The first time the BBC production of I, CLAUDIUS ($90) aired on American Public Television, I wasn’t yet a teenager. However, back then, I was always flipping through the meager number of broadcast television channels looking for something to watch. PBS was good for the occasional flash of nudity, so when a came upon a show with people wearing togas, I figured I was already halfway there. I, CLAUDIUS delivered the expected flash of nudity, however this story of ancient Rome proved so engrossing, I ended up watching the entire series. Not only did I watch I, CLAUDIUS during its run on PBS, I ended up watching it again, when one of the commercial stations deemed to air all 13 episodes with the nudity and adult language in tact.
Based upon the historic novels I, Claudius and Claudius The God by Robert Graves, I, CLAUDIUS chronicles the life of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, from the viewpoint of the Roman Emperor himself. Claudius (Derek Jacobi) was born with a clubfoot and stammered when he spoke, so his family thought him a fool, which kept him out of the line of succession. Of course, Claudius was far shrewder than his family believed him to be and endeavored to become a historian. It is through this device that I, CLAUDIUS puts forth the notion that shortly before his death, Claudius wrote an accurate and detailed family history, which he buried, is hopes of it being discovered by future generations.
The story of I, CLAUDIUS begins during the rein of the Emperor Augustus (Brian Blessed) and follows how his wife Livia (Siân Phillips) manipulated and murdered to insure that her son Tiberius (George Baker) would follow Augustus as emperor. When Tiberius becomes emperor, he becomes mentally unbalanced and descends into a life of depravity, which in turn nurtures the insanity of Caligula (John Hurt), who follows Tiberius on the thrown. Claudius manages to survive Caligula’s bloody rein of terror, however he is horrified when he finds himself made emperor upon Caligula’s death.
I, CLAUDIUS concludes with the death of Claudius, who ruled the Roman Empire for a span of 13 years. Of course, this encapsulated plot summary doesn’t do justice to this rich, character driven story. I, CLAUDIUS is sharply written and superbly acted by an incredible troupe of actors. Derek Jacobi will be forever remembered for the role of Claudius, he makes all of Claudius’ physical flaws completely believable, yet never allows the mannerisms to overtake the performance. Siân Phillips is exquisitely wicked as Livia and her character is the driving force during the entire first half of the series, so you’re almost sorry to see Phillips go when Livia’s time is up. The top-notch cast of I, CLAUDIUS also features Patrick Stewart, John Rhys-Davies, Margaret Tyzack, Ian Ogilvy, Frances White, John Paul, Christopher Guard, Kevin McNally, Patricia Quinn, David Robb, Fiona Walker, John Castle, James Faulkner Stratford Johns, Irene Hamilton, Beth Morris, Sam Dastor and Sheila White.
Image Entertainment has issued all 13 episodes of I, CLAUDIUS in a 3 disc boxed set. I, CLAUDIUS was originally shot on videotape, probably in the PAL format, which had to be converted to NTSC for American broadcast. For 25-year-old format converted videotape source, I, CLAUDIUS looks surprisingly good. There are some tape dropouts within the 669-minute program and the old analog video cameras introduced artifacts into the picture. Intense light sources, such as fire, leave a perceivable after-image on screen, especially when the camera pans away from the light. Other than these minor flaws, the picture is pretty stable. There is a decent level of detail on the videotape and the colors appear fairly natural. Intense hues do not cause any significant problems and chroma noise is minimal. Blacks are pretty accurate, but since this is a decades old videotape production, there is little of what one could consider shadow detail, rendering all dark sequences somewhat flat. I, CLAUDIUS has been cleanly authored on two DVD-18 discs and one DVD-9, which keep digital compression artifacts from adversely affecting the video quality of the presentation.
The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack has the frequency limitations one would associate would associate with a quarter of a century old television miniseries. Fortunately, I, CLAUDIUS is dialogue driven, with very few sound effects and limited music. Dialogue is crisply reproduced, so there are no problems understanding this cast of classically trained actors. The interactive menus are basic, but they do provide access to the individual episodes of I, CLAUDIUS, as well as scenes within each episode.
As supplement to I, CLAUDIUS, Image Entertainment has wisely included the 71-minute television documentary THE EPIC THAT NEVER WAS. Hosted by Dirk Bogarde, THE EPIC THAT NEVER WAS takes a look behind-the-scenes of producer Alexander Korda’s ill-fated attempt to bring I, CLAUDIUS to the screen in 1937. Korda’s production of I, CLAUDIUS was to star Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon and Flora Robson and was before the cameras, when the production was shut down after Oberon was a victim of an automobile accident that injured her face. THE EPIC THAT NEVER WAS includes footage from the uncompleted film, which is pretty incredible, as well as interviews with Oberon, Robson and director Josef von Sternberg. Seeing THE EPIC THAT NEVER WAS forces on to imagine if Korda’s I, CLAUDIUS would have been a true cinematic masterpiece- it certainly had the potential, with its superb cast, great director and spectacular sets.
I, CLAUDIUS is riveting television and rates as one of the finest miniseries ever produced. Image Entertainment has done an excellent job with I, CLAUDIUS- they deserve resounding applause just for bringing this television classic to DVD. With the inclusion of THE EPIC THAT NEVER WAS, Image has created something truly special that fans of the series can truly appreciate. This three-disc set is very highly recommended.
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