I, Claudius: The Epic That Was

You really don't get much better than 1976's I, Claudius. It won a bunch of BAFTAs in the UK and Emmys in the USA, but all that tells you is that it's on the level of other BAFTA and Emmy award winners, not how much greater it is. And if any film snobs want to say, oh sure, but that's television, they'd be hard-pressed to point to a film more gripping than this classic. It's the HBO series before HBO series that HBO has yet to match, it's the most famous Masterpiece Theater series to this day, it's possibly television's greatest achievement. You'd think, then, that we could get a decent little blu-ray release of this that doesn't look like crap.
I, Claudius is an epic tale of ancient Rome that spans generations. It's all seen through the eyes of Claudius (still Derek Jacobi's signature role), a crippled royal progeny who has no real chance of attaining to power, but is given a first-hand view of everyone else's rise and fall. Over the 12 episodes (or sometimes 13, but we'll get to that), rulers live and die. Sex, murder, love, betrayal; it's an insane and true history, based on Peter Graves book of the same name, where we see an impossible to replicate cast pass through. Brian Blessed to Patrick Stewart to John Hurt as the infamous Caligula. Some of these performances are so commanding, it's impossible to imagine the show without them... until it's time for them pass on and they're supplanted with others just as impressive. It's like if each season of True Detective managed to replace Matthew McConaughey with someone just as effective each time, season after season. I still remember my first time watching this I, Claudius and thinking constantly that there's no way this can continue to operate on this level without Brian Blessed! How can it go one once the conniving Sian Phillips is out of the picture? But it never falters.
I've seen this series get flogged a bit for staying in flimsy, wobbly sets. I actually think I, Claudius has some pretty excellent sets with high production values, clever use of ceilings, authentic look dressing, etc. It's true when it's wartime, for example, we never see the battles; the camera never goes there. It's all kept off-screen. And yeah, I'm sure it was never in their budget to see hundreds of armor-clad extras charging down hillsides at each other waving swords. But that's not a short-coming. I, Claudius is about the ruling aristocracy, not the poor citizenry that toiled under them. I expect a one main reason people think of this film looking cheaper is that we've never been given the opportunity to see it not looking like mud.
I, Claudius has been released on DVD a couple of times over the years. We first had it early from Image, who technically released it twice: first as a 5-disc set on single layer DVDs, and then again shortly after as a 3-disc set of dual-layer discs. These are essentially identical releases apart from that change, and I've got the original 5-discer here for our comparison. I'm surprised, by the way, to see my spellcheck here accept "discer" as a word. Anyway, it was released in a fancier 5-disc boxed edition by the UK's BBC in 2002. This had some additional extras and a new transfer. Then most recently, in 2008, Acorn issued a new USA 35th Anniversary Edition. How do they all compare? I'm glad you asked!
Image on top; BBC mid; Acorn on bottom.
Now, admittedly, I mentioned hopes of a blu-ray earlier (and I do hold those out), but it would be wrong to expect I, Claudius to look beautiful. Like most BBC productions of this era, it was shot on tape, not film. It can never be made to look like The Wizard of Oz. But I think it could look better than this. Subtle improvements have been made, particularly in the jump from Image to the BBC release; and maybe I'm wrong, but I think we could do better. But putting aside what could be, let's look at what actually is.

The old Image disc is the weakling of the bunch. A bit on the red side, low contrast, and I'm not sure if it's a compression problem with the old discs or if the newer versions have been artificially sharpened (some tools like that have definitely been overused on them anyway), but the Image is softer than the later releases. Perhaps more significantly, the BBC and Acorn discs have a little more picture on all four sides. And while there's no fancy 5.1 lossless mixes anywhere to be had, the audio has been perked and cleared up post-Image. For that matter, if you need or desire subtitles,

The differences between the BBC and Acorn discs are much slimmer. One is NTSC and one is PAL; that's about it. I think you could safely summarize that Acorn basically just brought the better BBC set over to the states. And that almost applies to the extras as well.
Both Image sets and both of the later ones all include the feature length documentary The Epic That Never Was. Interestingly, this documentary is not about I, Claudius at all. It's a black and white BBC doc from the 60s about an older film version of I, Claudius that was attempted in the 1930s but never completed. If you enjoy these recent films about other films that were never made, like The Death of Superman Lives or Jodorowsky's Dune, this is like those, but maybe a little dryer. If you were looking forward to learning about I, Claudius, however; this was probably a disappointment.

That's all the Image releases had, but the BBC introduced a whole bunch more. Firstly, there's another feature length documentary, I, Claudius: A Television Epic, made for the BBC DVD in 2002, which like its title implies, actually is about I, Claudius this time. Director Herbert Wise, Derek Jacobi, George Baker and more share their experiences. It's pretty much what most of us probably assumed The Epic That Never Was was before we watched it. Then there's also a 37-minute featurette where the cast talk about their favorite scenes from the series. There's an extended scene that was shot but clipped from the series, and the alternate ends to the edited episodes.

Okay, yeah, let's talk about those.
So the series was originally twelve episodes long. But when it was initially broadcast in America, they decided to re-cut the episodes to 13, presumably so they could add more commercials or something. They didn't make any substantial changes to the episodes, just changed where the first couple begin and end. And if you're a completist, you can watch those altered openings and bits in the newer sets extras. But basically, yeah, the series should be twelve episodes; but if you're watching it in thirteen, you're not missing out on anything.

And as far as missing out on stuff in terms of censorship cuts, you're pretty safe. There's plenty of talk online of broadcast episodes being cut (there's murder and even some toplessness going on in this series) but all of these DVD sets are uncut. No worries on that account.
But wait! There's more! All those extras I just described as being on the BBC set are also on acorn's Anniversary set. Good news for Americans who never went Region Free. But there is also another little short extra they didn't import over, an 8 minute collection of clips of award speeches given when this series won so many awards in the 70s. Hardly essential, but still a nice little extra.

And inversely, Acorn came up with their own short extra: a 12-minute extract from a contemporary interview with Derek Jacobi, where he talks more about his journey as an actor than I, Claudius (although he does mention it briefly), but it's still interesting. Like the Awards bit, it's nice to have but not exactly worth running out and double dipping for on its own. The Image and Acorn sets also came with inserts.
So, there it is. Although they may not look too dissimilar, there is a good deal of improvement over the Image sets all told. Between the BBC and Acorn set, though? I've read a few things praising the 35th Anniversary as a bit of a revelation, but it's pretty much just the BBC disc brought over to NTSC with a few alterations. So, as far as which between the two is preferable, it's pretty much which of the short extras you find preferable, or if PAL bugs you. You may as well just choose by convenience, which is easier or cheaper to pick up. Don't double-dip, though; it's really not worth it and you're gonna be disappointed by the slim new extras. If you've still got the Image discs, though, that's a different story.

Frankly, however, they're all old and look kinda shabby, even considering the nature of the source materials. Next year is the 40th Anniversary of I, Claudius, and I'd love to see a one of these labels tackle a blu-ray and see just what can be done with a fresh scan and modern technology. And they could combine those last little extras, just to be satisfyingly definitive. It's a pretty important work after all.

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