There’s nothing like going to the source, and I, Claudius (1976) is easily one of the most influential TV miniseries around. Complicated historical politics? Check. Family dramas sprawling across at least three generations? Check. Ruthless matriarch using any means necessary to get her way? Double-check! Elaborate sparkly costumes? Well, OK, not so much, but super-crazy and historically accurate hair, check!
Created by the BBC and subsequently airing on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, this series is based on the Robert Graves historical novels, so I, Claudius takes a fictional look at the happenings in the early Roman Empire from the years between 24 BCE to 54 CE. Admittedly, I’m not an expert in this period’s history so I can’t judge too well about the accuracy of the events, but Graves had based his books on the period histories of Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, Plutarch, and Suetonius, the later of which he translated himself. So there is a basis for the tales, just with a first-person narrative, as voiced by Claudius (Derek Jacobi), with a framing device around the first half of the episodes.
The bitchily awesome heart of the series during this half is Livia (Siân Phillips) who is Claudius’ grandmother, but begins as wife of Augustus (Brian Blessed), Emperor of Rome. She has two sons, Tiberius and Drusus, from her first marriage, who she’s angling to put in the line of succession since Augustus only has a daughter, Julia, from his first marriage. Filling Livia’s expert toolbox are poisons, breaking up happy marriages, malicious gossip, faking rapes, drownings, and a wit so sharp it could cut glass. One of my favorite scenes — of many — is her “pep talk” to the gladiators before Claudius’ games, including the bon mot: “These games are being degraded by the use of professional tricks to stay alive, and I won’t have it!”
However, some of her actions are so cruel it’s uncomfortable to watch, reminding me of Gaslight (1944), as she bullies her husband and sons and excuses her own crimes, always claiming she works “for the good of Rome.” She is a richly Machiavellian woman, smarter than anyone around her, and proves the point that, had she been born male, she’d have ruled the empire. Until the bitter end and unto the afterlife, Livia is the historical costume bitch that all other bitches wish they could be and seems likewise the model for sci-fi and fantasy bitches like Game of Thrones‘ Cersei (in fact, the scenes of Livia drinking wine in episode four feel like a direct precursor to Cersei’s wine-sodden misadventures).
When Livia dies, the antagonist becomes Caligula (John Hurt) for a few episodes, and he delivers amazingly decadent, bread-and-circuses crazytown. By this time, Claudius has managed to keep safely in the background by playing the fool. He may have a limp, a stutter, and be hard of hearing, but he’s wiser than he lets on. Except, he’s none too wise about the women … like his third wife, Messalina. The hits keep coming in this series, it’s nonstop machinations from all sides. You probably won’t be able to keep it straight, so just sit back and let the bitching and back-biting roll over you. Assume everybody is out to screw everybody in some way, shape, or form. And don’t touch the figs.
Costumes in I, Claudius
Given it was made in the ’70s for the BBC, the production values aren’t super high — the entire 12-episode run was made on the equivalent of about $4.85 million. For comparison, a single episode of Downton Abbey cost $1.5 million to make. I, Claudius is all about the dialog and interactions, so I suppose for those who enjoy watching costume dramas in the background while sewing or something, this is would be ideal.
But the producers and designers did work the hell out of what little budget they had. The set designs are rich and dark (OK, it’s all shot inside, get over it), and I think the shadows add to the menacing political mood. Costume designer Barbara Kronig seemed to use the correct Roman clothing for the class and place of the characters, such as reserving togas for the senators and emperor. The women also wear tons of gorgeous jewelry that looks inspired by museum pieces, and this gives the series a bit of flash.
The hairstylist deserves major recognition for the women’s hair — however, I can’t find any hairstylist names! Three makeup artists are credited, Pam Meager, Sue Bide, Norma Hill-Patton, so I wonder if they also did hair. The hair appears to be based on surviving Roman statues. One thing I should note about the makeup itself is that, like most shows made in this era, the aging makeup looks rather thick and cakey if you’re watching on an high-definition TV today. Given that the story takes place over 75+ years, you have to see the characters grow old, and it’s just not going to look HD perfect. Oh well.
If you enjoy series like The Borgias (2011-2013) or, of course, Rome (2005-2007) and Spartacus (2010-2013), you may want to check out the original version.
There must be something in the air … An Historian Goes to the Movies is also doing Claudius right now. That blog is focused on the history, rather than the costume. Makes a lovely package deal with Frock Flicks. :-)
Yes! We’re all going Ides of March-y there :)
Loved this series! The acting and dialog are so perfect! I will never understand why people let the studio-bound nature of the sets get in the way of appreciating the scripts and the actors! I can’t think of any other series set in this time period that does such a great job on the wardrobe. Maybe ‘Rome’ did.
Not entirely great on the history, but gawd is it fun!
Remember that Graves wrote I, Claudius and Claudius the God as autobiographies told in Claudius’ own voice. Of course, Graves/Claudius would take liberties with the actual facts as well as see things from a very skewed perspective.
Love his series & cross-posted on our Facebook page :)
I absolutely adored I-I-I Claudius (said with Claudius’ stammer.
It, IMHO, is what every miniseries should be. I adore Head Bitch Livia. She let’s nothing stand in her way of making her eldest son, Tiberius, Emperor after Augustus, even killing Tiberius’ favourite brother, Drusus, her own son.
I remember watching this as a child on PBS and my mother sending me out of the room then scolding me for watching a “dirty movie”. We got the to scene where Julia was having an orgy so I never actually finished the series. Now I need to try and find it to rewatch.
Julia’s orgy was nothing compared to the topless dancers entertaining at court and Livilla’s rather graphic adventures with Sejanus.
I was noticing how nicely the hair matches surviving sculpture. The prostitute Scylla has an amazing ‘do in episode 11 that seems taken right out a sculpture.
I really wish I could find the hair stylist(s)’ name to credit them – it’s SO good throughout the series!
Yes, it does a nice job of looking good on the actresses without sacrificing historicity.
Also they did a good job of casting actors who look a decent amount like the characters they portray (apart from Blessed and Jacobi). That’s really rare.
But, it is Blessed and Jacobi … so we’ll forgive them for that :-)
Indeed! The performances in this series are astounding.
Sign me up for a re-visit to Rome! I only watched it one time through all those years ago, but it stuck with me, it was that good.
I first watched I Claudius as a teenager and yes there were times when I was forbidden to watch thanks to the ABC making a big deal about cutting a particular scene otherwise Mum wouldn’t have cared. The excellent script and acting make it one of those classics which don’t date despite the studio locked sets. I think the only time I really noticed was when they were (supposedly) in the Colosseum watching the games. Political intrigue and skullduggery is inherently an indoor thing. The claustrophobic sets reflected the incarceration of the characters by the all pervading “evil”.
Though he drew upon original sources I think Robert Graves gives the story his own personal slant which I suspect is fairly misogynist. I am always torn between thinking “Yay strong woman” and “all the women are bitchy” when watching. In reality I suspect the entire family were psychopaths and mad to varying degrees because that is what it took to grab and hold onto power in Rome at the time. From what I have read Claudius was not the saintly figure is is depicted as either.
I feel like all the characters are equally despicable, female & male (except for Claudius, as the narrator, & everyone within the story hates him, so the audience feels pity for him). This mitigates a straight-up misogynist view of the women — they’re not singled out as horrible. And Livia, who commits the most crimes, is clearly the smartest & most capable person of them all, with the most sparkling dialog. So sure, she’s evil, but she’s incredibly good at what she does. Compare to Caligula who’s crazy in a kind of sloppy, less calculating, more emotional fashion — and he doesn’t get what he wants in the end.
As I recall, there were a few female characters who were not “bitchy”, at least in the books: Antonia, Claudius’ mother, is a model of moral integrity; her only fault was in disliking her own son. Agrippina, Claudius’ sister-in-law, is a decent woman fighting for her sons’ survival. Octavia, Augustus’ sister, was also a good person, who, Claudius notes, took in the orphaned children of Antony (her husband) & Cleopatra (the woman for whom Antony left her). Claudius notes that Augustus’ daughter Julia, despite her scandalous sexual affairs, was always kind to him. Of the non-family characters, the young girl who befriends and is engaged to the boy Claudius is a nice and intelligent person (and is unfortunately murdered); the freedwoman who is Claudius’ mistress before he marries Messalina is a kind soul (and gets murdered). In the books, Claudius himself comments that there are good and bad Claudians; ‘sweet and sour apples’; and when they’re bad, they’re very bad.
I remember watching this on Masterpiece many years ago, so I bought the DVDs last summer. Hot stuff! And pretty good costuming for such a tiny budget.
However, I still call it “I, Clavdivs”!
We call it that as well! Also, when Blackadder II first aired, we loved recognizing the opening titles as a take on the snake from the Claudius/Clavdivs opening.
Our cat was fascinated by the snake slithering across the tiles but as soon as the face appeared would turn away as though thinking, “ugh humans”. It was a good opening and high tech for the time. Loved the music too.
If you listen to the History of Rome podcast (which you totally should, it’s fascinating), he talks quite a lot about I Claudius and the theories on who was really in charge, and how historians argue about just how evil she really was.
Or course, Roman history seems to be full of women who are full of…… alternate style of ethics, as I’m re-listening to it with my son right now and we just listened to the bit of the Severan dynasty and that has a crazy mother-in-law/grandmother that messes up several generations of kids.
Oh yeah, the series is based on history, but that history is full of slander & propaganda, then Robert Graves gave it his own POV. Plus, he wrote the books in the 1930s, & more historical analysis of the era has come out since then.
Love this series so much so mad props for covering it! When I was in my Roman Art&Architecture Studies at university, the head professor would always show snippets of this in classes–I loved knowing it was that good.
Sorry if I’m late to the party, but has any one heard I, Podivs?