08 August, 2006

I, Claudius on BBC4

BBC4 is currently broadcasting the full series of I, Claudius, dramatised from the novels by Robert Graves and first broadcast in 1976. For one reason and another I've never seen the programmes, though the novels are among my favourites. I'm up to Episode 3 and immensely impressed. Some things that have struck me so far:

- the series easily stands comparison with any film or TV drama I've seen recently, and is much better than many. I had wondered if it might not live up to its stellar reputation when actually seen 'in the flesh' - it does.
- the series hasn't tried to 'simplify' the complex plot or reduce the number of characters. Hurrah!
- occasional voiceovers by Claudius, as the narrator, tell me who the various characters are and their relationships to each other, both familial and political. E.g., at a family dinner party, Claudius points out "my sister Livilla, teasing Postumus as usual". This is extremely effective in helping me recognise people and understand what is going on, avoiding confusion while taking up a minimum amount of screen time. I wish it was used more often.
- characters often address each other by name or mention their relationships, which also helps me keep everyone straight.
- the language is straightforwardly modern, e.g. "I've always been straight with you", "I'll tell what you line to take", "you fat drunken cow", "gets on my nerves", "slept with my daughter", "heaven help you if you don't!". I've no idea if there was an equivalent of 'heaven help you' in classical Latin, or if 'cow' was a widely used insult, but the phrases are effective for me.
- we got through the whole of the first two episodes, two and a half hours of screen time, without a single sex scene. Good heavens.
- the absence of spectacular location shots - e.g. the Forum, the Games, battlefield scenes - presumably reflects the technology and budget available at the time, but I'm finding it also increases the effectiveness. The series focuses all its energy on dramatic storytelling rather than spectacle.
- the opening titles feature a snake slithering across a mosaic. Now I know where Blackadder got the idea from!

Is anyone else watching? Or has already seen the series (I should think it's been exported all over the world by now)? What did you think?


Alex Bordessa said...

I saw it first time round (some time in the 1970s) plus the swift repeats and now own the DVD. Can't see it on BBC4 as my tv doesn't like the digibox (or vice versa), otherwise I wouls watch again.

I Claudius is superb from the stortelling point. And the cast is superlative. John Hurt's Caligula is by turns funny and horrifying. And the rest of the actors are at the top of their game. Perhaps because the script is so tightly written that they can really get their teeth into it. Can't praise the prog highly enough on all fronts. It actually benefits from being studio-bound. Not far off a perfect production.

I think the only thing that has 'aged' a bit is the rubbery ageing make-up, funny enough.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Never seen it! Sounds as if I should

Gabriele Campbell said...

It has been on some German regional channel, unfortunately crossing with the biweekly opera on 3SAT, and as usual, dubbed, not subtitled. I've seen some of it and liked it, but contrary to Carla, I'd have prefered more background scenery.

But then, background scenery in the 70ies often was those painted canvasses instaed of the real thing or at least good miniatures (think LOTR) and those I can do without.

Carla said...

Alex - I don't buy many DVDs but I might buy this! It really is superb. I'm most impressed. Yes, I thought the make-up looked a bit odd sometimes, but I hardly noticed.

Susan - it's well worth seeing! Have you read the books?

Gabriele - I think I agree with Alex that it works better in a studio. I guess big scenery would have been hard to do 30 years ago without a massive budget, and better to have none at all than a wobbly set.

Kathryn Warner said...

I have the whole thing on DVD, and I love it. It took me a little while to get used to the lack of background scenery (especially after Gladiator, etc!) but once I did, I really got into it. Fantastic script, fantastic acting, just all-round fantastic.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

I watched the series when it first came out, and again a few years ago. I think it benefits from the lack of spectacular scenery and special effects. In the absence of these you can be completely absorbed in the characters, the quality of the script and the superlative acting.

The very opposite of the "Rome" TV series, not to mention the laughable Alexander and Troy films which IMO ought to be subject to that good old Roman custom of damnatio memoriae. Erk. I could go on forever about modern TV and film dramas which look like triumphs of style over substance. But I won't. Not here, anyway.

The saving grace of the "Rome" series was that it looked very authentic, scenery and props-wise.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

PS The BBC still dramatizes the classics wonderfully well -- good examples of style enhancing substance, e.g. the recent Bleak House, and fairly recent Pride and Prejudice, North and South and Martin Chuzzlewit.
But I don't think the Beeb could make a better fist of I, Claudius than it did in the 70s. Enjoy!

Bernita said...

I would think those phrases could be Latin contemporary.
Why not?
Remember reading a note somewhere ( quite possibly apocryphal, I know) that some ancient Sumerian text contained a version of the joke "who was that lady I saw you with last night?"
On the other hand, remembering that the cow was sacred to Juno ( ox-eyed Hera) maybe the insult is naughtier in context.

Anonymous said...

I loved I, Claudius from the first viewing and have viewed it repeatedly over the year. I haven't got the DVD, but your comments are tempting me to purchase it--promptly!

Nice to hear that it holds up so well, though it doesn't surprise me. I was so marvellously cast and quite cleverly scripted!

Rick said...

I've never gotten to see it, more's the pity (and needless to say my cable system doesn't carry BBC4).

we got through the whole of the first two episodes, two and a half hours of screen time, without a single sex scene

Times change! As I recall, a scene with Messalina (?) fooling around topless with someone was regarded as really bold when it came out.

Carla said...

Alianore, Sarah C - I agree, I'm finding the absence of special effects etc means I'm not distracted from the story or characters. I wonder if this is why I generally find radio drama more satisfying than TV drama? Less is more and all that.

Bernita - I don't have classical Latin, sadly, so I've no idea if the phrases are present in classical Latin. I like modern language, on the whole, as long as it isn't intrusive, which this isn't. Hadn't thought of 'ox-eyed Hera' - interesting possibility.

Margaret - thanks for dropping by. It certainly seems to have held up remarkably well, maybe because first-rate scripting and acting doesn't date?

Rick - do US libraries rent DVDs and videos? Times change indeed! It probably would have been Messalina, Claudius' third wife, who was something of a byword for sexual license. Imagine how a modern director would do the orgy scenes......

Anonymous said...

Anybody here ever see Dead Again? Derek Jacobi is in it, and there's a great scene where - just for a moment - he reprises Clau-Clau!

Anyway, I CLAVDIVS is an all-time classic. Worth watching just for Livia; the scene where she eyes the fig-tree still scares the crap out of me.

A word of warning: Don't watch hours of I CLAVDIVS when you have the flu and are taking codeine-laced cough syrup. You'll get the weirdest freakin' dreams...

Carla said...

Hello Evil minion and thanks for dropping by. I agree, Livia sends chills down the spine. I haven't seen Dead Again, I'm afraid.