Studio: Image/BBC/20th Century Fox
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 669 Minutes
Aspect Ratios: 1.33:1
These games are being degraded by the increasing use of professional tricks to stay alive, and I won’t have it. So put on a good show, and there will be plenty of money for the living and a decent burial for the dead. – Livia, wife of the emperor Augustus, addressing gladiators in Rome
More than twenty-one years before The Sopranos debuted on HBO, the equally shocking and violent BBC miniseries I, Claudius was broadcast in the United States by PBS. To call I, Claudius “daring” would be a gross understatement. On November 6, 1977 the New York Times wrote, “Now the stations of the Public Broadcasting Service are bracing for a possible outcry by moral watchdogs against I, Claudius, a 12-part series on the dissolute life in ancient Rome from 24 B.C. to 54 A.D...What makes the 12 hours of I, Claudius troublesome to public broadcasting stations here is that the political tale is played against the background of incest, prostitution, adultery, rape, sex tournaments and sex orgies. There are also several seduction scenes, instances of toplessness, the peregrinations of a nymphomaniac, moments of homosexual love-play and a gruesome abortion. These are interlarded with beheadings, assassinations, gladiator games, murder by sword and murder by poison.” Indeed, under the current FCC it is unlikely that I, Claudius could be shown on broadcast television in the United States – not without substantial cuts, that is.
Whatever misgivings some PBS stations may have had, I, Claudius became a television phenomenon. The two novels by Robert Graves upon which the miniseries is based were re-released in paperback and became bestsellers. I, Claudius had a second run on PBS in 1979. It benefited from an intelligent script by Jack Pulman and fine direction by Herbert Wise, but ultimately I, Claudius is a triumph of acting. The superb cast includes Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Brian Blessed as Augustus, George Baker as Tiberius, John Hurt as Caligula, Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, and Sian Phillips in an unforgettable performance as the scheming and murderous Livia.
When considering this remastered edition of I, Claudius, it must be kept in mind that viewers in the United Kingdom and viewers in the United States did not see the same thing. When I began to compare the new release with the 2000 box set, I quickly realized that the times of the scenes were not matching up. My first thought was that the new version had been edited, but various sources are reporting that this is the version which originally aired on the BBC. Supporting this notion is the fact that in the new box set the miniseries is spread out over 12 episodes (which is how it aired in the U.K.), whereas it was shown in 13 episodes in the U.S. What had been the first two episodes is now combined into one 97-minute episode, losing approximately 4 minutes of footage in the process. I do not have the time or patience to seek out every change, but the scene of the semi-nude African dancers in Episode One has been cut from 90 seconds to 30 seconds. However, it would be a mistake to assume that all of the cuts are related to nudity or violence, because a completely inoffensive scene of Livia conversing with Octavia (the ex-wife of Mark Antony) has been shortened by 30 seconds. The scene of Claudius which closes the first episode of the U.S. version has been replaced with an awkward freeze-frame before transitioning to the next scene. Apparently that is how I, Claudius was broadcast in the U.K., although I confess that I do not have a copy of the R2 version with which to make a comparison.
The U.S. version also had its share of cuts. Joan Sullivan, an executive at WGBH-TV in Boston, acknowledged that she made “deletions of frames here and there” to make “slightly less graphic” certain scenes which might raise objections from viewers. The New York Times reported that Ms. Sullivan “also edited out a coarse comment by a Roman soldier about the Virgin Birth, a line in which one soldier orders another to rape a child, the bloody frames in which an infant is stabbed to death and some bedroom shots in which the cameras look down on two nude bodies making love.” I have not yet been able to compare every episode to see if the new release contains the footage which was edited by Ms. Sullivan for the American broadcast.
So what is a fan of I, Claudius to do? If, as has been reported, this version is identical to the R2 release, the R2 version would seem to be the way to go (assuming that you have a region-free DVD player) because it apparently includes the deleted scenes as extras. I also have heard (but have not verified) that the R2 version includes the 2002 BBC documentary I, Claudius: A Television Epic. Why the BCC documentary is not included in the new box set is a question which only Image can answer.
The good news is that the video of the 2008 box set of I, Claudius is a significant improvement over the 2000 version. Many viewers complained that the 2000 release looked like it was mastered from VHS tapes, and in truth it does look very soft. The remastered edition is much sharper and almost certainly looks better than it did on your television screen in 1977. This is not to suggest that the transfer will blow you away. The image is still a bit soft in places, and the colors are accurate but muted. However, keep in mind that this essentially is a televised stage production. It was never intended or expected to look like the HBO miniseries Rome.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio likewise is improved over the 2000 release. The dynamic range, though nothing to write home about, is more pleasing and the soundtrack is free of noise and distortion. This is a dialogue-driven production, and every word is distinct and comprehensible.
There are no subtitles.
The sole extra is the Dirk Bogarde-hosted documentary “The Epic That Never Was,” which examines the ill-fated and aborted 1937 film production of I, Claudius by producer Alexander Korda and director Josef von Sternberg. That film was to star Charles Laughton and Merle Oberon, but Laughton had difficulty getting into character as Claudius and the production was cancelled after Oberon was injured in an auto accident. The documentary includes about 25 minutes of surviving footage.
“The Epic That Never Was” also is included in the 2000 DVD release. I cannot discern any significant difference in the video quality, although the audio has been given a volume boost.
The program is spread out over four discs, each encased in its own slimcase. The four slimcases are held in a cardboard slipcase. The previous R1 edition has three discs, two of which are flippers. The new edition is 1 ¼ inches wide; the older version takes up two full inches. While I appreciate anything which requires less space, I prefer the cover art on the old release.
Each individual episode has been given chapters, although finding them requires some work. The main menu only gives the viewer the choice of selecting the individual episodes or playing all episodes. To get to the chapters, the viewer has to begin playing the desired episode. Once the episode begins, hit the menu key again and the chapter menu will come up.
The Final Analysis
This is a difficult call. I was expecting that Image was going to give us a remastered version of the 2000 release of I, Claudius. Instead, we seem to have gotten the U.K. version, but without some of the extras which appear on the R2 DVD box set.
A viewer who has a region-free DVD player would probably be better served by getting the R2 version. However, someone who has never seen I, Claudius before will likely find the new release to be perfectly satisfying. The improvement in video and audio quality is significant enough for me to recommend it over the 2000 version, my other reservations notwithstanding.
Equipment used for this review:
Toshiba HD-XA-2 DVD player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: December 2, 2008