DVD Review: I, Claudius 35th Anniversary Edition

STUDIO: Acorn Media | DIRECTOR: Herbert Wise | CAST: Derek Jacobi, Siân Phillips, George Baker, Patrick Stewart, John Hurt, Brian Blessed, Margaret Tyzack
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 3/27/2012 | PRICE: DVD $59.99
BONUSES: extended versions of first two episodes, interviews, documentary, more
SPECS: NR | 668 min. | Classical drama | 1.33:1 fullscreen | Dolby Digital 2.0 mono | English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall


The classic 1976 BBC television series I, Claudius (broadcast in the U.S. on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre) served up the kind of politics, sex and violence that we’ve come to associate with the ancient world years before HBO’s Rome and Starz’s Spartacus made such a big splash doing it! Hell, I, Claudius gave audiences the dirt on the mad Roman emperor Caligula a few years before Bob Guiccione went hardcore on the juicy subject in his 1979 film Caligula!

I, Claudius scene

Derek Jacobi stars in I, Claudius.

Adapted from Robert Graves’s 1934 novel of the same name and its 1935 sequel Claudius The God, I, Claudius follows the history of ancient Rome under the rule of its first four emperors, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius. A wildly decadent and dangerous period filled with the kind of wild behavior and murderous schemes that we’ve become familiar with from History 101 and nearly three subsequent decades of movies and TV shows, I, Claudius represents the first time it was all put out there for general audiences to savor. It’s all presented, of course, with a much more conservative eye than today and within the confines of a much more modestly budgeted television production than, say, HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Jack Pullman rich scripting, Herbert Wise’s succinct direction and the ensemble cast’s outstanding acting is the foundation for making I, Claudius work so well. Much credit for the series’ strength must also be given to editors John Barclay and Dave Hiller, whose careful cutting never disrupts the flow of action or grand thesping by such fine performers as John Hurt (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as Caligula, Brian Blessed (Flash Gordon) as Augustus, Siân Phillips (Nijinsky) as his scheming wife Livia, Patrick Stewart (Dune) as the Praetorian guard Sejanus and, of course, the great Derek Jacobi (The King’s Speech) as the benevolent-as-he-can-be emperor Claudius.

Of most interest and appeal to fans in this latest DVD edition of I, Claudius is the inclusion of extended versions of the series’ first two episodes, which add an additional ten minutes onto the action. (In a previous DVD edition from 2008, the first pair of episodes were edited down, reportedly for space limitations on the disc.)

There are also two fine feature-length bonuses included in the package, both of which have been seen on previous editions. The first, I, Claudius: A Television Epic, is a 2002 BBC documentary featuring the creators and principals talking about the series, its production and their memories thereof. Second up is The Epic That Never Was, a 1967 doc on the aborted filming of a 1937 version of the book that was to have been produced by Alexander Korda and directed by Josef von Sternberg.

Newer but equally entertaining and informative bonuses are a 10-minute interview with Jacobi from a couple of years back that covers not just I, Claudius but a large chunk of the actor’s prolific career. Also diverting is the half-hour compilation of comments from the cast members about their favorite scenes in the series, following by (of course) the scenes themselves.


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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.