Hail Caesar! ‘I, Claudius’ returns to BBC this month!

I, Claudius title graphic. Photo: BBC

Almost five decades ago after Robert Graves wrote I, Claudius, the BBC created television greatness with the 1976 classic of the same name, starring the brilliant Sir Derek Jacobi as the Roman Emperor. Graves’ autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius, chronicled the history of the Roman Empire from Julius Caesar’s assassination to Caligula’s assassination. The original novel, along with the sequel, Claudius the God, formed the basis for the classic mini-series that ran in the U.S. as part of PBS’ Masterpiece series.

Considered by Time Magazine as one of the “100 Best TV Shows of All Time”, I, Claudius  had everything according to Sir Derek Jacobi, who starred as Claudius, with its “…sex, violence, rock’n’roll and fun”. Brian Blessed, who was the emperor Augustus and who died on camera for about five whole minutes, declared that it was “…the finest television ever made.” It wove the historical tale of ambition, debauchery and intrigue with enough power, corruption and lies on the side while also showcasing enough decadence to make todays content seem like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. 

Sir Derek Jacobi as Claudius in I, Claudius. Photo: BBC

If the storyline wasn’t enough to make today’s offerings seem pale, the cast was stellar. Alongside Jacobi and Blessed, you had John Hurt as Caligula, Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, Sian Phillips, Peter Bowles as Caratacus and Patricia Quinn as Livilla. While some may not immediately remember the name Patricia Quinn, fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show will definitely know her as ‘Magenta’.

It’s hard to say whether or not I, Claudius would play well with what today’s audiences are accustomed to on both the big and small screen where special effects are frequently the lead actor. Considering this was produced almost 50 years ago when scripts and acting were king, it holds up incredibly well even though it would send FCC watchdogs into orbit given what you can’t do on TV today that you could do a half-century ago.

It will be interesting to see the reception later this month when the BBC digs deep into their archive to re-broadcast the 12-part series to several new generations of telly viewers. While they are down there in the vault, one can only imagine what would become available if broadcast or streaming rights weren’t an issue. The Old Grey Whistle Test immediately comes to mind, for me, as something I would love to see….

I, Claudius returns to the BBC later this month. 

In: Drama

  • FrankLee

    Siân Phillips as Livia is one of the scariest villainess in any show I’ve seen. She was great in I, Claudius.