“All You Are You Owe to Rome”

Four Decades of the BBC’s I • CLAVDIVS

 

On September 20, 1976, viewers of BBC2 tuned in to the first episode of what must have been a curious-looking serial: a soap opera of the Roman Empire, devoid of spectacle, filled with slang, smut, and plenty of wickedness. Its protagonist was, similarly, the most curious of the Caesars: Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus (this, that, and the other). The source material: two novels by Robert Graves. An earlier film adaptation starring Charles Laughton had been, famously, abandoned.[1] This time, however, the adaptation would succeed, and brilliantly. I • Clavdivs, as spelled on its title card, remains one of the best miniseries of all time. Critics reviled it at first, the Guardian’s review opening with the jugular slash “there should be a society for the prevention of cruelty to actors.” Yet, the show, like its protagonist, weathered all that (and more) and remains a benchmark in all respects. Later series like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones stand in its shadows. One has seen many visions of imperial Rome in the interim, not least of all the (in)famous cinematic version of Caligula. An earlier ITV series The Caesars has continued to win plaudits for its more realistic treatment of its characters. But Claudius (to use normal English spelling conventions) still outranks all of them in its totality. I remember vividly watching one of the first DVD sets within the span of a few days, inspiring a love for Roman history which still lasts. I always make a point of watching it once a year, and over forty years later, it still, to paraphrase the Sibyl’s prophecy in that first episode “A Touch of Murder,” speaks clear.

Or, to take a literal cue from the series, “reads” clear. Following the format of Graves’s novel, the entire series is framed as a family history-cum-memoir written and narrated in flashbacks by Claudius as emperor and author. His audience, as Derek Jacobi gleefully delivers straight to the camera in the opening scene, is those of us in “remote posterity.” And posterity has plenty to feast itself on in one of the best collective scripts in all of television from the typewriter of Jack Pulman. What else can you say about one-liners like “When I start to forget things, you may light my funeral pyre and put me on it. Dead or alive.”? The choice of one writer for all the episodes (12 in its original British run, 13 in the later run on Masterpiece Theatre) ensured a level of consistency and tone throughout.

As befits the medium, Pulman made liberal with the text of Graves’s novels as well as the verified history of the Julio-Claudians. Yet even its most egregious inaccuracies—the respective deaths of Augustus and Caligula’s sister Drusilla still the most outstanding examples—the scripts playfully harken back to the tone of Tacitus and Suetonius, whose histories abounded with salacious rumor. A preview in the New York Times run prior to the American viewing on Masterpiece Theatre contrasted how such content appears on a public broadcasting series versus the more disjointed antics of contemporary primetime sitcoms. The article also discussed the extent to which PBS was making discreet edits to for US auditions, particularly in the Drusilla scene, which is referred to as an outright abortion. Yet Pulman gives the series its due by emphasizing how there is much more understatement than is realized: “You’ve got to deal with them somehow or other in portraying life in ancient Rome. Here and there you see a naked breast, but in fact I think you see nothing that to a reasonably intelligent adult is offensive. You see people lying around and holding each other, people playing, and there is an atmosphere, an orgiastic atmosphere. But in fact you don’t see a detail. We let the viewer supply his imagination, which is quite right and proper, because in the end that’s not what’s important about the scene.”

Realizing style in the final production was a challenge for Pulman, director Herbert Wise, and the cast. I hesitate to say that what appears in the episodes are examples of “camp” when I really think we are seeing a genuinely theatrical style of acting on the small screen with all its idiosyncrasies. This is, I believe, the show’s best asset. The characters and their actions are all larger than life, so why should there be any attempt at understatement? The atmosphere is helped by the structure of long scenes filmed in long takes, a magic which would seem to work best with the television cameras of the period. They require a patience today’s audience would seem to lack.

Apart from the interest of Claudius as an underdog character, I have a particular sympathy with him as someone with a speech impediment. Following British terminology, the series mostly refers to his condition as a “stammer” which is conventionally seen as a synonym for “stutter” in American parlance. Jacobi’s is probably the best screen depictions of stuttering, without the sense of affect. He gets a particular mannerism down perfectly: the hand slap that helps release a particularly bad stop a sentence. While Jacobi has fluent speech in real life, his performance accurately captures the stigma, the (to be frank) pain that accompanies this condition, but also the fallacy that those afflicted are of lesser intelligence and worth.

There are two scenes where this comes out brilliantly. The first comes in the episode “What Shall We Do About Claudius?” where Claudius meets the historians Asinius Pollio and Livy in the Apollo Library. The two inquiry after Claudius’s interests in history, but the future emperor raises Livy’s ire when he corrects him on the correct name and title of Polemocrates’s A Dissertation on Tactics. (In Graves, this correction comes from the historian Sulpicius, a fourth player in the scene.) Alone with Pollio, Claudius comes to learn the sordid truth behind the curtains of power in Rome and how, in a perverse way, his disabilities can offer him protection by disguising him as a threat. This later comes to a head after the assassination of Caligula, in the great scene where Claudius confronts a skeptical delegation from the Senate, now more confident and fluent than before: “But isn’t what a man says more important than how long he takes to say it?”

While Derek Jacobi’s eponymous emperor is the undisputed soul of the series, he swims in a tank with many vicious sharks. At the top of the imperial food chain is Siân Phillips as the malicious Livia, the archetype for all murderous matriarchs to follow. Though penned by Pulman, the following lines, like the above snide about the funeral pyre, from Livia are eminently quotable:

  • “Oh, you drooping lily.”
  • “Tell me: does Lucius know you are plowing his mother’s furrow with such ferocious skill and energy?”
  • “I must have been nodding off when I gave birth to you.”
  • “Don’t touch the figs.”
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Phillips as Livia in the episode “What Shall We Do About Claudius?”

The main joy in Phillip’s performance, like all villains, is how she inspires our sympathies while leaving us aghast at her evil. This is the reason her final full episode “Queen of Heaven” (not her final appearance in the series, however) is so poignant. Convinced she has done what had to be done, and not in a small way for her own exercise of poser, Livia lies gasping for her legacy as Caligula mocks her planned trump card of becoming a goddess to atone for her sins. Even Claudius, the one person who has the best moral compass of the company, cannot help but feel a twinge of pity for her final tears. (All of the death scenes in Claudius, nearly one every episode, deserve further analysis.)

The rest of the cast is impeccable and reads as a “who’s who” of British acting history: John Hurt as Caligula, Brian Blessed as Augustus, George Baker as Tiberius, Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, Margaret Tyzack as Antonia—the list goes on. When looking at the series as a whole, one sees a range of characters put in perfect balance to one another. Undergirding the first part of the series is Brian Blessed’s Augustus. The character is written more ridiculously than historical record might deem to be correct, but Pulman and Wise built in a number of moments where Blessed’s bellowing presence is put to good use, such as the scene where he dresses down the roster of his nymphomaniac daughter Julia’s roster of lovers. After (spoiler alert) Livia disposes of Augustus, her goal of stability ultimately backfires. Augustus, as befitted his status in history, had a unique claim to power and charisma that his successors lacked. While Claudius comes close, there’s still that lack of older Roman majesty.

That does not mean the series lacks any color in its second half. Hurt’s performance is another of the series’ great sharks, a demented triangulation from Livia’s sly cunning and Claudius’s subtle patience. His refrain of “By Jove! Which is always to say, ‘By Myself!’” sums up the wit of the series, which revels in the ironies of lunatics like Caligula. While Caligula’s ballet is one of the series highlights, the preceding sequences in the Rhine tent (“Prostrate yourselves in the presence of Jove!”) and Caligula’s return with seashell booty (“Loot from old Neptune!”) is the height of Hurt’s craft. Baker’s Tiberius is perhaps the opaquest of the characters in the series, but as Pulman wrote the part as a man for whom the laurel wreath was a reluctant goal, the execution works. The role is remarkably unspectacular, save for the lightly discussed “perversions” of his old age. Remarkably, Tiberius gets one of the more abrupt departures in the series, smothered with humorous aplomb after Caligula pronounces him dead. There’s certainly more depth that in Peter O’Toole’s syphilitic debaucher. Standing as malevolent interlopers to all the imperial family are Patrick Stewart’s Sejanus, ruthless in all aspects of securing power for himself, and Shelia White’s Messalina, one of the best instances in the series where our expectations of an initially sympathetic character are quickly undermined. Really the longest-lasting glimmer of the old Rome is Magaret Tyzack’s Antonia, “Mark Antony’s daughter,” the noblest of the older Romans who secures the noblest exit of the series with her suicide, a poignancy put into stark contrast with the subsequent murder of Drusilla.

I’m always a fan of supporting casts, and one of the most reliable aspects of the older BBC serials is the appearance of stellar actors in minor roles. In a story where so many characters arrive only to be quickly dispatched this can get overwhelming, but the nebulous stock company of the British seventies has yet to be equaled: Julia White as Julia, Ian Ogilvy as Drusus, Christopher Biggins as Nero, Fiona Walker as Agrippina, Barbara Young as Agrippinilla, Kevin Stoney as Thrasyllus, Bernard Hepton as Pallas, John Cater as Narcissus, James Faulkner as Herod Agrippa, another of the great reversals where a friend of the protagonist and the audience soon becomes a shocking enemy. One wishes that we would have seen more of John Rhys-Davies’s Sutorius Macro who is dispatched off-camera between the episodes “Zeus, By Jove!” and “Hail Who?” Another one-off “character” is Stratford Johns turn as Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso in one of the more self-contained episodes about the trials following the death of Germanicus.

The BBC was not striving for the scale of a Hollywood epic in the look of the series, yet while certain elements of the production may look dated to our HD-accustomed eyes, the quality is always consistent. (One forgives the occasional wobble of a flat.) Unlike the most spectacular sets on either the M.G.M. backlot or Cinecittà, Tim Harvey’s sets evoke the frescoed claustrophobia of the real imperials palaces on Palatine Hill. The main hall of the palace, the “family drawing room” as Phillips once called it in a documentary, serves as the literal and figurative heart of the series where grand scenes and private confrontations go down. The chambers are shot to their best advantage in evening scenes, where figures move in and out of the shadows, through doors into the dark corridors beyond and whatever mischief they may be plotting.

Talk emerges every so often that the series will be remade, a choice which rests ultimately with estates and rights holders. To a commercial mind, it is a logical choice to make something that is more attuned to contemporary tastes. But I maintain that the series can never be bettered. Certainly a better ensemble could never be assembled. But I think more than anything else, the BBC series is so well done because, like Claudius, it takes its time, meticulously building mood and atmosphere by the endurance of scenes, not just editing series of pithy witticisms together before rapidly moving on to the next sequence. “There’s been too much of that lately,” as Livia scolds the gladiators.

On a broader note, if the current political climate is any indication, the same struggles for power are just as relevant now as they were two thousand years ago. We see similar personalities, similar events, similar debaucheries, similar “tell alls” that show the machinations in the corridors of power. On all these points, I • Clavdivs speaks more clearly and relevantly than ever.

[1] Contractual difficulties with Alexander Korda’s London Films, which still held the rights to the Graves novels, held up production on the BBC series and ultimately led to a co-credit for the series.

Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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