When modern TV critics write wistfully of the good ol' days, when high-class miniseries produced for broadcast networks roamed the Earth, they'll inevitably cite Roots and I, Claudius as touchstones. After spending a few days working my way through the 13-episode British tour of the early Roman Empire, I can see why.
Produced by the BBC in 1976, and brought to the US by PBS a year later, I, Claudius roams well beyond the life and times of Rome's fourth emperor. In fact, were it not for a clever framing device lifted from the novels upon which it's based, we wouldn't even see Claudius until the third or fourth episode. Instead, the run covers Rome's first four emperors, including the illustrious founder Augustus and that batshit star of 1970s high-form porn, Caligula.
The frame device that allows Claudius, and Derek Jacobi (in a career making role), to show up from word one is that the story that follows is a history of his family that Claudius himself wrote. He cleverly buried a copy to avoid the destructive fires of other (his successor, Nero - you know what happened to him) so that the truth can be known to posterity. That device also allows a clever out for anything presented that might not be faithful to the historical record - it's only the word of Claudius, who might not be the most reliable of narrators.
And what a story Claudius tells. Over the first six episodes, things are driven by Livia, wife of Augustus and grandmother to Claudius. She has but one goal in life - to see her son, Tiberius, follow Augustus as emperor, preferably to exercise unquestioned authority (whether Rome's lost republic will rise from the ashes hangs over the entire series. She lets nothings stand in her way and gets her hands pretty bloody (metaphorically - she's a champion poisoner). Livia, at least as presented here, makes Cersei Lannister look like the MILF who brings the orange slices to soccer practice.
Those first several episodes set the tone for all that comes after. Alliances wax and wane, the inconvenient are killed for that sin, and occasionally there are orgies. History, as we generally learn it, goes on off set, but usually only mentioned in passing. The scheming lives of the imperials is the focus here. Unfortunately, that means that once Livia dies (Claudius later makes her a goddess), things get a little repetitive. Nobody who comes after is as compelling a focus.
What saves the series is an unholy collection of British acting talent, many of whom would go on to prominence in the sci-fi/fantasy world:
Sian Phillips - Clash of the Titans, Dune
Brian Blessed - Flash Gordon, Dr. Who
John Hurt - Alien, 1984
Patrick Stewart - Star Trek: The Next Generation
George Baker - Dr. Who
John Rhys-Davies - Lord of the Rings, Sliders
Even Derek Jacobi himself wound up on Dr. Who (there may be a BAFTA bylaw requiring every actor in Britain to be on that show, or a spin off, at one point). Watching Vultan and Picard plot and scheme is just fun on a bun.
That being said, the series shows some signs of age. Aside from technical issues (it looks pretty good, but the sound needs remixed), the biggest drawback is that the whole spectacle is obviously playing out on sound stages. It works, most of the time, but it leads to scenes where we only know the characters are (say) at a gladiatorial contest because they're in the stands reacting to what they're seeing. There's no outside location shots and no real attempt and creating a "realistic" feel. The result is more like an extended theater piece than modern historical series like (obviously) Rome or even Game of Thrones. That staginess sometimes carries over to the performances, which can go overboard at times.
In fact, given the juiciness of the material, I'm surprised HBO or even the BBC hasn't made a remake yet. The script lends itself to the type of stylized debauchery that's so in vogue today. This version isn't even the first attempt to put this story on the screen. In 1937, Alexander Korda started production on an epic movie version (with Charles Loughton as Claudius), but it fell apart only a month into shooting.
Thankfully, the original is still eminently watchable. It lacks the spectacle of its 21st-century decedents, but, at bottom, it tells a simple story. In the end, it's all about power, what people will do to get it, and what it does to them. You don't need a big effects budget to pull that off.
Originally broadcast 1976
Written by Jack Pulman
Based on I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves
Starring Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips, John Hurt, et. al