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HTF DVD REVIEW: I, Claudius The Epic That Never Was



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#1 of 24 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted December 13 2008 - 03:16 PM

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Studio: Image/BBC/20th Century Fox

Year: 1976

Rated: Not Rated

Running Time: 669 Minutes

Aspect Ratios: 1.33:1

Languages: English

Subtitles: None


The Program

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 Video

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 Audio

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 Supplements

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 Packaging

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.

Other Features

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
Rich Gallagher

#2 of 24 OFFLINE   chas speed

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Posted December 13 2008 - 04:37 PM

Was this review written with invisible ink? I don't see anything.

#3 of 24 OFFLINE   BillyFeldman

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Posted December 13 2008 - 05:03 PM

Best review I've ever read here. I'd like to know how it compares to the brilliant region 2 release - does it look as good? Uncut? Does it look better?

#4 of 24 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted December 13 2008 - 05:37 PM

Quote:
Originally Posted by chas speed
Was this review written with invisible ink? I don't see anything.

You may need to change your background. Go down to the bottom of the page to "skin chooser" and try a different color.
Rich Gallagher

#5 of 24 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted December 13 2008 - 05:40 PM

Quote:
Originally Posted by BillyFeldman
Best review I've ever read here. I'd like to know how it compares to the brilliant region 2 release - does it look as good? Uncut? Does it look better?

Thanks, I'm glad that you liked it.

Hopefully someone who has the R2 release will be able to tell us if the content is the same. The reviews which I have seen of the R2 release indicate that the transfer is good -- whether it is better, I don't know.
Rich Gallagher

#6 of 24 OFFLINE   chas speed

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Posted December 13 2008 - 06:02 PM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Richard Gallagher
You may need to change your background. Go down to the bottom of the page to "skin chooser" and try a different color.
Thanks, that had never happend before. Did you notice if the end of "Zeus, By Jove" was any more graphic (John Hurt eating the baby). I had heard that was cut for U.S. broadcast, but might have also been removed after the first broadcast in the U.K. and all U.K. reruns and video releases. I don't think any of the edits by the Boston lady carried over to the video releases that she would not have had anything to do with. The whole thing seems like it is very confusing, but I do know I would prefer the 13 episodes to the 12 episodes (with 2 stuck together). I don't care how it was first broadcast in the U.K., it just seems to make more sense as a 13 part series.

#7 of 24 OFFLINE   Cameron Yee

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Posted December 13 2008 - 06:46 PM

Great research Richard!
One thing leads to another at cameronyee.com

#8 of 24 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted December 14 2008 - 05:25 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by chas speed
Thanks, that had never happend before. Did you notice if the end of "Zeus, By Jove" was any more graphic (John Hurt eating the baby). I had heard that was cut for U.S. broadcast, but might have also been removed after the first broadcast in the U.K. and all U.K. reruns and video releases. I don't think any of the edits by the Boston lady carried over to the video releases that she would not have had anything to do with. The whole thing seems like it is very confusing, but I do know I would prefer the 13 episodes to the 12 episodes (with 2 stuck together). I don't care how it was first broadcast in the U.K., it just seems to make more sense as a 13 part series.

As far as I can determine, that scene was cut somewhat by the BBC before it was broadcast in the U.K. and then was cut again by WGBH. I'll compare the two U.S. releases and let you know if they are different.

Last night I read on a U.K. website that the decision to combine episodes one and two was a last-minute decision by the BBC. That's why we have that awkward freeze-frame where episode one was supposed to end.

I don't know anyone who has a recording of the original U.S. broadcasts. It would be interesting to compare that with the various video releases.
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#9 of 24 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted December 14 2008 - 05:31 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Cameron Yee
Great research Richard!

Yeah, I completely changed my approach to the review when I realized that this version was different from the prior R1 release.

I've gotten so wrapped up in it that last night I ordered the R2 version from Amazon.UK - I'll provide an update after it arrives and I have a chance to check it out, which will be sometime after Christmas.
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#10 of 24 OFFLINE   chas speed

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Posted December 14 2008 - 05:38 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Richard Gallagher
Yeah, I completely changed my approach to the review when I realized that this version was different from the prior R1 release.

I've gotten so wrapped up in it that last night I ordered the R2 version from Amazon.UK - I'll provide an update after it arrives and I have a chance to check it out, which will be sometime after Christmas.
Even if it's the same, at least you will get to see the documentary that they didn't bother to include in the recent R1 release.

#11 of 24 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted December 14 2008 - 07:30 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by chas speed
Even if it's the same, at least you will get to see the documentary that they didn't bother to include in the recent R1 release.

That's what I was thinking.

I just did a comparison of the final scene in Zeus, by Jove! There is a very subtle difference between the two versions. Without giving anything away, the screaming lasts five seconds longer in the U.K. version than in the U.S. version. You'll probably recall that during the screaming the camera is focused on the door, so visually there is virtually no difference between the two versions.
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#12 of 24 OFFLINE   chas speed

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Posted December 17 2008 - 07:03 PM

I just came across something interesting on ebay that is perfect for people who have a region free DVD player and would like to see the I Claudius documentary that was not included on the U.S. release. It is a "buy it now" Ebay auction (the guy has 100 copies) of a 3 DVD set (Region Two) of "I Claudius". The set has the first couple of episodes on one disc, the last couple of episodes on another disc plus the bonus disc with the documentary. It's not complete, but it would save someone from having to buy the U.K. set just to see the documentary (it's not a bootleg). I guess it was sent out for press reviews or something. Just search "I Claudius Three" on ebay and it should say "no matches" but go down lower and it should have one international seller (kevinwilson203) who is selling the 3 DVD set. The cost plus postage is $5.08.

#13 of 24 OFFLINE   Yee-Ming

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Posted December 18 2008 - 03:45 PM

I have an R2 copy of this (not sure which one relative to Richard's comments), but it's currently with a friend so I can't add any insights for now. IIRC it was on 5 discs.

My observation of the new cover art is that it really is playing to the (US) audience: Patrick Stewart's role is relatively minor, yet he is one of the three faces on the cover, no doubt because he is among the better known actors today to prospective buyers. Similarly for John Hurt. If anything, objectively based on the size of the roles, I would have thought the three to put on the cover were Jacobi (Claudius), Sian Phillips (Livia) and maybe Brian Blessed (Augustus).

#14 of 24 OFFLINE   chas speed

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Posted December 18 2008 - 04:09 PM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Yee-Ming
I have an R2 copy of this (not sure which one relative to Richard's comments), but it's currently with a friend so I can't add any insights for now. IIRC it was on 5 discs.

My observation of the new cover art is that it really is playing to the (US) audience: Patrick Stewart's role is relatively minor, yet he is one of the three faces on the cover, no doubt because he is among the better known actors today to prospective buyers. Similarly for John Hurt. If anything, objectively based on the size of the roles, I would have thought the three to put on the cover were Jacobi (Claudius), Sian Phillips (Livia) and maybe Brian Blessed (Augustus).
Still, Patrick Stewart did have an important role in the series. So I don't think sticking him on the cover is that crazy. If they had stuck on John Rhys-Davies, the guy who played the dwarf in Lord of the Rings, on the cover that would have been a bit of a stretch. I do think the remastered U.S. cover looks better then the remastered U.K. set, which has kind of a lame photo of Claudius. I guess I would be interested if the 2002 remastered U.K. version looks better then the 2008 remastered U.S. version, but they probably look the same.

#15 of 24 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted December 30 2008 - 04:20 AM

I now have a copy of the R2 version and had a chance to look at it last night.

The new R1 release is identical to the R2 release, except for the extras. The program is presented in 12 episodes, as it was on the original BBC broadcast. What we saw in the U.S. as chapters 1 and 2 have been combined into a single chapter. As far as I can determine, I, Claudius was shot with the intention of being shown in 13 chapters, but for some reason it was decided to open the series in the U.K. with a longer episode, so they combined the first two chapters. The R2 release and the new R1 release are missing the the musings of Claudius which close Chapter 1 and open Chapter 2. However, the R2 release includes that footage as an extra on Disc 5. That footage is nowhere to be found on the new R1 release.

The new R1 release also is lacking most of the extras found on the R2 release. The most significant omission is the BBC production "I Claudius - A Television Epic," a retrospective made by the BBC in 2002. It includes interviews with Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Sian Phillips, John Hurt, director Herbert Wise, and others. It is very worthwhile and the fact that it was not included in the new R1 release is perplexing.

The R2 release also includes an extra called "Favorite Scenes" in which the actors discuss scenes which they particularly enjoyed doing. There also is a family tree which helps the viewer to sort out how the many characters are related by blood or marriage.

Visually, both the R2 version and the new R1 version are significant improvements over the old R1 version. The R2 version appears to be slightly sharper than the new R1 version, but the new R1 version seems to be a bit brighter and the colors are slightly stronger.

The bottom line is that the R2 version is the way to go, if you have a DVD player which can play it. If that is not an option, I can still recommend the new R1 version as a significant improvement over the old R1 version, provided you do not mind seeing Chapters 1 and 2 combined into one episode. While there are some other differences between the R2 version and the original R1 version, they are relatively minor. If you feel that you must see I, Claudius exactly as it was presented in the U.S., the old R1 version is the only way to do that.
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#16 of 24 OFFLINE   ScottR

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Posted December 30 2008 - 05:24 AM

This is so confusing.So, the new release is exactly as it originally aired in the UK with nothing cut from that broadcast? And the old R1 is what originally aired in the US with nothing cut from that broadcast?

#17 of 24 OFFLINE   chas speed

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Posted December 30 2008 - 05:10 PM

I have heard that the ending of "Zeus, By Jove" was cut and destroyed after it's first U.K. airing. So it would not be on any DVD release and was never shown in America. After watching the documentary I'm even more confused about what is missing from that episode, since there seems to be conflicting stories. One thing everybody agrees on is that footage is gone. The old R1 did pretty much seem to be the way it was first broadcast in the U.S. The series does work best the way it was first broadcast in the U.S. and that is as a 13 part series. I don't think anybody will argue that. Many of the actors in the documentary even refer to the show as a 13 part series. My only explanation for the change back to a 12 part series is if there is anyway to screw up a DVD release they will always find a way.

#18 of 24 OFFLINE   Tim Tucker

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Posted December 31 2008 - 08:04 AM

The situation is a bit more complicated than just the combined Parts 1 & 2.

I compiled this data for a post on another forum. Here are the running times for each episode in the R2 set.

Parts 1 & 2 - A Touch of Murder/Family Affairs: 97:46
Part 3 - Waiting in the Wings: 50:08
Part 4 - What Shall We Do About Claudius?: 51:45
Part 5 - Poison Is Queen: 51:06
Part 6 - Some Justice: 51:49
Part 7 - Queen of Heaven: 52:09
Part 8 - Reign of Terror: 51:14
Part 9 - Zeus, By Jove!: 51:23
Part 10 - Hail Who?: 54:09
Part 11 - Fool's Luck: 51:49
Part 12 - A God in Colchester: 51:46
Part 13 - Old King Log: 53:20
The Epic That Never Was: 70:45

And here are the lengths from the original Image R1 set.

Part 1 - A Touch of Murder: 50:44
Part 2 - Family Affairs: 51:40
Part 3 - Waiting in the Wings: 50:05
Part 4 - What Shall We Do About Claudius?: 51:45
Part 5 - Poison Is Queen: 51:04
Part 6 - Some Justice: 51:40
Part 7 - Queen of Heaven: 52:03
Part 8 - Reign of Terror: 51:05
Part 9 - Zeus, By Jove!: 51:10
Part 10 - Hail Who?: 51:56
Part 11 - Fool's Luck: 51:47
Part 12 - A God in Colchester: 51:43
Part 13 - Old King Log: 52:02
The Epic That Never Was: 70:32

And the difference between the two:

Parts 1 & 2: 4:38
Part 3: 0:03
Part 4: 0:00
Part 5: 0:02
Part 6: 0:09
Part 7: 0:06
Part 8: 0:09
Part 9: 0:13
Part 10: 2:13
Part 11: 0:02
Part 12: 0:03
Part 13: 1:18
The Epic That Never Was: 0:13

So the R2 set has the longest version of all the episodes, except for the first. Since the deleted scenes included on Disc 5 total 4:15, that brings the length of the combined Parts 1 & 2 to 102:01, which is 0:23 short of the combined lengths of the old Image set. Also note that the R2 "Hail Who?" is over 2 minutes longer and R2 "Old King Log" is over a minute longer.

How do these running times match up with the new set?

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#19 of 24 OFFLINE   BobSchneider

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Posted December 31 2008 - 04:48 PM

Hi rich and thanks for the review I don't own the original r1 release and since I dont mind living with out the extras, the new r1 release seems to be the one to buy. With the new R1 release is more complete and has better video / audio captures . Right now I'm waiting a slow boat from australia delivery of Ironside s3 and if I can avoid the hassle of slow shipping I think the new r1 "I Claudius" release should like its the way to go. Posted Image
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#20 of 24 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted January 01 2009 - 04:16 PM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Tim Tucker

How do these running times match up with the new set?

It looks like someone could write a dissertation about the various releases of this show!

In the review I mentioned some of the differences between the U.K. version and the U.S. version, other than the combining of Episodes One and Two. It is also possible that the R2 release and the new R1 release are not precisely how the show was originally aired on the BBC.

I'll pop in the new R1 version is the next day or two and see how the running times match up to the R2 version. My initial impression is that they are the same, but we'll see.
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