Who wrote "I Claudius"?
The thirty-year anniversary repeat of the classic “I Claudius” series continues until Thursday on BBC 4. In fact, evening television has been something of a Togafest for the last ten days. A re-run of “Up Pompeii” at 8.30, followed by murder in the imperial palace under the watchful eye of Uncle Claudius at 9.00.
“Up Pompeii” has not worn too well, unless you like Frankie Howerd playing Frankie Howerd. But “I Claudius” is still gripping. Part of the reason is that it was made on an extremely low budget, before the tricks of new technology had been invented. So no expensive location shots (which never look quite right anyway); and no computer assisted crowds or armies. These were gob-smacking the first time we saw them (the Colosseum apparently packed with spectators in “Gladiator” made a tremendous impact on me at least). But now that we know it’s all done by “techies” on a computer, it just seems a bit of a cheat.
Instead “I Claudius” relied on some nicely mocked up rooms in the imperial palace (the Circus Maximus was recreated with just “noises off”), on lingering close-ups on the actors’ faces – and on plenty of sex.
It was to coincide with this re-run that the BBC presented “Togas on TV”, a celebration of small-screen Romans and Roman history -- from Mortimer Wheeler extolling “The Grandeur that was Rome” in 1960, through “Dr Who” (the William Hartnell version) and “Blue Peter”, to Boris Johnson’s recent quirky eulogy of Roman Europe. This was the programme that I contributed to a few weeks ago, after an extremely good party the night before – and I caught up with the finished product on the box this last weekend. (Verdict on self was that I sounded OK – but looked like I felt.)
Most of us talking heads had particularly fond memories of “I Claudius” in the 70s (except for Bettany Hughes who was not old enough to be allowed to watch it). So did some of the surviving actors who were also interviewed. Brian Blessed can still roar out the immortal line -- “Is there anyone in Rome who has not slept with my daughter?” –exactly as he did thirty years ago. Sian Phillips (who now looks uncannily like the elderly Livia she was pretending to be in 1976) remembered that, despite its current classic status, the first reviews of the series were very unenthusiastic. She put this down to the fact the critics didn’t like to see Romans in togas talking ordinary colloquial English (they were used to a more declamatory Hollywood style). It is also the case that a number of them thought that the plentiful sex did not entirely conceal the cheapness of the production.
What no-one pointed out was that this “Robert Graves classic” had rather less to do with Robert Graves than we usually imagine. The original novels (“I Claudius” and “Claudius the God”) are very different indeed. Quite a lot of the action takes place outside Rome – they are not focused exclusively on “palace intrigue”. There is very little sharp, still less witty, dialogue. And they are frankly, for me at least, a bit of a dreary read. (Graves has been given rather too much credit here, just like he has – as Nick Lowe recently argued in the TLS – for his mumbo jumbo “Greek Myths”.)
Before the BBC got their hand on it, “I Claudius” had been a bit of a graveyard for adaptation. There was the famously unfinished Charles Laughton movie in 1937, and also a much less well known, and not much less disastrous, stage version by John Mortimer in 1972 (which was not helped by the presence of the elderly Graves on the first night). The success of the BBC version must be chalked up to the TV adapter, Jack Pulman, who was also responsible for the BBC’s “War and Peace” in 1973, and the comedy “Private Schulz”, broadcast in 1981, after Pulman’s death. Basically Pulman refocused and rewrote Graves, and invented from scratch almost all the dialogue.
If you compare the novels with the television version, I can guarantee that all your favourite bits will turn out to be almost pure Pulman. That’s the case with Augustus’ “Is there anyone in Rome….?”. In fact the whole scene of the emperor grilling the guilty senators (“Have YOU slept with my daughter ?” “Not slept, Caesar . . . ” ‘So you did it standing up?”) is a brilliant creation of Pulman, and is not in Graves at all. And that’s the case too with my special favourite: “Oh by the way, don’t touch the figs” – as Livia warns her son Tiberius (with wonderful camp intonation by Sian Phillips), after she has done away with Augustus by smearing the figs with poison while they were still on the tree.
It’s about time we started talking about “Jack Pulman’s ‘I Claudius’”, not “Robert Graves’s”.