(1975)5Mike CummingsOften called the finest TV miniseries ever made, I, Claudius burgeons with exceptional scriptwriting, character development, and acting. It centers on the lives of ruling Romans of the Imperial Age between 24 B.C. and 54 A.D. The audience's guide is Claudius Caesar (10 B.C.-54 A.D.), a clumsy, stuttering good-for-nothing who is deceptively clever and becomes emperor in 41 A.D. when nobody is looking. Claudius was the son of General Nero Claudius Drusus and the grandson of Livia Drusilla, the wife of Caesar Augustus, who ruled Rome as its first emperor from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. Claudius wrote a history of Rome that does not survive, but novelist and poet Robert Graves (1895-1985) imagined what Claudius reported and presented it in two books -- I, Claudius and Claudius, the God -- on which the miniseries is based. Although the production depicts known history factually, it interprets the private lives of Caesarean nobility through Graves' work. The script is mordantly witty and so titillating in its depiction of political intrigue, decadence, murder plots, insanity, and unbridled ambition that it manages to fascinate and horrify at the same time. Sian Phillips steals the show as the conniving, unremittingly despicable, and sometimes drop-dead funny Livia, the wife of Augustus, even though Brian Blessed (Augustus), John Hurt (Caligula), and Derek Jacobi (Claudius) are all nearly flawless in their roles. Although the backdrop is static, the plot and pacing are nimble and dynamic. The decline of the Roman Empire was never so uplifting and entertaining as in this television tour de force.
This 13-episode miniseries was adapted from the book by Robert Graves, which chronicles the tumultuous life and times of Claudius (Derek Jacobi), who despite a deformed leg and a speech impediment through prophecy becomes the Roman Emperor. An aging Claudius looks back at the bizarre and treacherous times through which he's lived and sets them down in a secret history that is not to be read until after his death. The distinguished cast of I, Claudius includes John Hurt as Caligula, Brian Blessed as Augustus, Sian Phillips as Livia, Margaret Tyzack as Antonia, and Patrick Stewart as Sejanus. The home-video release also includes the documentary The Epic That Never Was, which looks at producer Alexander Korda ill-starred attempt to film Graves' novel in the mid-1930s.