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Waiting in the Wings. I Claudius – Part 3. Reviewed.

October 1, 2021
I, Claudius: SE2

We must sadly reflect on the truncated legacy of Damien Angadi. Born into a fascinating highly cultured and politicised family he was a boy treble of note, and a Cambridge choral scholar, before becoming a gifted actor. You can see him in an episode of Blakes Seven, where he plays a sort of quisling puppet Maharajah who eventually rediscovers enough of a sense of national pride and cultural identity to defy the Galactic Federation. Nobody could communicate nervous uncertainly quite like Damien Angadi.

He hanged himself in 1981 at the age of 32.

Here he plays Plautius – best friend to Augustus’ grandson Lucius and lover of Augustus’ daughter Julia. He is discovered by Livia and placed in a rather awkward position. Nobility does not win out, but you instinctively sympathise with him on his journey towards treacherous realpolitik. Livia is never scarier than when she has the wonderfully scared Plautius to bounce off.

We also meet Thrasyllus the astrologer – as played by the redoubtable Kevin Stoney. Kevin Stoney has the unique achievement of playing the same character in The Caesars and I Claudius. Except they’re not the same character, not at all. He also, incidentally, is the only actor to have attempted to selfishly manipulate both the Daleks and the Cybermen. Here, he is a good astrologer but an even better liar and he needs to be in order to survive. Tiberius is in exile and seems less grumpy in this episode. Or rather, George Baker’s Tiberius as communicated in this episode is someone who has found a version of contentment within his exilic grumpiness, someone who is less tortured because he’s found a place and a situation where he is permitted to be as grumpy as he likes. Much as he complains about not being allowed back to Rome, in this episode he’s as “happy” as he’s ever going to be.

Brian Blessed is at his shoutiest in this episode. It is here that we get his celebrated “Is there anyone in Rome who has not slept with my daughter!” line. It doesn’t fit onto a T-shirt the way “Gordon’s Alive!” does but it’s just as memorable. How exactly these shamed senators stopped themselves from corpsing when he accuses them one by one is beyond me. Perhaps they were all consummate professionals. Perhaps there were many many takes.

At the end of this episode Augustus is presented as being in a state of advanced dementia, getting very confused about Parthian hostages. Yet in the next episode – set at least eight years later, he seems completely lucid, acting swiftly and decisively in response to the loss of the legions of Varus.

The episode as a whole is devoted to the fall of Julia – one of the very very few “nice” Julio-Claudians. She’s a cheerful nymphomaniac and one of the very very few people who is nice to little Claudius. Without Julia, Antonia hardens into into a peculiarly rigid materfamilias, one whose concept of civic virtue admits of no extenuating circumstances.

A critical early scene involves a whole juvenile generation of the Julio-Claudians at play. An eagle drops a wolfcub into Claudius’s lap, indicating, fairly obviously, that this despised, limping, stuttering child will one day become Protector of Rome. This crude parable is interpreted by none other than Esmond Knight as a soothsayer. Esmond Knight lost an eye during World War II as his ship was being shelled by The Bismark. Knight plays this seer with a thick Welsh accent in order to give Druidic resonance to his overly straightforward prophecy. Knight himself was not Welsh, though his most famous role was the stout-hearted Fluellen in Laurence Olivier’s Henry V.

Oddly enough, this prophetic wolfcub is never again referred to in the series. I know they’ve been pledged to silence, but still… none of these children will ever speak of it among themselves, and nor does Claudius himself ever recall it.

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