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GREAT TV GIFTS: 'I, Claudius' on DVD
December 4, 2008  | By Diane Werts
 
i claudius derek jacobi.jpgThirty years later, the legend lives on. I, Claudius was an early hit for PBS' Masterpiece Theatre in the public broadcaster's first decade, topping critics' 1976 best-of lists, thanks to the powerful performances of Derek Jacobi as the cripped emperor, Brian Blessed as Augustus, and John Hurt as Caligula.


Now it's finally on DVD in a worthy package, newly remastered to make the videotape production look fresher than ever. And look cheaper, too. Those sets, those costumes -- they all scream "TV budget." But you'd be surprised how immediate those studio cameras make these performances feel, as if they were being beamed live straight into your living room.

i claudius laughton sternberg.jpgThey aren't the only thrill in this fine new Image Entertainment DVD set. (Avoid previous releases, whose video/audio quality left much to be desired.) Added this time is the fascinating feature-length 1965 documentary The Epic That Never Was, chronicling the ill-fated 1930s attempt by British cinema titan Alexander Korda to produce the story on a massive scale with director Josef von Sternberg and stars Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon, Flora Robson and Emlyn Williams. (That's Sternberg dressed director-ish in the photo with Oberon and Laughton.)


Filmed in atmospheric black-and-white in the crumbling remains of the shooting studio, the Epic documentary lets the surviving cast and crew spin an emotionally fraught remembrance of Laughton locking himself away to "find" the character while other troupe members cooled their heels. That testimony is strongly supplemented by the intense film fragments that did manage to get shot before Oberon's auto accident allowed a beleaguered studio to call the whole cursed thing off.

i claudius patrick stewart.jpgThe BBC's I, Claudiusoffers bonuses of its own, too, including the chance to spot up-and-comers like a thirtysomething Patrick Stewart.


Read vintage reviews, see a photo gallery and watch the trailer at the BBC's show site. Or assess the production's real-world accuracy at the detailed history in film pages here and here.

 

3 Comments

 

Mike said:

Not mentioning the actress who played Livia, who stole every scene she was in, is a crime. Who was that riveting woman?

DIane said:

Sian Phillips played Livia. And you're right, she's a powerhouse -- one I indeed should have mentioned as key to the enduring impact of I, Claudius.

She's less well-known to American viewers, having played mostly guest spots in British TV productions (and an arc on La Femme Nikita, of all things).

Phillips has tended to concentrate on theater, where she was acclaimed in both London and New York for her one-woman show as Marlene Dietrich in the late '90s.

Sue said:

Sian Phillips and Patrick Stewart both had supporting roles in the David Lynch version of Dune. She played Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, and he played Gurney Halleck.

 
 
 
 
 
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