‘I, Claudius’ on DVD: Thumbs up … finally

Derek Jacobi as ClaudiusAcorn’s new five-disc retelling of “I, Claudius” opens with an ominous warning about the condition of the 1976 miniseries. “Occasional flaws … that were beyond our ability to correct.”

“I, Claudius” fans could be excused a shudder of paranoia upon reading the disclaimer, especially given the treatment the BBC presentation received on home video over the years.

No need to fret. Acorn’s new “I, Claudius” is about as definitive a presentation of the Roman Empire drama as we’ll likely see. The sins of videos past haven’t been repeated, and the look and sound are quite acceptable.

The set offers subtitles for the first time, most welcome — except for Acorn’s taking written onscreen credit for doing so at the worst possible time, in the seconds before before the entire 11-hour series fades to black. Brutal.

The “I, Claudius” DVD set lords over 12 episodes, as in the original British TV run. There also exist video versions that comprise 13 episodes, as in the PBS “Masterpiece Theatre” run.

Confusion reigns, but here is Acorn’s explanation of the dueling versions of “I, Claudius”:

Although “I, Claudius” was produced in a 13-episode format, the BBC aired the first two as a single long episode in its original telecast. PBS, however, broadcast the 13-spisode edition with episode 1, “A Touch of Murder,” and episode 2, “Family Affairs,” as separate installments. Recent DVD releases have adopted the 12-episode BBC format that we present (a reference to the 2008 Image release). As a bonus feature, we have included here the unedited PBS version of (episodes 1 and 2).

The extras remain the same as on the Image 2008 set, but with an additional 12-minute interview with star Derek Jacobi (Claudius) shot in 2010.

The 2002 “I, Claudius: A Television Epic” runs on for 74 minutes. It remains a disappointing slog. The making-of is padded out with too many scenes from the series (that most of the viewers would have just watched). The cast and production interviews could have used a good trimming.

Not so with “The Epic That Never Was,” a 1965 BBC documentary about the aborted 1937 production of an “I, Claudius” film starring Charles Laughton. Dirk Bogarde hosts.

There’s intrigue to burn here, with producer Alexander Korda, director Josef von Sternberg and the star neck-high in creative differences. When the production was shuttered after lead actress Merle Oberon was injured in a car crash, there was relief all around.

“The Epic That Never Was” features all surviving scenes from the shoot, as well as production footage, and it’s all fascinating. Laughton frets that he can’t reach Claudius, but of course the actor is brilliant anyway. Emlyn Williams limns Caligula in a slithery performance that would have ranked with those of John Hurt (“I, Claudius”) and Malcolm McDowell (“Caligula”), had it been realized.

“I, Claudius,” of course, remains one of the greatest and most famous works in television history. Its relatively low production values are of no consequence, as its constellation of actors fills the screen. In addition to Jacobi and Hurt, they include Sian Phillips (the twisted Livia), Brian Blessed (Augustus) and Patrick Stewart (Sejanus).

Further reading: Anyone still under the spell of “Claudius” after 11 hours should take a look at the original source material by Gaius Suetonius. The cruelty, sex and intrigue that electrified viewers in 1976 are all to be found in that AD 121 enterprise, still highly readable.

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