What have the Romans ever done for us?

When we were watching HBO’s Rome, I heard whispers and rumours of one that was greater: I, Claudius, these voices hinted, and then (sounding ever so slighly like histrionic Nazgul) BBC… Derek Jacobi! “Pshaw,” I said, with an emphasis on the “Psh”, but since when had I ever been able to resist the lure of cheap boxsets on Amazon?

Anyway, as so often happens, that boxset had been sitting on the shelf for years, while we watched Rome and many other series… but then, a few weeks ago, I thought it was finally time to check out a good old BBC classic. After all: Derek Jacobi, but also Patrick Stewart! John Hurt! Brian “GPS” Blessed!

The first episode of I, Claudius came as a bit of a shock. After Rome, a series whose production values were clearly visible on the screen, the ’70s series looked decidedly drab and dowdy, its colours faded. Worse perhaps, the acting felt extremely mannered, as if enunciation was supposed to do double duty for characterisation as well. (I remember seeing the RSC Macbeth from around the same time on video and thinking that the likes of Ian McKellen and Judi Dench had never seemed this fake.) I was positively yearning for the likes of Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, for the glories of Cinecittà.

But then, we thought, it’s only 12 episodes. Surely there will be at least some historical interest, or we might spot someone who’d later turn up as a bent copper on Prime Suspect or that aging but handsome doctor on Casualty. Hey, we’d seen Steven Spielberg’s Taken, and after that a bit of over-enunciation and fruity British thespianism can’t beat us, can it?

I’m glad we stuck with the series; yes, it does take some getting used to, especially for modern audiences, and yes, you cannot expect the production values of HBO at its most extravagant. The acting is clearly not what we’re used to – but I wonder sometimes how seemingly naturalistic acting of the 21st century will seem to audiences in thirty, fourty years. Most likely, Rome is still my favourite of the two series, although that may at least partly be because it came first: in terms of acting, I, Claudius definitely catches up – and where it beats its nipple-happy great-grandchild is in terms of its overarching story. Rome‘s great weakness is its story and how it fails to be paced well in season 2. Obviously the early cancellation of the series is to be blamed, but regardless of that the HBO series fails to bring a compelling story arch to what history more or less dictated to its makers. Caesar’s rise and eventual assassination is compelling to watch, but once that story has been told Rome becomes a series of “And then…” Things happen because they happen, not because they make for a strong plot.

In comparison, I, Claudius has an overall arch. It has themes. It feels like something that is both historical and a story written by a writer who knows where he’s going and what he wants to achieve along the way. And while I love Pullo and Vorenus to bits as characters, they are a bit like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: fun to be with, but essentially peripheral to the larger story. I’m not sure that Rome, especially in its second season, really managed to get the most out of its Upstairs, Downstairs parallel storylines; I, Claudius doesn’t feature the commoner’s perspective, but it is more of one piece as a result. And the acting, once you become acclimatised to the style, is very strong. Hell (Dis?), you even get that rarest of beasts: a subtle performance by Brian Blessed that consists of more than fruity bellows. Even when it comes to sex on screen, one of Rome‘s trademarks, its ancestor isn’t all that coy: it’s difficult not to think that I, Claudius must have driven Mary Whitehouse to righteous frenzies back in the day.

Oh, and then there’s John Hurt’s Caligula. Trust me, after this you’ll never be able to look at him with the same eyes.

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