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Classic TV Revisited: I Claudius

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Classic TV Revisited I Claudius

I, Claudius Robert Graves’ realistic Roman recreation – a red extravaganza, with blood and wine flying around like togas in a tumble dryer was broadcast to great acclaim on BBC-2 in 1976. Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Sian Phillips starred.

Give us the facts

Appearance?
Bloodthirsty black comedy-drama set in ancient Rome, with large doses of depravity, incest and gore.

Why was it any good?
A remarkable story based on Robert Graves’ novel, with an outstanding cast. Derek Jacobi stole the show as the stammering Claudius, but not far behind was Sian Phillips as the evil Empress Livia.

How did it begin?
Jack Pulman’s 13-part adaptation of Robert Graves’ 1934 novel was screened to mark BBC TV’s 40th anniversary.

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Was the Roman sex-and-blood fest a hit?
Definitely, as it was presented more as an historical soap opera – a bit like Brookie in togas.There was intrigue aplenty, and an amazing five different emperors made an appearance. With lashings of perversion though, it wasn’t for the squeamish.

Who was in it?
The story ran from 24BC, from the reign of Augustus to Nero. Brian Blessed was Augustus, hamming it up brilliantly, until he was poisoned by wife Livia (Sian Phillips).He was followed by Tiberius – George Baker as a very un-Wexford-like tyrant. Improbably, Christopher Biggins fiddled around as Nero, while John Hurt camped it up as the perverted Caligula.Topping them all was Derek Jacobi’s award-winning Claudius.

Didn’t one of the cast boldly go into space thereafter?
Patrick Stewart was beamed up to Star Trek a few years after his portrayal of brutal head of the Roman guard Sejanus.Bernard Hill – who later headbutted lamp-posts as Yosser in The Boys From The Blackstuff – got into training as a Roman soldier. Also in the cast were Bernard Hepton, of Secret Army fame, as the almost embarrassingly-named Pallus, Stratford Johns from Softly Softly, Ian Ogilvy, later to become The Saint, and Sheila White, from Oliver!

Didn’t it cause an outrage?
More in America than Britain.Viewers there worried about the orgy scenes, incest, nymphomania, adultery, rape and infanticide.Caligula (John Hurt), chin dripping with blood, famously killed his pregnant sister and ate the embryo of their unborn child.And Messalina (Sheila White) indulged in an early version of the Sex Olympics with a variety of suitors.

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Wasn’t there a lot of make-up involved?
A cement mixer must have been used to prepare the layers worn by Sian Phillips as loathsome Livia.Often she spent seven hours being transformed into a hag of 80.She says: “One day I took the rubber face home to show my mother and it took the paint off the windowsill overnight! I was in a panic for a long time.”Ironically, her ex-hubby Peter O’Toole shot the film Caligula at the same time but it used “cheap, plastic Roman armour”.

Distinguishing features?
Bloodstained togas, backstabbing, kinky sex. It also had a memorable title sequence with a snake slithering on a tiled floor.

Do say…
When in Rome…

Don’t say…
Friends, Romans, countrymen, would you like to pop round for an orgy?

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Not to be confused with…
The Romans In Britain, The Caesars, The Cleopatras, Gladiator, I Dream Of Jeannie, Claude Greengrass, Up Pompeii,


Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.

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