The one hundred thirty-third TV show: #233 I, Claudius

While a lot of people might seek out something fun and distracting during the pandemic, we've ended up going for a historic drama set in Rome, a fictionalized account of Claudius' fictional memoirs and family history, set up at times as a dark comedy and just as often played as a soap opera. What it is, even more than that, is a show where a lot of great British actor give amazing performances, a stage play filmed and better designed. The centre of that cast is, of course, Claudius, played brilliantly by Derek Jacobi. It's hard to see how Charlton Heston would have played him, as the vulnerability, frailty and low status are such a part of his character while also standing up against the other big performances, just forceful enough to stay in focus and not fade. It's an amazing balancing act that is easy to overlook, but he walks the tightrope incredibly well.

The three other emperors show this most clearly. Augustus, played by Brian Blessed, is of course larger than life, well meaning but foolish, and the moment he shows respect for Claudius rather than ignoring him is one of the sweetest moments in there. George Baker's Tiberius always has anger lurking underneath the surface, a sense of insecurity that he feels he has to hide which puts him on that knife's edge all the time. But some of the most amazing scenes are between Claudius and John Hurt's Caligula, who seems otherworldly. His insanity goes between comedic and intimidating, always making you wonder what's happening, and somehow Derek Jacobi keeps being able to stand up to it where it feels like other actors are lessened in between. Livia, Augustus' wife and main driving force in the first half of the series, is an amazing tour de force, a camp villain that remains believable and sets the standard for schemers in the rest of the series (although I don't think any quite live up to it). Other stand outs are, of course, Patrick Stewart and Patricia Quinn, but there are many others. Sometimes they are overshadowed by some of the earlier performances, but (aside from some child actors) most do well, and it shows the talent in the West End at the time.

Add to that how they're working with a great script, hitting the right notes and balancing the serious and humorous sides, and some great directing that makes the best of the limited BBC budgets. Yeah, the sets are often reused, with a lot of happening being told about rather than shown, and the make up has its flaws, but it's not necessary with the performances on display. It's not hard to see why this is still remembered well - all of it still amazing and something that's unlikely we'll see again.