ON THIS DAY in 54 A.D., the Roman Emperor, Claudius, was fatally poisoned. Claudius’ death was depicted in the 1976 BBC series, I, CLAUDIUS, starring Derek Jacobi.
If I set my Way Way Back Machine to 1976, I can recall being addicted to the Masterpiece Theatre I, CLAUDIUS mini series the same way I am addicted today to Downton Abbey, Mad Men, and the Housewives of New Jersey.
Earlier this year, the 35th anniversary edition of the BBC I, CLAUDIUS series was released. What memories that announcement brought back.
Although I clearly remember being enthralled with every episode of I, CLAUDIUS that I watched on television in the ‘70s, I don’t clearly remember the home projection screening of the series we did sometime in the ‘90s.
Blame the summer heat and copious amounts of red wine for the fuzzy recollections, but our screening of I, CLAUDIUS was memorable nonetheless. (It still comes up once in awhile when friends reminisce – a true sign of a Home Projectionist success.)
A small group of us who are old enough to have seen the original airing of I, CLAUDIUS were raving about it to our friends who hadn’t seen it. We wanted to show off our new big screen and agreed to make a true marathon event out of it — hunkering down for a screening of 13 episodes on two consecutive Sundays during one of the hottest spells of summer.
Everyone came in on the first Sunday at noon looking limp from the 90-degree heat and 100 percent humidity. They immediately perked up when the blast of over-conditioned air hit them at the door.
The food theme was “Bring Something Mediterrean,” and the kitchen was overflowing with olives, grapes, dried meats, roasted peppers, bruschetta, fabulous cheeses, and an obscene number of bottles of Italian wines. After eating a drinking a bit, people moved into the living room and scrunched up on the couch, grabbed dibs on chairs. We didn’t have enough seating, so in true Roman style, there was also a lot of lying around on the floor.
The opening credits were riveting, the theme, and that snake sliding over the tile floor. So far, so good. But I remember feeling a bit panicked when the first scene appeared with its playhouse production style. I could sense a collective groan.
But within only minutes, really, everyone was drawn in and my worries were over. How could they not be mesmerized?
The cast and performances are over-the-top stellar. Derek Jacobi stammers his way through the leading role as hapless Claudius. Sian Phillips brilliantly plays the evil matriarch Livia while Brian Blessed blusters around as Emperor Augustus. Star Trek fans will be excited to see a young Patrick Stewart in a leather skirt playing the handsome and crafty military officer Sejanus. And John Hurt absolutely kills it as Caligula. Absolutely kills it.
The whole series is a kind of Survivor game show with insider politics and power plays, murder and mayhem, insanity and sexual intrigue…and more sexual intrigue, a few battles, and more sexual intrigue.
During the first day of our mini series marathon, we took long breaks between episodes, and even though we started watching at noon, we didn’t stop until the late, late evening. And copious bottles of wine were empty. Everyone had a bleary-eyed Monday morning.
The next Sunday, the same group of friends reappeared for Round Two, bringing along a repeat of the last Sunday’s Mediterranean spread, as well as a few new participants. We held a plot recap to catch up everyone on the story so far and settled in for the last six episodes.
As the day went on, the breaks between episodes got longer and longer. Sam, who knew the in’s and out’s of Roman history, helped clarify some of the genealogy and missing links. (Note that the 35th anniversary edition has featured extras that will help in that arena.)
I had anticipated that the group would go home early on the second Sunday and that there was no way that we would have a late-night repeat of the week before. But when the last episode was done and I, CLAUDIUS reached its wonderful conclusion, no one went home.
Everyone migrated back to the kitchen to refill glasses and happily pick at leftover dried up cheese and other unappetizing bits and pieces. There was a weird kind of spirit in the air and a sense of ensuing late-night drama. I knew that our own little reenactment of a Roman soiree was going to continue when I walked in on an improbable make-out scene (that still makes me shake my head), and then later when, courtesy of Miss P. Caster, some rock band’s tour bus and entourage pulled up in front of the house.
Sometimes, life can imitate art.
I woke up in the morning to find one friend asleep on the bathroom floor, and he was holding a bowl of grapes.