DVD Review: I, Claudius: The Complete Series (35th Anniversary Edition)

Americans were used to Roman themed movies and TV specials when they seemed to fall into three categories. Christian epics, poorly dubbed gladiator flicks and adaptations of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The debauchery of Roman life was tamed down so not to offend prudish teachers and grandma. This cultural white wash would end as today’s audiences experience HBO’s Rome, Starz’s Spartacus and Penthouse’s Caligula. The moment that broke the Leave It to Beaver in togas attitude was the arrival of the BBC’s I, Claudius. The show was shocking with glimpses of nudity and full on treachery. I, Claudius: The Complete Series, 35th Anniversary Edition packages together the mini-series that made the Roman Empire more exciting than high school history class.

The twelve part mini-series adapts Robert Graves’ literary masterpiece. Claudius (Gladiator‘s Derek Jacobi) gives us insight on the first three Emperors of Rome. He’s not merely the help as he encounters Augustus (Flash Gordon‘s Brian Blessed), Tiberius (Survivors‘s George Baker) and Caligula (Alien‘s John Hurt). He becomes the fourth emperor even though he’s not up for such a big job. However being sandwiched between Caligula and Nero makes him look like a stable genius. The first episodes deal with Augustus setting up an heir to eventually take his power. Livia (Sian Phillips) has no qualms going to extremes to assure that her son Tiberius gets the laurels. She’s worse than a mom on Toddlers and Tiaras. Claudius gets a nice piece of advice to overplay his weaknesses so that nobody will view him as a threat to take power. The more harmless he looks, the less chances he’ll need a food taster at family reunions. This part of the story resembles what was covered on HBO’s Rome. Eventually after Tiberius kicks the bucket, Caligula takes control of the empire. The new emperor declares himself Zeus. He takes everything to an extreme. This part of the history was covered in the X-rated Caligula movie made by Penthouse magazine. He decides to give his unborn child the Athena treatment by cut it from his sister’s belly and eating it. Claudius maintains his low profile to keep from being killed. The leaders of Rome aren’t too happy at his extreme antics. They’re eager to bump off Caligula and put Claudius in power.

I, Claudius is the definition of an educational and entertaining production. While it’s not nearly as tawdry as Caligula and Rome, it doesn’t clean up the vicious nature of Roman politics. There’s a sophisticated grit to the action. The cast is beyond first rate. Along with the all stars playing the various emperors, there’s a very young Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation and John Rhys-Davies (a man who ought to have his own geek convention from starring in Shogun, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Living Daylights, Bloodsport III, SpongeBob SquarePants, Star Trek: Voyager, Lord of the Rings and Sliders). This is the perfect learning tool for any high school kid frustrated by the dry nature of history book coverage of this time period. It’s much more fun to remember historical leaders when their lives are filled with illicit sex and treacherous violence.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The series was shot on standard definition video so don’t hold out for a Blu-ray release. This appears to be the best you’ll see from the show since you can’t tweak 1976 videotape that much. The richness of the performances make up for the resolution. The audio is mono. The sound levels are fine. You’ll hear all the backstabbing clearly. The episodes are subtitled.

“I Claudius” A Television Epic (73:38) is a documentary from 2002 that interview Sian Phillips, George Baker, John Hurt, Derek Jacobi and director Herbert Wise.

The Epic That Never Was (70:35) documents an abandoned version from 1937 the starred Charles Laughton. Dirk Bogarde hosts a probe into why only 25 minutes exist.

Interview with Derek Jacobi (12:24) is a chat from 2010 with Mark Olshaker. Jacobi explains how he was born to be an actor even though his family was not from the theater.

Favorite Scenes of the Cast and Director (36:15) is nice to watch afterward to get a sense of what moments had an impact by their creators.

Original PBS Version allows you to watch the first and second episodes combined like they were when I, Claudius debuted on PBS.

I, Claudius: The Complete Series, 35th Anniversary Edition is a must for any culture vulture. This was the show that made the Roman Empire a less than civil civilization. Rome was the capital of freakiness. The bonus features explaining the show and the tale of the abandoned movie enhance the boxset. Having this collection on your dvd shelf will make you look sophisticated with a naughty twist.

Acorn Media presents I, Claudius: The Complete Series, 35th Anniversary Edition. Starring: Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, John Hurt, Patrick Stewart and John Rhys-Davies. Boxset Contents: 12 episodes on 5 DVDs. Released on DVD: March 27, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.

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