, and never let go.

First shown on BBC2 in 1976, undoubtedly I, Claudius‘ primary achievement is its appreciation of, and respect for, the faculties of a television audience. You’ve got visual carnage, emotional grandstanding, and the total exploitation of a studio-bound environment; but none are over-indulged, or mounted just for the sake of it, or take precedence over each other. Everything is folded into the solid foundation of the entire production, which is that of, quite simply, a cracking story.

“Are you there?” croaks Claudius half to himself, half to an invisible audience, at the start of episode one; “Yes, I knew you would come.” By giving such a dignified, yet intriguing, salutation, the eponymous hapless chronicler swiftly ensnares the viewer’s curiosity and confidence – and it’s just as well. The tale he sets out to tell, nothing less than the complete corruption and downfall of ancient Rome, is on such a preposterous scale that only the melancholic personality of a battle-weary, caustically humorous and cynical 70-year old could perhaps ever do it justice. Drawing upon all our instinctive inquisitiveness and bemusement at the litanies of an ageing buffoon, Claudius’ testimonies pull us in close to the tumult that characterised this period of history.

This, as it turns out, is crucial; for without that ever-present and intensely personal bond you’re encouraged to feel with its central character, I, Claudius would pretty quickly unravel into a rather unimpressive display of its constituent parts. For one thing there’s a mess of genealogical mudslinging. The story involves such a confusing jumble of relations – half-brothers, step-mothers, great uncles and third cousins – that were it not for Claudius’ expert résumés and the way his narrative smoothly unpicks complicated blood ties you’d be reduced to trying to draw out your own version of the Roman family tree, or else switching off altogether.

While it’s certainly striking to encounter a script – by accomplished screenwriter Jack Pulman, based on Robert Graves’ original novels – that resolutely, if stubbornly, remains so determined to offer as few concessions as possible to a casual viewer, there are several times when its dramatic momentum and power come close to being compromised by an obsession with the equivalent of reams of onscreen footnotes. Sometimes, admittedly, this can be arresting, such as when Claudius has an almost throwaway discussion with some advisors about the behaviour of one Joshua Bar-Joseph, a religious fanatic in Judea, executed for blasphemy and known to Jewish-speaking people as “Jesus”.

For the most part, though, the ever-present factual references and name-checks sit awkwardly alongside the broader concerns of the series. These are shamelessly laid bare for the viewer right from the start, but in a heavily stylised and mannered fashion. Again, it’s fortunate that injections of underplayed commentary and reflection from Claudius punctuate the drama, or else the stream of shock-horror revelations and faintly ludicrous posturings would quite possibly rob the entire production of its charm.

In tracing the unravelling of the Roman Empire, largely through the machinations of the Emperor Augustus’ evil wife Livia (“They say a snake once bit her – and died!”), I, Claudius famously portrays a civilisation slumped into decadence with sex and death lurking round every corner. But its depiction of the absurd and the abhorrent, thanks to a heavyweight cast drawn at the time mostly from the stage rather than the screen, regularly wanders towards the realm of the fantastical rather than the earthy. Sure, these were people who were variously despotic, demented, possessed and downright stupid, but there are only so many roaring outbursts from Brian Blessed (Augustus) or fey put-downs from John Hurt (Caligula) a dramatic serial can take before plot and motive threaten to get lost amidst the hand wringing and howling.

Perhaps it’s the way I, Claudius walks just such a fine line between the entertainingly bombastic and the unsettlingly clinical that makes it an all the more fascinating production. Time and again excesses of plot and characterisation are mercifully counterbalanced by the ballooning significance of the story’s twists and turns; and once more it’s in the character of Claudius himself that such tensions are resolved. In fact, our ability to get to grips with this strange world being exposed in front of us develops step by step with Claudius’ own efforts to come to terms with the madness he finds surrounding him.

The first episode, covering events before he was even born, almost leaves the viewer reeling from the extent of its barbarism and decay. “Goodness has nothing to do with it,” chirps Livia (Siân Phillips), as she merrily and methodically kicks off her canon of covert assassinations. We see her son Tiberius (George Baker) spend 10 minutes in the sauna bemoaning how, “Sometimes I so hate myself I can’t bear the thought of me anymore;” Augustus already settled into an apparently all-consuming ignorance (the best he can offer is “If there’s one thing I hate it’s a family row”); and Claudius reduced to updating us on everything else in a series of breathless, cursory dispatches (“Seven years passed … Agrippa was poisoned by Livia …”)

However once Claudius takes on a pivotal role within the story itself, and – in particular – once Derek Jacobi actually makes his proper debut on screen in episode three (when Claudius reaches his late-teens), proceedings become far more involving and measured, and the production’s extremes in both plot and performance settle down to take on a somewhat more convincing and lingering hue. Seeing and hearing our narrator interact with his tale, rather than merely annotate it from afar, indisputably sharpens our understanding of events and their consequences. Because Claudius as a character is so unlike his peers in temperament and personality, we’ve something to judge the behaviour of Livia, Tiberias and, later, Caligula, against. In time he ends up our benchmark, alongside which the respective antics of everyone else in ancient Rome is placed and merited accordingly.

From this point onwards, right to the series’ end, the viewer is deliberately reminded of the irony in having to place all our trust and reliance on a stammering, half-lame, twitching loner, rather than anyone more illustrious or better-respected. Our own moral compass is sent spinning by seeing a whole procession of ostensibly reliable, decent folk of good stock succumb to a kind of creeping malevolence, until “the only lions left in Rome are in the arena”. Advised by his tiny circle of acquaintances to “play the fool as much as you like”, it’s Claudius who stitches the knotted tapestry of double-bluffs and counter-plots into a coherent account of conspiracy. As a result, the viewer trades in their faith in the ruling classes for a ringside seat at one of the most spectacular eras in world history, blessed with a commentator as lucid as he is languid.

If our appreciation of I, Claudius‘ underlying concerns deepens in tandem with the rise to prominence of its titular hero, what we’re encouraged to take away from the mounting chaos and infidelity becomes ever more sombre and steeped in tragedy. During the early episodes, dominated by Augustus and his attempts to rule as both a disciplinarian and benevolent father figure, the disorder is tinged with bouts of whimsy and wry humour. While Livia is busy brewing up more toxic potions, for example, her husband seems quite content to spend just as much time getting worked up about the growing number of bachelors amongst Rome’s population – “Don’t think you can get round it by getting engaged to nine-year old girls, I know that dodge!” – as bewailing the setbacks in his latest military campaign (“Those damn barbarians have got my eagles – where are my eagles?”)

Indeed, one of the most memorable scenes in the entire series boasts just such a mix of the fearsome and the farcical. When Livia, in order to clear a path for Tiberius to succeed to the throne, sets to work either disgracing or murdering most of her family, one such victim turns proves to be Augustus’ own daughter Julia (Frances White). Livia contrives to expose her as a serial adulterer, then presents Augustus with a list of her several hundred conquests. It’s the first time we’ve really seen the Emperor furious, yet his attempts to suitably reprimand Julia’s legion of lovers ends up a burlesque of Carry On-style proportions.

Augustus gathers the numerous philanderers in his palace and arranges them in a long line, but rather than lecture them en masse he proceeds to interrogate them one by one. On repeatedly enquiring, “Did you sleep with my daughter?” he’s met with responses that take on an increasingly ludicrous tone (“Er, not slept, Emperor”) prompting ever more mock-sincere responses (“Oh, then perhaps you did it standing up?”) Brian Blessed prowls his line of philanderers cultivating a wonderful air of a man lost in his own bewilderment. Finally, after following Augustus’ progress in a tight close-up shot, the camera swiftly and suddenly pulls right back to dramatically reveal the entire, huge, quivering parade of victims. The Emperor howls with rage, orders them out of sight, and they disperse like frightened mice. It’s a fantastic instance of the technical, visual and dramatic ambition of I, Claudius working together in seamless harmony, and of cast and crew conspiring to create a scene that completely sums up the nature of that particular chapter in the story’s history.

While an element of the tragicomic runs right through I, Claudius, its nature and nuance change dramatically as time spools onwards and that more sombre and downbeat tone takes on ever more lurid and transparent manifestations. Death was once the source for some dry gags – “He’s not very nice, he had my father executed soon after I was born.” “Oh dear, I am sorry.” “Yes, so was my father!” Come mid-way through the series, however, and there’s almost no trace of humour to be found anywhere.

The run of episodes focusing on first Tiberius’ reign, then Caligula’s, make for raw, compulsive viewing. The former turns out to be more of a sex addict than a tyrant, lechering over pornography and employing under-age children to romp naked round his garden for pleasure. It’s startling to watch George Baker in a role so against type: obnoxious, selfish and terrifying, Tiberius evokes terror through implication rather than direct action. In another hideously memorable scene, an unassuming dinner party is interrupted when the female host, who we’re led to believe is an unexceptional, run-of-the-mill socialite, suddenly stands up and begins a speech. She reveals she and her daughter were recently invited for an audience with Tiberius, that the Emperor then tried to rape her daughter, but she offered herself in her offspring’s place. Upon finishing her recitation the hostess promptly stabs herself to death. We hadn’t met this woman before, nor is her demise referred to again; the sequence is merely a perilous snapshot of the kind of terror stalking Rome, and all the more powerful for being so unexpected.

Tiberius leaves the business of tracking down and murdering thousand upon thousand of supposed conspirators to his right-hand man, Sejanus (Patrick Stewart) – a less rounded and dimensional character, who sleeps and slaughters his way into the royal circle, then gets his comeuppance for trying to usurp the Emperor himself. At this point Livia is still, remarkably, hanging onto life and commanding just as much influence over Rome as before, despite being over 80 years old and wizened to the point of extinction. But failing health means her death isn’t far away, and exactly halfway through the series she invites the now fully grown up Claudius to a dinner party.

Present, initially, is the adult Caligula, who when ordered to leave does so only after giving his great-grandmother a full-on kiss while liberally fondling her breasts. This grisly portent of what to expect from Caligula in the future is then matched in impact by Livia deciding to recount, step by step, all her acts of murder and deceit to an astounded Claudius. As a dramatic device it serves to remind the viewer of the story so far, and of Claudius’ ever-deepening responsibility as storyteller. But once armed with such information, however, you see Claudius’ countenance begin to change; and as the weight of knowledge gradually bears down upon him his commentary becomes more bleak and unflinching.

So a “reign of terror” begins, and the series becomes almost overloaded with graphic, extraordinary sights and sounds. If Tiberius is a dirty old man, swapping banter with his female guests (“My dear, you look like a Greek tragedy”) before thrashing them with whips, his successor is depicted as a total embodiment of walking insanity. We’ve already seen Caligula as a child sleep with his own sister, burn down his own house and kill his own dad. His succession to Emperor cues in the most notorious scenes in I, Claudius: Caligula getting so incensed by his nephew’s cough that he cuts off the young boy’s head; appointing a horse as a member of parliament (“His life has really opened up since I made him a Senator!”); and, believing himself to have been re-born as a living god, cutting open the womb of his pregnant wife, who is is sister, and eating the foetus inside.

Right from the very start the series conjures up feelings of awe and spectacle thanks to its spectacular sets and scenery (and it’s incredible to think that not one frame of I, Claudius was shot beyond the four walls of the BBC studios). During Caligula’s reign, however, these sentiments are amplified by wedding the enormous production values to equally mammoth acts of barbarism. But the possibility of both plot and characterisation losing their way amongst the nudity and bloodletting is tempered by, as ever, Claudius’ droll presence and participation. Yet our once energetic and breathless confidante grows steadily more lugubrious with each new undignified task he has to perform. Whether forced to act as doorman for a palace orgy, or thrown into a river then forced to recite classical poetry at pain of death while dripping wet, there’s no limit to how low Claudius is prepared to stoop to survive.

So much to his colleagues’ fury, all Claudius’ principles go out the window. He’s prepared to sacrifice even the values of his own mother (who’d rather commit suicide than go on living in such deformed humanity) until his instincts as a living curator ultimately hand him the perfect reason to endure whatever it takes to avoid premature death. The viewer has seen Claudius as an old man busy scribbling his memoirs right from the very first scene, but we’ve never previously known what it was that prompted him to commence such a diligent and tiresome project. The point in the story at which we see him decide to begin writing those journals – the moment when Caligula’s madness is at its height – slips the final piece of the jigsaw into place, allows us to appreciate Claudius and his world for what it really is, and sets up the series for an imposing finale.

The closing episodes recount Claudius’ own rather hapless attempts at being leader, preoccupied with doing his best to run the Roman Empire in the most compassionate way possible, and in the process blinding himself to the machinations of his latest wife, Messalina (Sheila White). It’s heartbreaking and salutary to see how the demands of power turn this once most diligent of characters into a blinkered and gullible victim, guilty of being too trusting in a world left totally untrustworthy by years of misrule. Messalina blithely begins a string of affairs, persuades her husband to send an innocent man to his death, then organises a sex tournament wherein she eagerly competes alongside a well-known local prostitute (in the same bed, no less) to see who can have the most men before passing out. Claudius’ flustered advisors keep all of this from their employer until it finally comes to the point where Messalina re-marries behind his back.

Discovering the depth of deception, and the fact it had been kept from him, tips Claudius into a pool of utter despondency. Resigned to the onset of despotism regardless of his own actions, we hear him recite a chilling mantra over and over: “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.” Even at this late stage in his life the mayhem continues, however, as he tries to so discredit the idea of monarchy that public demand for the restoration of the Republic will bear fruit after his death. We’re shown the turbulence still at its height, with Claudius’ latest wife Agripinilla (Barbara Young) more than willing to go to bed with her own son Nero (Christopher Biggins).

Given such an unending maelstrom of controversies and slaughter, it’s all the more audacious that after hours of exhausting motion and noise a calming, static and subdued scene brings the story to a close. As Claudius lies alone in an empty room on his deathbed in near-darkness and complete silence, it’s like the series has suddenly run aground. You’ve got so used to the subject being ever-present, whether on-screen or explaining away events through affectionate, homely voiceovers, that to see him so utterly disabled and doomed, yet appearing so restful and reconciled, catches you off guard. It’s a far more effective full stop than any overblown death scene or pompous monologue to camera.

Then, as Claudius begins to speak his last words, and he’s revisited by the mysterious oracle Sybil, not only are there echoes back to the very start of the drama (when the spirit predicted Claudius’ tale would be retold “1900 years from now …”) but the intimate, almost light-hearted exchanges trigger the entire preceding course of events to fade subconsciously back into view. As the minutes tick by, a stillness overwhelms everything. It’s revealed that Nero and his mother have burned all of Claudius’ books and papers – but also that the author made copies of everything and buried them. When Sybil and Claudius chuckle about this last act of cunning, the effect is quite enchanting. All the scale and majesty of the entire production is done away with for the single shot of an old man cracking jokes with an illuminated metal head.

It’s a magical moment, deeply moving yet perfectly judged. After all, it’s a complete resolution: Claudius has survived to tell his tale, has most definitely “left nothing out”, and chooses to pass away on his own terms – making him unique amongst his peers. It’s also a supremely sympathetic dispatch for the viewer, who’s been treated to so much, expected to invest even more, but above all come to rely almost wholly on Claudius for navigating a path through the maze of characters, locations and betrayals that so marred this period in ancient history.

You’re reminded how this epic adventure was only ever about an individual – and their not always selfless quest to survive the lunacy and bloodletting of tyranny. With all aspects of the production synchronised in just as much perfect harmony during this most minimalist of scenes as in the most swaggering of set piece ensembles, you’re also left acutely aware that this TV drama succeeds in realising its potential no matter what the context, scope or manner of its concerns.

Whether winding through a bustling outdoor market, measuring out the grandeur of an imperial palace, or mapping the increasing lines of old age upon its protagonists foreheads, I, Claudius contrives to move you through the very soul of ancient Rome, just as its titular subject himself had to move as he both recorded and recoiled from the awful truths all around. It’s a voyage that gets scarred deep into your senses. When the curtain finally falls, your heart may be settled, but your mind is far from at peace. With his last breath, Claudius signs off a story remarkably told and impossible to forget. “Believe it – believe it!”