Best TV Shows Ever #17: I, Claudius

by thethreepennyguignol

If we’re discussing shows that permanently changed my outlook on television, then here’s the primest of prime examples. I was gently nagged into watching this with my dad, and it opened my eyes to a world of televsion drama that I’d previously assumed had been confined to movies and books (and BioShock, but I digress).

Let’s get this straight: don’t expect any Gladiator-style battles to the death or sweeping epic love stories in Claudius. This was a BBC show with next to no budget that chose to explore the politics and intrigue of five generations of Roman emperors. That probably sounds inestimably dull, but it’s one of the most gripping, satisfying things you’ll ever see.

And you’ll start to forget that you can see the sets wobbling and the crowd scenes are made up of five bemused-looking extras when you get your teeth into the story. It’s hard to reveal one thing about it without having to crap all over the brilliant reveals and astronomical intrigue, but if I can’t tempt you with the story, I can tempt you with the characters.
Derek Jacobi plays the titular Claudius, who narrates the whole tale from back to front- from the rule of Augustus (played by a subdued and sinister Brian Blessed in his pre-subsonic days), through Caligula (an effete and utterly mad John Hurt) to Nero (Christopher Biggins. Nuff said). Every episode is fleshed out with richly drawn characters you can’t wait to learn more about-Sian Phillips, in particular, as the scheming, sarcastic Livia, is the right mixture of pantomime villain and manipulative sociopath, and keep an eye out for a pre-hair loss Patrick Stewart as macho Sejanus.

The true victory in I, Claudius is making a time that most viewers will have a hazy notion of at best into an intellectual soap opera, full of murder, sex, lust, passion, lies, and steamy Roman politics.

Watch If: You want to get totally lost in a completely new world.

Stick Around Till: You meet John Hurt’s Caligula, who is one of the finest characters Hurt has played in his illustrious career.