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I, David Bianculli, Highly Recommend 'I, Claudius'

Patrick Stewart co-starred in the BBC series that spanned the history of the Roman empire from Augustus through Claudius.
Acorn Media
Patrick Stewart co-starred in the BBC series that spanned the history of the Roman empire from Augustus through Claudius.

I, Claudius came to American television, imported from the BBC, in 1977 — the same year as another ambitious long-form production, ABC's Roots, which proved to everyone that miniseries were an exciting and extremely popular new form of television. I, Claudius, shown on the PBS series Masterpiece Theatre, didn't get anything close to the audience that Roots did — but it sure got a lot of attention. And a few years later, when the ABC prime-time soap opera Dynasty was launched, its creators admitted openly that what they had in mind was a modern-day I, Claudius.

The original I, Claudius, based on the novel by Robert Graves, covers the reigns of several Roman emperors — Augustus, Tiberius, the famously twisted Caligula and the stuttering, limping Claudius, who narrates the entire tale, reading from his own history. "I am not yet born," he says as the TV drama begins, "but I will be, soon."

The miniseries boasts impressive performances from several key British actors. Patrick Stewart, long before Star Trek: The Next Generation, shows up here. So does John Hurt, as a memorably unhinged Caligula. And the women, including Sian Phillips as Livia and Sheila White as Messalina, are deadlier, and even more fascinating, than the men.

John Hurt (Caligula) and Derek Jacobi (Claudius) square off in the miniseries <em>I, Claudius.</em>
/ Acorn Media
Acorn Media
John Hurt (Caligula) and Derek Jacobi (Claudius) square off in the miniseries I, Claudius.

Except, that is, for Claudius himself. Played by Derek Jacobi, it's a performance that spans wide-eyed youth and weary old age. At first, while everyone in Rome is falling victim to the treachery of others, he survives, mostly because he's dismissed as a stuttering idiot. Well, he stutters, but he's no idiot — and the older he gets, and the more Roman purges he survives, the wiser he becomes at self-preservation. Once the obviously insane emperor Caligula has declared himself a God, for example, the wrong utterance in conversation with him can lead to instant death. But Claudius, despite his stutter, manages to use his wits quickly enough to survive.

Revisiting I, Claudius after so many years is quite a treat. It's a strong reminder of how literate and ambitious the miniseries form used to be — and how much we've lost by its overall disappearance. Except that, like so many other entertainment forms, the miniseries hasn't so much gone extinct as been absorbed. It's alive and well, in season-long story lines on Showtime's Homeland and Dexter, and on the lengthy narratives of AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad. But on television, the extended, complicated narrative began in such productions as I, Claudius.

The new DVD boxed set from Acorn presents this beautifully — and even includes a bonus feature that, to me, is alone worth the purchase price. It's a full-length documentary from 1967, about an unfinished attempt to film I, Claudius way back in 1937.

The documentary is called The Epic That Never Was, and you may have seen it on public TV several decades ago. I did, and never forgot it. It has all the surviving footage of the aborted I, Claudius, filmed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Charles Laughton, who was amazing in the title role.

How wonderful is this 35th anniversary I, Claudius set? Not only do you get one fantastic Claudius to enjoy — you get two.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.