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TV review: I, Claudius, Colosseum, and Sanditon

25 August 2023

BBC/LONDON FILM PRODUCTIONS/ALAMY

Siân Phillips as Livia in the 1976 adaptation of Robert Graves’s novel I, Claudius, which is being rerun on BBC4 on Wednesdays. Derek Jacobi plays Claudius

Siân Phillips as Livia in the 1976 adaptation of Robert Graves’s novel I, Claudius, which is being rerun on BBC4 on Wednesdays. Derek Jacobi plays Cla...

A ROMAN-HOLIDAY air fills late summer schedules. The rerun of the series I, Claudius (BBC4, Wednesday of last week) returns to first-century Rome. Without exterior shots or special effects, the screenwriter Jack Pullman and the director Herbert Wise created a historically believable world. Admittedly, elderly Claudius’s Andy Warhol wig and Kardashian eyebrows distract, but only momentarily. Then, for more than two hours, Derek Jacobi’s Claudius, Brian Blessed’s Augustus, and Siân Phillips’s Livia captivate.

The Rome of I, Claudius is part spa-break — steam bath, massage, and eating figs — and part murder-mystery weekend . . . except that the murderer’s identity is no mystery: one flash of Livia’s kohl-rimmed eyes, and it is game over. In the opening episodes, she poisons her stepson-in-law, stepson, and husband’s friend, and has her stepdaughter banished. The aim of Livia’s manoeuvres is to see her favourite son, moody Tiberius (George Baker), succeed Augustus.

To disgrace Augustus’s only child, Julia the elder (Frances White), Livia persuades Julia’s son Lucius (Simon MacCorkindale) to present the Emperor with a list of his mother’s lovers. When Augustus asks why Lucius has taken so long to betray his mother, he terms the delay “a sin of omission”.

Familiarity with Christian teaching is not the only prescience of I, Claudius. On a meal-break from chronicling his grandmother’s scheming, the elderly Claudius will not eat until his servant has taken first bite. Life at the heart of the Roman Empire has left Claudius with post-traumatic stress disorder. Seventies audiences would have been familiar with the symptoms, but would wait another decade for the term to describe them.

Colosseum (BBC4, Wednesday of last week), made for Sky History, presents a fact-filled history of the glories of Rome. The top part of the Colosseum was completed in AD 80, after eight years of construction. Work on the below-ground network of tunnels, the hypogeum, started the following year, under the Emperor Domitian.

Domitian hoped for popularity through the appearance of scenery, wild animals, and gladiators through the arena floor. Colosseum gives a starring role to the master builder Haterius, whose pulleys-and-weights systems enabled 99,000 cubic metres of stones, 300 tonnes of iron clamps, and one million bricks to be erected with manual labour. As actors and CGI are used for dramatisations, the series’ historians are confined to their armchairs, wearing their ironed Sunday best, instead of being dressed up as milkmaids or perched above ruins, arms flapping.

Sanditon (ITVX, Thursday of last week) is equally restful. Andrew Davies’s adaption of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel features the rake Sir Edward Dedham, so desperate to receive a living from his aunt (Anna Reid) that he subjects himself to cold-water hosing, and sanctimonious instruction from Kevin Eldon’s cleric, Mr Hankins. In Sanditon, a brief glance means soon dancing a quadrille, not breathing your last.

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