TERRY GROSS, HOST:
A recent DVD release of an imported British drama has all the features of an easily promotable teen movie. It's loaded with sex and violence. It's loaded with tales of epic battles and sinister intrigue. And even the most powerful characters are in danger of being killed at any time. But, says TV critic David Bianculli, this is no new action feature for the younger set - this is a very mature drama for very mature adults.
It's a reissue of a miniseries that was shown on PBS 35 years ago. It's "I, Claudius" starring Derek Jacobi as the most unlikely of Roman emperors.
DAVID BIANCULLI: "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. Of course, "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 primetime 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 males.
Except, that is, for Claudius. 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 is 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. Here are John Hurt as Caligula and Derek Jacobi in the role that made him a star as Claudius.
Caligula begins by asking Claudius a seemingly simple question.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV MINISERIES, "I, CLAUDIUS")
JOHN HURT: (as Caligula) How many hours a night do you sleep?
DEREK JACOBI: (as Claudius) Sleep? Uh, uh, eight or n-n-nine, I suppose.
HURT: (as Caligula) Why, I sleep barely three.
JACOBI: (as Claudius) D-do g-gods need more?
HURT: (as Caligula) Do you think I'm mad?
JACOBI: (as Claudius) Mad?
HURT: (as Caligula) Yes. Sometimes I think that I'm going mad. I mean, do you - oh, no, be honest with me. Has that thought ever crossed your mind?
JACOBI: (as Claudius) Never. N-n-never. Why, the idea is p-preposterous. You set the standard of s-sanity for the whole world.
HURT: (as Caligula) Well, then why is there always galloping in my head and why do I sleep so little?
JACOBI: (as Claudius) W-w-well, it's all m-mortal disguise, you-you see. The physical b-body is a great strain. If you're not used to it, which a god isn't. And-and that, uh, explains too, I think, the three hours sleep. You see, undisguised gods never sleep at all.
HURT: (as Caligula) Yes. You're probably right. But then if I'm a god - because I am - then why didn't I think of that?
BIANCULLI: 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, in the title role. Laughton was amazing and you can tell that from even a brief taste.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE EPIC THAT NEVER WAS")
CHARLES LAUGHTON: (as Claudius) I, Claudius, will tell you how to frame your laws. Profiteering and bribery will stop. This senate will function only in the name of Roman justice and all of you who have acquired office dishonestly will be replaced by men who love Rome better than their purses.
BIANCULLI: How wonderful is that? And how wonderful is this 35th anniversary "I, Claudius" set? Not only do you get one fantastic Claudius to enjoy - you get two.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the 35th anniversary DVD edition of "I, Claudius."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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I'm Terry Gross.