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I, Claudius by Robert Graves, adapted by Robin Brooks

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BBC Radio 4. 28 November 2010 – 2 January 2011
 

Robert Graves’ sequence of novels has been adapted before: in the late 1930s Charles Laughton starred in a film produced by Sir Alexander Korda which never saw the light of day due to financial problems. It became known as ‘the Epic that Never was.’ Some forty years later Jack Pulman adapted the novels for a ground-breaking 11-part BBC Television serial, which made a star of Derek Jacobi and contained memorable cameos from such luminaries as Sin Phillips and John Hurt (as Caligula).

Jacobi returned in Jonquil Panting’s 6-part Classic Serial adaptation as Augustus, a good-hearted yet ineffectual member of the dynasty. Despite his obvious convictions to try and make a better life for the Roman people, he was no match for the scheming Livia (Harriet Walter), and met a sticky end. This time Claudius was played by Tom Goodman-Hill, who gave a convincing impersonation of Derek Jacobi playing Claudius, complete with a stammer and dulcet observations to the listeners about the turbulent political situation. In the end we felt rather sorry for him, as he was unwittingly thrust into the role of Emperor in part five, even though he was manifestly unqualified for the role. He considered himself a scholar-historian, charged with the responsibility of re-telling the grisly tales of Roman politics for the listeners’ benefit. Despite his obvious learning, he was eventually outwitted by his young scheming wife Messalina (Jessica Raine).

Panting’s production established firm gender roles: while the male characters tried to impose themselves through strength – especially Tiberius (Tim McInnerny) and Caligula (Samuel Barnett) – they were easily deceived by their spouses. None of the women actually imposed themselves, but they concocted an infinite variety of schemes to achieve their ends. This was true of all women, irrespective of generation: Livia and Messalina proved themselves adept at killing off any male who stood in their way.

To be honest, the narrative in this adaptation bore a strong resemblance to Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories, with its emphasis on intrigue, murder and the various monarchs’ bloodthirsty attempts to impose their authority. If anyone – regardless of status – got in their way, they were likely to have their heads cut off, or meet more grisly fates such as death by poisoning, or being thrown to the lions. I lost count of the number of deaths in the six-parts; but there were so many that the narrative often took on the appearance of Grand Guignol.

Nonetheless, the adaptation was redeemed by a number of lip-smacking performances. Samuel Barnett’s Caligula bore a strong aural resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) with his effeminate voice and violent mood-switching. Even though Claudius managed to survive in Caligula’s court, he was subject to several ignominies, such as being stripped of all his clothes as Caligula decided to auction them off to the highest bidder. Tim McInnerny’s Tiberius was a gruff, rather blunt man, who believed that the best way to impose his authority was through violence. His death – Desdemona-like, by being smothered in his bed with a pillow – was somehow un-masculine. Goodman-Hill proved a reliable narrator, even though we understood that he was powerless to intervene.

I, Claudius might be history reinvented for modern audiences, by a noted author and poet, but it remains highly entertaining. As a fan of melodramas old and new (I spent my formative years watching old Tod Slaughter films late at night on Channel 4), I thoroughly enjoyed Panting’s production.