If there has been a better television miniseries than the BBC's 1976 production of Robert Grave's I, Claudius, I haven't seen it. This sprawling, vulgar, decades-spanning, sex-and-violence-drenched, devilishly entertaining showcase for a whole generation of British thespians exemplifies the best characteristics of the miniseries format: lacking either the restrictive running time of a feature film, or the open-endedness that causes many a TV series to peter out, lose the edge, "jump the shark," or just plain old "pull a Lost," I, Claudius is able to lay out its plot lines and character arcs with enormous patience, but also with the proportion and perspective that come from knowing when the whole thing is meant to end.
I'm just now, for the first time, reading the 1934 novel on which the miniseries is based, and the experience is giving me new respect for the efforts of Jack Pulman, who wrote the television adaptation. Though Graves's novel exhibits enormous classical erudition and serpentine complexity packed with detail, it's written in a dry, detached style -- meant, perhaps, to evoke Seutonius and other ancient historians -- and presents formidable difficulties to the dramatizer. Graves only rarely "settles down" into a scene to provide dialogue or pacing; much of the book's action is written at a great remove, which is in keeping with the absence of an omniscient narrator. (Claudius, the books' putative author, is piecing the narrative together largely from accounts he heard elsewhere, and only occasionally describes scenes in which he himself is present.) Events which, in Graves's novel, are mere throwaways, a few sentences written in passing, are spun out by Pulman into whole scenes, whole episodes even; a large portion of the miniseries' dialogue is Pulman's original creation, and he does marvelous work breathing life and immediacy into the outline provided by Graves.
One of the most telling structural characteristics of the teleplay is the way it always provides us with a formidable villain. It's been said that "a movie (or book, TV show, whatever) is only as good as its villain," and while many a great narrative has been told which transcends the simplicity of hero/villain duality, it's nevertheless not a bad rule of thumb for many a writer down in the trenches. I, Claudius never lacks tension because its titular hero, a crippled, ungainly, perpetually underestimated survivor destined against all odds to assume the throne of the greatest empire in the world, must always contend with larger-than-life monsters who are playing for the highest imaginable stakes: life and death, the fate of millions, the career of a nation. The first is Livia, wife of aging emperor Augustus, performed by Sian Phillips with reptilian intelligence and bottomless ambition. She is the greatest villain I've ever seen in television, and one of the best I've seen in moving pictures generally; when the narrative moves past her, we fear no one will be able to fill her shoes. Not to worry! After a brief interlude with a distractingly shaggy Patrick Stewart (I'd been conditioned only to think of him as bald) as the tyrannical Sejanus, in steps John Hurt's Caligula. Hurt, an accomplished actor whose roles stretch from Alien to 1984 to Scandal to Rob Roy, has never been better than he is here. He goes, you might say, "full nutjob," playing the role of an insane despot to the hilt, chewing all the scenery he can find. Again I say, there's nothing wrong with overacting -- if you commit yourself totally to the part, and possess the charisma and physicality to carry it off. Hurt's Caligula, mercurial in temperament, apt to kill anyone at the drop of a hat, and so ferociously ambitious that he views mastery over the Roman world as merely a convenient jumping-off point en route to godhood, ends up being oddly moving -- he's a twisted portrait of all our desires to transcend our own mortality, to exceed the exasperating limits of our flesh, to have our name writ large in the books of history, and (gosh darn it) to be loved. But then all three of I, Claudius's villains are given moments in which we genuinely pity them, an indication of how the script manages to achieve big-heartedness and bottomless cynicism at the same time. The third villain, the scheming Messalina, is sadly the weakest of the three, but this is more by contrast to her predecessors than by any innate shortcoming.
Claudius himself, performed by the superb Derek Jacobi (on my short list for Best Actor On The Planet), occupies a kind of negative space against these world-class schemers. He's almost unique within his irretrievably corrupt family for being devoid of ambition, and for a good portion of the story he's essentially passive -- not unlike Pu Yi in Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. This characteristic goes against the common dictum that, in screenwriting, one should never have a "passive protagonist" -- but like so many rules of the writing craft, this is one that can be broken with abandon by those who have a clear sense of what they are doing. Claudius is in one sense merely reacting to the perilous situations created by his squabbling, feuding, murderous cousins and siblings and uncles and nephews -- but in another sense he is very active indeed, you might even say (to borrow a tiresome buzzword) proactive, because he bears witness -- and in so doing, simultaneously condemns and validates the madness around him. How bitter it is to be judged and hated; but moreso, even, to be forgotten altogether -- of which, two millennia on, the masters and mistresses of Imperial Rome seem to be in no danger.