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I've already written several entries about this while we were wacthing it, but it really is fantastic. It's a 1976 BBC dramatisation of Robert Graves' two novels, I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935), and deserves to be even higher than 12th on the list of 100 greatest British TV shows of all time. It's almost twenty years since I read Graves' novels; but I re-read his primary source material much more recently, so some of this was fresh in my mind. And I also vividly remember seeing the "Not my HEAD!" episode when I was 12 or 13 (and living in the Netherlands).

This really is excellent stuff, and it's a bit of a shame (as with many of these older programmes) to watch it one episode a night for a couple of weeks, rather than one episode a week for three months as the makers intended. It means you pick up a bit more than necessary on the differential rates of aging among the main characters - Tiberius, for instance, shifts well from aspiring princeling to debauched old emperor, but Augustus as an old man just looks like a young man with make-up. And Caligula and Messalina are not quite young enough for the parts (John Hurt was 36 when it was filmed, Caligula 29 when he died; Messalina is clearly intended to be a teenager though Sheila White was 28); while Antonia starts off too old.

But it is easy to suspend your disbelief. In particular, it's impossible to take your eyes off the two leads (who both won BAFTA awards) - Siân Philips as Augustus' wife Livia, who poisons her way anguishedly through the first few episodes, and then Derek Jacobi as her grandson Claudius, watching in horror as the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula degenerate, and even more horror-struck when he ends up as Emperor himself. It's all really good, even some of the minor characters - particular kudos to Ashley Knight who plays Claudius as a young boy, complete with twitch and stammer.

It's startling to realise how close it is to the source material in places. Suetonius actually records the correspondence between Augustus and Livia about what the heck they were going to do with Claudius - as the imperial archivist a century later, he presumably had access to the original documents and didn't just make it up. There's a really good internet resource comparing the TV series with the actual historical facts (as far as they are known) here. My one regret is that I bought the Dutch-language version of the DVDs rather than the English version, which apparently has lots of brilliant extras.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 28th, 2006 03:25 pm (UTC)
It's strange to read Graves now and realise that his conceit of Claudius the secret intellectual was actually a twist on Claudius's actual reputation up 'til the twentieth century. Thanks to the novels and television series, that's now our impression of him anyway, so we don't get the joke.
Oct. 29th, 2006 03:47 pm (UTC)
Thepeformance of Sian Philips is magnificent. After seeing her in this, it's alwasy disappointing to see how ill-used she is in other programmes (Smiley's People being one example, where she brought much to Lady Ann but the role was rather wasted on an actress of her ability).

Penguin have just reprinted the novels (Plus Count belisarius) in the Penguin Modern Classics series. Have oyu read Alan Massie's roman novels? The contrast between Graves and Massie's approaches to Augustus and Tiberius in particular is quite interesting.

Oct. 29th, 2006 04:58 pm (UTC)
Haven't read Massie, though I have read Count Belisarius - which was a yawn a minute!
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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