By Jon Caroulis
A man in ancient Rome named Claudius tells members of the Senate he is half-witted, but adds, "I have survived to middle age with half my wits while thousands have died with all of theirs intact. Evidently quality of wits is more important than quantity!"
Those words were spoken on one of TV's greatest shows, I, Claudius, a 12-hour BBC miniseries about the first four emperors of Rome that debuted 40 years ago this month. One year later, it appeared on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre and became one of the network's most-watched shows.
Based on novels by English writer Robert Graves (and, one suspects, actual events), I, Claudius featured machinations and intrigues that would have impressed Machiavelli.
Each episode begins with Claudius, played by Derek Jacobi, as an old man and emperor, writing the "strange" story of his life. It begins before his birth, when Rome's first emperor Augustus was firmly in control of the empire. But the real person in control was Augustus' second wife, Livia, portrayed by Sian Phillips.
HBO's mafia family drama, The Sopranos, featured a scheming mother who planned to kill her son. Her name was Livia, and I'm sure that show's creator, David Johnson, named her after the matriarch in I, Claudius.
Livia poisoned and ruined many to make sure her son, Tiberius, became Rome's second emperor.
Claudius was her grandson, and an embarrassment to the royal family. He had infantile paralysis, which left him lame; he stuttered and his head constantly twitched. Everyone assumed he was mentally defective, as well.
But Claudius possessed a keen intellect, and used his infirmities to his advantage:
While many around him were being killed, he played the fool and exaggerated his stutter and twitching (both of which lessened as he grew older), thereby keeping the assassins away.
One of the show's best scenes is when Livia realizes Claudius is far smarter than he has let on, and likely will survive everyone.
Because of cable, the internet, on-demand, and DVDs, generations around the world have discovered the power and appeal of I, Claudius since it premiered in 1976. Long after the series had aired, Phillips was in a cab in Israel when the driver mentioned to someone else that she had been in the series.
The show appeals (and continues to appeal) to us on many levels: the lust for power, the grandeur of Rome, and the mystery of who would or would not survive. It was an ancient Melrose Place and Desperate Housewives rolled into one. But far classier. Some of England's best actors strutted their stuff in this production: John Rhys Davies (Sallah of Raiders of the Lost Ark), John Hurt (The Elephant Man and Alien), and Margaret Tyzack (A Clockwork Orange).
One of the series' villains was played by Patrick Stewart. When I first learned he was going to be on Star Trek: The Next Generation, I thought, "That murderous, adulterous so-and-so as captain of the Enterprise? Never!" (By the way, Stewart wore a wig and has a sex scene, in which you don't see anything, but the dialogue makes it incredibly hot.)
But the two real stars were Jacobi (later knighted) and Phillips.
Portraying Claudius from a teenager to an old man, Jacobi was awesome. Phillips conveyed a complex woman, alternately regal and repulsive. You hated but admired her.
So why does it still resonate after all these years and continue to find and enthrall generations?
For one thing, the teleplay by Jack Pulman discarded how we think ancient Romans spoke, and laced the script with modern British-isms and even slang. One general tells another, "They say your drills were bloodless battles, and your battles were bloody drills."
That helps keep the show from aging. The other key is that Claudius is an underdog, and most of us tend to root for the underdog.
I, Claudius was the best of the brilliant historical dramas from England that were shown on PBS, but it was also fun, combining high drama and low comedy. But how can a show not be great when it features Roman orgies and naked bodies, lust and vengeance, backbiting and conniving?
This is one miniseries you hate to see end. I won't reveal anything, but one key to determining whether Claudius prevails is the quality of his wits.
I, Claudius, like Rome, has stood the test of time. Someone said human beings do three things: We eat, we make love, and we tell stories. With its orgies of food and sex, this series managed to incorporate all three activities into a sublimely entertaining program that, like your favorite meal, can be savored again and again.