When the Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon, premieres this autumn, two things are certain. One, HBO and Sky will want to avoid the missteps that made the final season of GoT such a terrible disappointment, as complexity and humour were sacrificed for spectacular set-pieces. And two, there will be plenty of dynastic bloodletting, incest and perversion, following a pattern established by a far different show 35 years before TV took us to Westeros.
There were no dragons or direwolves in I, Claudius, but it was the GoT of its day; upending our expectations of costume drama, creating buzz with its shocking scenes and inspiring a rash of copycat shows. “Even now, deep in the Second Golden Age of television, I would rank I, Claudius as one of the greatest television series ever made,” wrote Thrones creator George RR Martin in 2020. “Certainly in the top 10. Probably in the top five.”
Adapted from the Robert Graves novels by Jack Pulman, a veteran of BBC adaptations of War And Peace and The Portrait Of A Lady, I, Claudius’s 13 episodes depict the lives of the Julio-Claudians, the first ruling dynasty of the Roman empire, told from the perspective of Emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi).
Despite some seriously bad makeup, dodgy child acting and creaky scenery, a show that first aired in 1976 remains quite contemporary in its way, with scenes that still retain the power to shock.
The scene where the mad emperor Caligula decides to emulate the god Jupiter and slice his pregnant sister-wife Drusilla (Beth Morris) open to eat their unborn child sticks in the mind, even if the full graphic sequence was eventually cut (probably a wise move by the BBC).
Disturbed by Drusilla’s dreadful screams, Claudius knocks on the door to the imperial bed-chamber, opened by Caligula with his mouth dripping blood, enjoining his uncle: ”Don’t go in there.”
So, of course, he does – only to turn away in horror from the sight that greets him. I doubt if even Game of Thrones would have gone that far. Well, possibly not.
GoT would certainly have given us a long look at what Claudius saw, but what the BBC show could get away with was governed by more than just the tastes of the time.
As Martin remembered, there were “no special effects… no battles. No exteriors, in fact. It was all shot on a sound stage, and most of it takes place in one or two rooms, repeatedly redressed. When these Romans go to the arena for a gladiatorial show, you do not so much as glimpse a gladiator, you just see the actors sitting watching carnage offstage…
“And you know what? It does not matter. If you have great writing and great acting, that is really all you need. And I, Claudius had that in spades.”
The title role made Jacobi a star, although he has claimed that Charlton Heston, Alec Guinness, Michael Gambon and even Ronnie Barker were all above him on the BBC’s wish list. In the event, he was near-perfect as the limping, twitching, stuttering emperor, playing up his infirmities to escape the fate of many of his family, murdered by his Aunt Livia (a superb Siân Phillips), nephew Caligula (John Hurt) and other interested parties, including Patrick Stewart’s Praetorian Sejanus.
Hurt’s performance as the unhinged Caligula is a wonder, the actor deciding that the only way to play such a madman was to enter wholeheartedly into the spirit of the piece.
George Baker is particularly good as grouchy pervert Tiberius, Brian Blessed less so, miscast as the cerebral and sickly Augustus, but he does quite well in a role that really called for a more restrained interpretation.
The show was a modest ratings hit for BBC2 (averaging an audience of around 2.5 million an episode), but reviews were initially dismissive, with the Guardian snottily proclaiming: “There should be a society for the prevention of cruelty to actors.” But I, Claudius was soon re-evaluated and won greater popularity with repeat transmissions, as well as three Baftas.
Because of its success, the BBC sought another historical show in the same vein. But the two epic shows the top brass came up with were both epic failures.
In 1981, BBC2 launched The Borgias. On the face of it, the naughty antics of the notorious Renaissance family was ripe territory for a Claudius-style hit, yet poor scripting, awful dialogue, hype, and the impenetrable Sicilian accent of Adolfo Celi (best known as the Bond villain in Thunderball) as Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, led to widespread mockery.
Even Clive James put the boot in, saying of Celi: “Referring to a trip taken by Juan and Cesare, he says: ‘They got nipples together’. Eventually, you figure out that he means they go to Naples together.”
The much-derided programme had been launched with a Radio Times cover story, and the following year, the TV listings magazine parodied the series with a cover of the Not the Nine O’Clock News team, pictured in the same poses as the original actors, but with the heading: “Coco Poppi, Ricci Krispi and Mueslis Shreddi star in the classic cereal: the epic story of one family’s struggle to speak in the same accent.”
Despite the failure of The Borgias, the BBC went back to the well in 1983 with The Cleopatras, a bizarre eight-part dramatisation of Egypt’s incestuous Ptolemaic dynasty (305-30BC), which resembled a historical re-enactment conducted in an ancient Alexandrian branch of Stringfellows nightclub or Studio 54, except with more nudity.
Cast members included Withnail & I’s Uncle Monty, Richard Griffiths as Ptolemy VIII “Physcon” (meaning Potbelly). Sue Holderness (Marlene in Only Fools & Horses) was Cleopatra IV, who was predictably (for the family) murdered by her sister Tryphaena.
Graham Seed, who played the unfortunate Britannicus in I, Claudius, had a small role as a minor Ptolemy.
Shaved heads, bare breasts and body paint abounded, but the series was undone by miscasting as actors struggled with writer Philip Mackie’s concept of the show as a horror comic. “The serial isn’t exactly tongue-in-cheek,” said Mackie. “Wry, perhaps. I’ve tried to make it accessible without turning it into Coronation Street.”
The Cleopatras certainly came nowhere near the soap opera’s ratings, and its failure marked the end of the BBC’s venture into toga-rippers. It would be over three decades before they returned to the sub-genre with Rome, often credited as an inspiration for Game Of Thrones (or, as star James Purefoy said: “Kevin McKidd and I had lunch the other day, and I said to him, ‘Have you been asked to do Game of Thrones?’ And he said, ‘I’d never do it. Because they stole our fucking show’”).
While Rome was a BBC co-production with HBO, some argue that it is an earlier show that eventually begat its hit series such as The Sopranos, as well as GoT.
LA Times TV critic Mary McNamara has written: “With its complex characters and multi-toned narrative, not to mention the high quality of writing, performance and direction, I, Claudius established a timeline that would eventually include the rise of HBO and all its cable competitors. This in turn expanded the palette and quality of network drama.”
Stephen Arnell has just completed the writing of a historical novel set during the Roman civil wars of the 1st century BC