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CURSED BUT A TRIUMPH!

Byline: By STEVE TUCKER South Wales Echo

They said it was cursed. In 1937 an attempt to film Robert Graves' classic take on the life and times of the Roman Emperor Claudius ended in disaster. Tyrannical director Josef Von Sternberg clashed with temperamental acting genius Charles Laughton, the latter complaining he just 'couldn't get' the role.

Then female lead Merle Oberon (think Keira Knightley multiplied by 10) was injured in a car crash and everyone used it as a great excuse to abandon the project. And so it remained for nearly four decades: unfilmable, forgotten, cursed. Then in the mid-1970s the project was resurrected by, of all people, the BBC. An ambitious plan to condense not only I, Claudius, but also Graves' follow up Claudius the God, into 13 episodes was announced.

The challenge was obvious: set in ancient Rome between 24BC and 54AD, the books told the story, from childhood to old age, of Claudius, stammering, limping member of Rome's imperial family, who became an unlikely emperor himself, in AD41.

On the grand scale it is the story of Rome's transformation from democracy to dictatorship to destruction, covering the lives of not only Claudius but Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula.

A riot of murder, intrigue, incest, rape and baby-eating, it was not your typical 1970s peak time viewing. But perhaps back then BBC executives were made of sterner stuff and the project was given the green light, only for the curse to strike again. A wrangle over who owned the rights to the books led to a year's delay.

But problem sorted, in came top small screenwriter Jack Pulman, fresh from penning the first four episodes of the wildly popular Poldark series and later to go on to create the excellent Private Schultz. But how to adapt what many considered unadaptable? Pulman's breakthrough came when he recognised the almost soap opera quality of the intrigues of the Roman emperors.

In came the chatty familiarity and casual cruelty of family life.

The 'epicness' of the Roman Empire took a back seat to personal ambitions, with Pulman, thankfully never losing sight of the humour. The writer had triumphed. When the BBC sent Robert Graves a copy of the episodes, he replied: 'Claudius is pleased.' With a budget that today would barely cover a day's catering on Bleak House, filming was confined to stagey studio sets. The cast themselves, some of the finest talent Britain could offer, found, as Laughton had before, that they just 'couldn't get' it. Brian Blessed, who would turn in a career-high performance as Augustus, later recalled: 'We were dreadful.

'We just couldn't make it natural. It was awful.' But then it clicked, as Pulman's script dictated, the cast played it as a domestic drama. It may have been ancient Rome, but these were just people, real people.

It worked and what was to follow was arguably the greatest television series ever made, an endorsement which holds to this day.

John Hurt is brilliant as a pallid, weasely Caligula, while Welsh siren Sian Phillips as the poisonous Livia is shocking in her cruelty.

There were even turns from Jean-Luc Picard himself, Patrick Stewart, as the ambitious soldier Sejanus and, perhaps most remarkably, Christopher Biggins, believable as a podgy, adolescent Nero. But it was Derek Jacobi's central performance, for which he rightly won a Bafta, which really steals the show. His Claudius, a man who survives because of his disability rather than despite it, strikes just the right note.

Enduring six hours in make-up each day to play the old Emperor, it is a performance best described as a 'triumph' in a series best described as a 'classic'. I, Claudius finally aired in September, 1976, to rapturous reviews and popular acclaim. And so the curse of Claudius was broken. Or was it? Six weeks after the series went out, producer Martin Lisemore was killed in a car crash at the age of 38. Two years later, writer Jack Pulman, perhaps the real star of the series, was dead of a heart attack. He was 51.: ON THE TELLY:What you were watching on Thursday, December 16, 1976 5.05pm John Craven's Newsround (BBC1) 6.30pm Happy Days, with Ron Howard and Henry Winkler (ITV) 6.45pm Tomorrow's World (BBC1) 7.10pm Top of the Pops with Dave Lee Travis (BBC1) 7.40pm Sykes with Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques (BBC1) 8.10 Kojak (BBC1) 8.35pm The Book Programme (BBC2)
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 16, 2005
Words:740
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