The boob tube can “show” the art of others, it can discuss art, and it can very effectively rip off art forms from other mediums—like soap operas, sitcoms, blabfests and documentaries which originated in the written press, radio and movies—to make them its own. But, without discounting music videos, TV hasn’t provided its own avenue of art until the advent of the miniseries. While much of the genre has bastardized trash, some of the multiparters transcend the confines of the box—they blow our hungry minds. Foremost would be I, Claudius, and The Jewel in the Crown, and Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth R, examples of historical dramas turned into artful and useful history. There’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Brideshead Revisited, Masada, War and Remembrance, the Australian Brides of Christ. And the triumphs of high class literacy Pride and Prejudice and John Adams as well as the triumph of low trash North and South. The virtual continuum of time is of course television’s greatest asset; when used right, the miniseries format can bring to us things the other mediums can only dream about. The wide screen spectaculars about ancient Rome, for example, are almost always dress-up camps that abbreviate epochal events and scandals. With the box, we can really get into the nitty gritty of lascivious Rome: as the genre’s first masterpiece, I, Claudius is unequaled in that there are no land or sea battles to endure, no gargantuan pageantry or sets or casts of thousands; instead, we’re taken right into the minds and politically and sexually motivated deeds of the Roman elite and hangers-on. So private a view of history that we often feel like voyeurs—but very willing ones, like the way the Family Wallace make us enjoy being peeping Toms with The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People.

With I, Claudius, director Herbert Wise has utilized the box’s reduction of size and transformed the deficiency into a compensatory amplification of cumulative intimacy. Making the series even more of an unparalleled achievement is that he used videotape to do this. Borrowing from American expertise in soaps and sitcoms, the British have mastered the “live” look of tape by carefully calibrating the closeups of performers: Derek Jacobi’s Claudius seems to belong exclusively to the viewers because he’s “live” and up front against the backdrop of all that mouthwatering murderousness; his first person narrative recalls and may even be a tribute to Olivier’s Richard III, minus the villainous showmanship. As with Keith Michell’s Henry in Six Wives and Jackson’s Elizabeth R, we’re swept up and away by the constancy of close-ups which help suspend the artificiality of the sets. Tim Harvey’s designs for I, Claudius go one step further by allowing for a startling result: the characterizations are not three-dimensional, but a 3-D kind of effect occurs: the personages jump out at us, quelling the often irksome tape process and settings—and at the same time aggrandizing them. Histories, as novels or plays or performed on radio or made into movies, rarely duplicate this kind of personal tour guide.

The nature of the miniseries affords actors the chance to re-create historical figures in a way more fully realized than the other mediums can match. Creating a character who can’t be traced through the omnipresent media gives an actor the edge; he can take chances in bringing the personage to life in his own way without having to repeat exactly what we already know, which, though popular, is the “lip-synch” form of acting. Jacobi stuns viewers with his Claudius: watching him stutter, squint, shake and fumble, perhaps the manifestations of cerebral palsy, grow from presumed idiot to master politician, we feel that not only does history come alive but that this TV performance is art. His Claudius is wrought from the dexterity of a real artist out to get it right without an actor’s ego interferring: because Claudius’ illness looks to have all the signs of the Gods looking down upon him unfavorably, he’s perpetually treated as a fool, with contempt and disgust, even by his own mother. Jacobi’s portrayal is a pinnacle of irony: only those not plotting, murdering, backstabbing for power see Claudius’ potential and the attributes that save him. So busy are the gaggles of poisoners and betrayers that they don’t see—until it’s too late—the damnation of their foolish assumptions: that Claudius knows just about everything (and what he doesn’t know he justifiably suspects) and therefore an assassin’s target long before he becomes one.

Academicians argue that seeing an adaptation of a great piece of literature before reading it mares a reader’s ability to envision for himself the characters, the atmosphere, the purposes. All right, if the theatre, movie or TV versions are pretty abject. But when adaptations are extraordinarily crafted, and in this regard the British show the greatest respect for literature, the opposite can be true: we derive even more satisfaction because we can carry the images of characters with us. Written by Jack Pulman, I, Claudius is without question the most literate entertainment televised until the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice and the American John Adams, and much later Downton Abbey and The Crown, yet if you read the Robert Graves books on which the series is based before seeing it, you’re left with an icy assembly of detail that doesn’t foster visions of the historic figures, it chills them. I argue to see Derek Jacobi first before plowing into Graves; that way you have that intimate guide throughout. When you get to the dirty deeds of long-armed Livia as Graves describes, Siân Phillips, the series’ other acting triumph, is there to help make them more treacherous and vile. No book can do justice to Livia learning the methods of poisoning from the corpulent brewmeister in the way the series does, or sensing her hand moving towards the crotch of a favored spy, or her deathbed pleading to Caligula and Claudius to make her a goddess (so she doesn’t rot in Hell), or her confessions to Claudius of her most grievous crimes.

More than a few historians have attempted to prove they know more than Robert Graves (who openly thought they knew much less) or Pulman: they dispute Livia’s methods of poisoning; they pooh-pooh Caligula’s murder of his wife-sister or making his horse a member of the Senate; they challenge Claudius’ wife Messalina’s sexcapades and the series’ depiction of Claudius’ death. What’s irritating about these experts is that they don’t have anything substantial to counter the series’ enactments; they even sound a little shaky about their own scholarship. (And their ivy-towered naïveté about sex is embarrassing, e.g. some art historians over their fatuousness about Michelangelo’s assumed celibacy absent his masturbatory proclivities.) They dismiss with the slight of condescending words the right of first rate dramatists to collate events into both probabilities and possibilities. Graves didn’t write from a vacuum: he used Claudius’ own histories as basis, and sought confirmation from, among many, the gossips Suetonius and Josephus, and from Gibbon. Faithful to Graves, Pulman goes one step deeper: he injected into the series the eternally infectious virus of evil behavior that historians hope to avert as permanent malady. The great Pulman aims straight at the heart of who we are.

With Brian Blessed as Octavian/Augustus, Margaret Tyzack as Antonia, John Hurt as Caligula, George Baker as Tiberius, Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, Shelia White as Messalina. BBC/13 Episodes/669 Minutes. Available on DVD.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 1997 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 2021) All Rights Reserved.