This popular thirteen-episode BBC mini-series makes for compulsive viewing whether or not you have any interest in the early history of the Roman Empire. Based on two novels by historian Robert Graves, I, Claudius delves into conspiracies, ruthless murders and cover-ups, betrayal, seduction and madness. It's Dallas relocated to the years before Christ was born, when scheming men wore togas and struggled for power while the women got married and stayed in the background -- sometimes in the best position of all when it came to moving their chess pieces around.
Our hero is Claudius, gloriously played by D-d-d-d-Derek Jacobi, who twitches his head and stammers over every other word. As a young man, he watches his friends and relations die off, one by one, poisoned by the ruthless and destructive Livia (the queen of pure evil, Sian Phillips) as she grooms her son Tiberius (George Baker) to become the second emperor of Rome.
First, however, Livia must deal with the mercurial first emperor, Augustus (Brian Blessed), loved by one and all. This vital, vibrant figure is desperate to find an heir whom he can be proud of. He isn't particularly fond of Tiberius, who makes Al Gore seem positively animated. It becomes almost comic as Augustus chooses new favorites, and one by one Livia poisons their figs or frames them for crimes they did not commit.
Young Claudius quickly learns to play the fool, observing the violent world which surrounds him. He obviously did well for himself, since the series cuts back and forth between the development of our hero as a youth and his last days as an old, wizened, wise emperor in 54 A.D., poring over his biography and fretting over the fate of his maniacal son, Nero (Christopher Biggins).
The series can easily be divided into four substantial parts: the golden era of Augustus, followed by the fretful reign of unpopular Tiberius, then a dose of madness with Caligula (a gleeful John Hurt) who elects his horse a Senator, romances the ancient Livia, and torments all those around him with threats of torture and death. The climax and crux of the series is when Claudius, as a joke, is elected ruler of the empire and is provided the chance to show what he has learned over the years. The first step: kill all your enemies.
The production is surprisingly well done for a television show (especially a 1976 TV show), with vivid and colorful costumes and sets. One wishes it had been shot on film rather than flat and boring videotape, but at least the performances are uniformly excellent. Jacobi rules the show with a buoyant and layered performance, alternately funny as the butt of jokes and revealing of his powerful intellect.
Sian Phillips and John Hurt are appropriately monstrous as Livia and Caligula, and Phillips earns a certain pathos as she desires to become a one with the Gods. Brian Blessed, though a bit of a ham, is always a pleasure to watch and livens up each scene as Augustus, a man whose presence is felt when he enters the room. Patrick Stewart shows up in a key role for a few episodes as a self-serving soldier hungry for power.
Though unquestionably a soap opera dead set on keeping its viewers entertained with all manner of sneakiness and double-dealings, I, Claudius is compulsive entertainment which moves at a breakneck pace. Taken as a thirteen volume (and 740-minute long) set, it's the type of show which would keep you up for all night and half the day eagerly waiting to see what Livia is cooking, and when Claudius will come out of his shell to strike.