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A Touch of Murder: Rewatching “I Claudius”. Episode One.

September 25, 2021

I was reminded that the first broadcast of this was 45 years ago. I’ve seen I Claudius any number of times, but I’ve never properly organised my thoughts about it.

The main characters are introduced immediately – a sexagenarian Claudius (Derek Jacobi) who looks both obviously made up and yet much older than sixty something before we back many decades to a “Battle of Actium” theme party and a booming Augustus (Brian Blessed), a grumpy Tiberius (George Baker) and the cheerful nymphomaniac Julia (Frances White – who now plays Peppa Pig’s Granny).

Of course, Livia (Siân Phillips) overwhelms the series from the start. You wonder, how watching this thing, how anybody could have mistaken Livia’s villainous intentions for a moment.

The sickly Marcellus says that Livia is very “good” to constantly take care of him. “Goodness has nothing to do with it” is her pointed reply.

TIBERIUS “Frankly, I’m surprised you care whether he lives or dies.

LIVIA “Oh I care very much whether he lives or dies.

Christopher Guard is Marcellus and he’s played as a very unappealing entitled brat indeed. In terms of the rivalry between Agrippa (John Paul) and Marcellus which defines the whole episode I think we’re all Team Agrippa.

I Claudius is, in many ways, less politically sophisticated than The Caesars (1968). The Caesars is more plausible and more detailed, especially when discussing the decisive and seemingly intractable problem of how to ensure that critical decisions can be made at the imperial frontiers without giving regional governors a dangerous amount of autonomy.

But I Claudius communicates something else. I still can’t believe that I was allowed to watch it when I was eight. I Claudius communicates a world in which all bets are off, in which there are no moral boundaries, in which anything is possible and in which absolutely anything might happen to you. Even though I knew my lifespan would be dramatically reduced, part of my boyhood self genuinely wanted to live as a Julio-Claudian.

The costumes are rich, the sets are magnificently dressed – the Clerkes of Oxenford provide auditory menace and everything you want from television that aspires to the condition of theatre rather than film is provided. Crowd scenes are impossible (indeed The Caesars was able to afford more bodies on stage) and mob violence is only communicated with the help of the idea of a very narrow street.

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