When I, Claudius began its 13-episode run in America as part of Masterpiece Theatre in November 1977, censors at the Public Broadcasting Service cut roughly two minutes from the first episode that they felt might raise hackles over racism (African dancers were shown dancing naked to celebrate a Roman military victory), then braced themselves for a tidal wave of protests over what they did allow to pass: rampant adultery, nudity, incest, a nymphomaniacal empress, violence. Nothing happened. Americans didn’t care much, it seemed, about the possibility of ancient Rome corrupting contemporary national morals.
Instead, viewers (or, at least, those of PBS) took to their hearts the kind of incessant, whiplash-inducing double-crosses they wouldn’t see again for another two decades, on HBO’s The Sopranos. Powering this toga-and-sandal saga of ancient Rome was a woman of infinite ingenious stratagems named Livia (also possessing the same name as the Mafia mama). But the ancient Roman royal’s plotting left even the New Jersey matriarch far behind when it came to the mystery behind the malevolence. There was little if any need to explain what William Hazlitt called the quality of “motiveless malignity.”
You can keep Nancy Merchand’s Livia on The Sopranos, Kathleen Turner’s siren Mattie Walker from Body Heat, or Joan Collins’ minx Alexis on Dynasty (a show patterned, creator Esther Shapiro later claimed, on I, Claudius). The Livia of television’s I, Claudius (as opposed to Alexander Korda’s aborted screen epic, a story I related in a prior post) got there first, by centuries.
I hadn’t realized, until I read Thomas Vinciguerra’s fine retrospective on the making of the show in the Sunday New York Times, how closely we came to missing out on the glories of the sly performance by Sian Phillips (pictured here) in the role. Poor thing—as nearly every actor you can name does, she initially tried to fathom her character’s motivation, and was floundering as a result.
Finally, director Herbert Wise took her aside and said: “Just be evil. The more evil you are, the funnier it is, and the more terrifying it is. ” As a result, she was able to go with the glories of dialogue (written by scenarist Jack Pulman) such as the following, featuring Phillips and George Baker as Tiberius, the son from a prior marriage that Livia would love to replace current hubby, Caesar Augustus, as emperor:
Tiberius: “Mother, I'm a happily married man. Julia doesn't interest me. She wouldn't interest me if you hung her naked from the ceiling above my bed.”
Livia: “She might even do that if I asked her!”
Tiberius: “Aren't you forgetting something? She's still married to Marcellus, and Marcellus is not dead yet.”
Livia: “When I start to forget things, you may light my funeral pyre and put me on it, dead or alive.”
Phillips might have played the Welsh mother in the Masterpiece Theatre version of How Green Was My Valley, Marlene Dietrich in a one-woman show for the stage, and, in real life, the onetime wife of Peter O’Toole. But for me and thousands of other I, Claudius fans, she’ll always be indelibly associated with the greatest schemer in a society filled with voluptuaries of power.