The making of the 1976 BBC mini-series “I, Claudius” was fraught with headaches.
But Robert Graves, who wrote the 1934 novel and its 1935 sequel, “Claudius the God,” was unperturbed.
“I’ve communed with Claudius,” he said at the time, “and he reassured me that this would be a great success.”
Indeed it was. First shown in the United States 35 years ago (an anniversary edition DVD has been released), “I, Claudius” pushed the limits of small-screen sex and violence and foreshadowed the seamy family dramas “The Tudors,” “The Borgias” and even “The Sopranos.”
“I, Claudius” also brought to attention several of its stars, notably Derek Jacobi as the stammering, twitching, limping, ostensibly simple-minded title character, who survived decades of murder and intrigue to become the fourth emperor of Rome.
“I owe ‘Claudius’ so much on both sides of the Atlantic,” Jacobi said. “If he has haunted me, it’s been a beneficent ghost.”
The durability of “I, Claudius” began with Graves’ books. Cast as the secret memoirs of Claudius himself, they were grounded in scholarship but imbued with a novelist’s imagination. They had plenty of skulduggery, perversion and other malfeasance, set against the marble majesty of Roman antiquity.
The TV version, however, came close to missing the mark.
“It was so badly received in its first two weeks,” recalled Sian Phillips, who played the empress Livia, “because it was so different.”
That difference lay in the series’ down-to-earth treatment of epic material. Despite its imperial setting, “I, Claudius” was a small-studio effort devoid of huge sets and sprawling battle scenes.
In whittling down Graves’ tomes to a little more than 11 hours of television, the scriptwriter Jack Pulman rendered them as a soap opera, emphasizing the dysfunctional relations inherent in any extended clan. He called his teleplay a Jewish family comedy and a treatment of a Mafia dynasty.
“We wanted to make it contemporary,” said director Herbert Wise, now 88. “We wanted to make the point that human psychology hasn’t changed much in the last 2,000 years. We don’t throw people to the tigers anymore, but we still fight.”
Pulman made the story even more accessible by eschewing pseudo-classical dialogue. When the emperor Tiberius (George Baker) brings out Claudius’ sister-in-law, Agrippina (Fiona Walker, who would go on to marry Wise) in chains, he declares, “My dear, you look like a Greek tragedy.”
“And you look like a Roman farce,” she replies.
Pulman “was a brilliant adapter,” said John Hurt, who played the mad emperor Caligula, “and his literary passion does come off the page. It’s immensely playable. You learn it in five minutes.”
To compensate for the production’s physical modesty, Wise urged grand performances.
“There was certainly a theatricality about it,” said Patrick Stewart, the treacherous Praetorian Guard commander, Aelius Sejanus.
Perhaps no actor worked harder than Phillips, whose scheming Livia got rid of anyone who stood between the throne and her son, Tiberius. During early rehearsals, she vainly tried to find rational motives for her ruthlessness.
As Wise says in a documentary with the 35th-anniversary “I, Claudius” DVD from Acorn Media, “I was able to say to her: ‘Just be evil. The more evil you are, the funnier it is, and the more terrifying it is.’ ”
Topping off the show was its unforgettable opening sequence – a snake slithering across a tile mosaic likeness of Jacobi and the title “I, CLAVDIVS” (the source of many a phonetic joke), accompanied by a score by Wilfred Josephs that practically hissed evil intrigue.
Unlike imperial Rome “I, Claudius” may be imperishable. HBO and BBC2 are remaking the series, with the creative team that produced the HBO series “Rome” in charge.