Derek Jacobi in the title role of Claudius
Back in the '70s, PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre happily served up an overflowing cornucopia of British costume dramas to U.S. TV audiences hungry for such richly executed fare. In the show’s seventh season, specifically November 1977, America’s small screens heated up with the arrival of the BBC drama I, Claudius. Based on two novels by celebrated author Robert Graves, the series presents the story of the first four emperors of Rome, as told by the fourth, also known as Claudius the Stammerer.
Those who were around back then might be able to close their eyes and conjure up in their mind the show’s opening credits. Do you remember the snake slithering across the mosaic of Claudius’ face while you listened to the majestic yet slightly ominous accompanying score? If you did not see the original airing or just want to relive this classic drama, Acorn Media has released the 35th Anniversary edition of the award-winning I, Claudius.
The five-disc DVD set contains the complete12 episodes of the series along with a bonus disc featuring extended original versions of episodes one and two; I, Claudius - A Television Epic, a behind-the-scenes look at the series; The Epic That Never Was, a documentary recounting the failed 1937 film adaptation; a Derek Jacobi interview; favorite scenes of the cast and director; and an eight-page booklet with an article about the series’ historical accuracy and a Julio-Claudian family tree.
In addition to veteran stage and screen actor Sir Derek Jacobi in the title role, I, Claudius stars a number of other faces familiar to TV and feature film Anglophiles including Sian Phillips (The Age of Innocence), Brian Blessed (Hamlet), John Hurt (The Elephant Man), Patrick Stewart (X-Men), George Baker (The Ruth Rendell Mysteries), Margaret Tyzack (Cousin Bette), James Faulkner (The Bank Job), Peter Bowles (To The Manor Born), Kevin McNally (Poldark), and David Robb (Downtown Abbey).
I, Claudius had its British TV debut in 1976 before making its way across the pond a year later. Regular viewers of Masterpiece Theatre were, of course, very familiar with this type of imported UK drama, but I, Claudius took a slightly different storytelling path. Along with power struggles, political intrigue, and the corruption of Ancient Rome, there was plenty of sex, violence, incest, adultery, rape, prostitution and, yes, Roman orgies to spice things up.
While audiences overseas were used to this more “colorful” type of TV dramatic expression, there was initial concern that some of I, Claudius might be a little bit too eye-popping for U.S. audiences. An article in a 1977 issue of Crawdaddy magazine states that Joan Sullivan, the then producer of Masterpiece Theatre, was excited about the possibility of the show airing over here, but at the same time thought of it as a calculated risk.
It goes on to say that “American television is more conservative than its British counterpart [certainly not true these days], and while an occasional pair of bared breasts can be expected in the movies, nudity is hardly a staple on Masterpiece Theatre.” Sullivan’s quoted response to that is, “I think the sexual and violent passages are authentically and intrinsically part of the fabric of the drama. It is a representation of the history, a credible and satirical reflection of the mores of that period (and their modern parallels), and the human passions and foibles of mankind universally.” She did, however, ultimately decide to edit out the story’s more “hideous” and “gross” violence, some of which was carried out in compellingly unbalanced fashion by Caligula (John Hurt), and the series ended up airing on all 271 PBS stations across the U.S.
Directed by Herbert Wise (Inspector Morse, A Touch of Frost), the first four episodes of I, Claudius focus on Livia (Sian Phillips), an extremely proud and thoroughly ambitious mother (more like a pit bull and cobra disguised as a mother), who uses every unethical trick in her warped book, including murder, to push her son Tiberius (George Baker) to the top of the Roman political ladder. Her “loving” son succinctly and accurately describes his mother's persona in a single sentence: “They say a snake bit her once, and died.”
In the aforementioned Crawdaddy feature, actress Sian Phillips talks about her approach to playing Livia. “I thought to myself at first, I’ll find a nice side to her somewhere. However, she was totally evil — Claudius’ plotting grandmother, the mother of Rome, the spider at the center of the intrigue. Fortunately, there was a lot of humor in the part, even if it was black humor, and that finally made Livia almost bearable.”
As all the political posturing, murder, blackmail, and debauchery continued to unfold around him over the years, Claudius sat back and watched, listened, and, above all, learned. Outwardly he was the most unlikely candidate for emperor of Rome. Not only had polio left him with one leg shorter than the other, but he also suffered from a nervous neck twitch as well as a life-long speech impediment, all of which earned him the nickname, “Claudius the Stammerer” and “Clou-Clou Claudius.” Working such physical elements into his performance as Claudius actually led to an off-screen problem for Derek Jacobi.
“I dislocated my neck due to the violent head-shaking I had to do as Claudius,” reveals the actor in a 1978 interview with the UK’s Weekend magazine. “I had to wear a surgical collar for a few fays. A few months later it happened again. That’s the penalty of those kinds of spasms.”
To Claudius’ credit he used what were seen by others as physical disadvantages to his advantage by hiding behind them. Thought of as a joke by his family, he stood in the background and bided his time as those closest to him poisoned, stabbed or otherwise murdered the most serious and qualified contenders in their ongoing quest for power. They had no idea that this so-called handicapped young man would one day get the better of them all and become emperor of Rome. The role was masterfully executed by Jacobi, who along with the rest of the show’s cast was surprised at the international success of I, Claudius.
“I don’t think any of us thought I, Claudius would be such a popular success,” says Jacobi in a 1994 interview with London’s Daily Express newspaper. “I wasn’t disappointed that it didn’t lead into other things as I went straight back to theatre, which is my first love. Apart from which the BBC didn’t ask me back — they were short of roles for stuttering emperors, I think.
“You have periods of being hot, then exceedingly cold, then hot again. It depends how wisely you use your hot periods.”
Jacobi later starred as mystery-solving medieval monk in another hit series, Cadfael. He has since appeared in several made-for-TV movies as well as such shows as The Jury, Doctor Who, and the upcoming Titanic: Blood and Steel. On the big screen his credits include Hamlet, Gladiator, Gosford Park, and The King’s Speech. Jacobi will always be remembered as Claudius, especially by one group of admirers.
“What the series did bring me was a loyal fan following known as The Jacobi Cadets,” said the actor, talking in 1994 to London’s Daily Mail newspaper. “They are a stalwart band of women of all ages who come alarmingly often to see me [onstage]. They will see 50 out of 56 theatre performances.
“They are very sweet and supportive and incredibly generous. On first and last nights I come out of the theatre looking like Father Christmas with a whole sack of gifts. They keep me in vodka. Going home after a show can take as long as the performance itself because they stand around in twos and threes and I speak to each group.
“One of them is seeing a psychiatrist, who told her, ‘The more often you see Derek Jacobi the better.’ So obviously I’m seen as therapy!
“I suppose there must be some kind of sex appeal, although I’ve never questioned them about it. I would be far too shy. It might be more of a mothering instinct. Claudius was the victim role of all time. He was such a loveable creature that people felt sorry for him.”
Please note, all photos above copyright of the BBC.