Sunday, 28 November 2010

I, Claudius: Augustus (radio adaptation)

BBC Radio 4 have just started a brand new radio adaptation of Robert Graves' I, Claudius, confusingly but brilliantly starring Derek Jacobi as Augustus. It co-stars Harriet Walter as Livia, who has just the right maliciously dripping tones for Graves' interpretation of Livia as poison-tongued serial muderess, and Tim McInnerny as Tiberius, a gruffer, more evil Captain Darling. Claudius is played by Tom Goodman-Hill, who is very good but sounds unnervingly like the young Derek Jacobi. Comparisons to the TV series are somewhat unfair, since this is a fresh adaptation of the novel and should be judged on its own merits, but I'm afraid they are also inevitable, and I'm going to proceed to compare them directly, repeatedly, for the next six weeks!

(My posts on the television series also cover the plot in detail, so I won't describe the plot too much here).

The television adaptation usually dispensed with Claudius' famous stammer for the narrative sections, since these are written, not spoken. Interestingly, the radio series chooses to include the stammer at all times, albeit in a milder form for the narration. There are advantages to this, since, without being able to see Claudius writing, hearing him speak as if in an interview or conversation is more effective and easier to follow. On the other hand, aside from slowing down the narration a bit, it does make it less clear when Claudius is writing and when he is speaking, which may become awkward later.

The Sibyl's prophecy which opens the book is well done. One of the conceits of the book is that her prophecy is genuine, and this interpretation walks a fine line between depicting her state of ecstasy through stilted delivery, but also giving it a strange, unearthly echo which could be an ancient special effect, or could be a sign of something genuinely spooky going on.

After the Sibyl's scene we get into the main flashback and the story proper. The series has chosen an interesting selection of incidents to highlight. It goes back much further than the television adaptation did, showing us Livia's divorce from her first husband and going into much more detail concerning her marital relationship with Augustus, even referring briefly to the civil war between Augustus and Antony which is already over by the time the television adaptation kicks in. Like the source novel, the radio adaptation embraces Suetonius' rather salacious, gossipy suggestion that the reason Augustus and Livia had no children together was because Augustus couldn't get it up for her, which is, of course, possible, but it seems to me there are other equally, even more likely, possibilities (they may have married for reasons not relating to wanting to sleep together, or they may have had perfecty healthy marital relations and just not been a good match, fertility-wise).

On the other hand, the series then skips ahead in leaps and bounds and covers two to three hours of TV material in 45 minutes (though this is, of course, necessary in a six-hour radio adaptation). Marcellus is introduced and killed in the same sentence and before half an hour has passed we've reached Drusus' death and Claudius' youth. Julia is missing a son, as well. None of the missing or skimmed over scenes are desperately missed, though there is a bit of an overall effect of temporal whiplash simply from moving through so many years so quickly. This adaptation does, however, include some really nice scenes from the novel which didn't make it onto the TV, especially Augustus' cautious questioning concerning Julia's fate after her banishment - though Livia's use of a powerful aphrodisiac to drive Julia to her bad behaviour in the first place is positively mythical.

We also hear a lot more scenes from the novel which describe Claudius' youth and his own private life, his education and childhood friends. This, I think, is the key to the differences in the adaptations. The TV series was a massive, epic production with a huge cast of theatrical big-hitters all doing their thing and taking thirteen hours to tell all their stories. The radio series has no less impressive a cast, but quite apart from having only six hours to tell its story, because radio is not a medium that lends itself to large, epic casts and sprawling stories, it needs to tell a more intimate tale. So the radio series focuses itself as much as possible on Claudius himself and on his personal story, telling as much of everyone else's story as is necessary but always bringing it back to the person of Claudius. This is an effective strategy, and its nice to hear so much of the detail of Claudius' childhood, especially his tragic betrothal to a girl called Camilla and the full horror of his later betrothal to his wife Urgulanilla.

As with almost all BBC adaptations, this is extremely faithful to its source material (BBC adaptations cut all sorts of things for time, but very rarely make substantial changes to the scenes they do include). It's a highly enjoyable adaptation and the actors are uniformly excellent. This first episode perhaps condenses a little too much into one short hour, and might have benefitted from following the TV adaptation's example and picking a slightly later starting point, but it isn't a huge problem, and future episodes will be able to cover Claudius' youth and adulthood in more detail.


  1. I think you lose something by having narrative Claudius stutter, even slightly. Having the two versions speak differently highlights the that Claudius the stammering fool conceals a very intelligent and eloquent man. That puts us more on his side when all of his relatives mock and disdain him; we know what he's really like. If narrative Claudius also stammers, it becomes easier to agree with his detractors.

  2. I can see what you mean - particularly on radio, that could be a neat way to divide the two aspects of Claudius' character. But I think I might be a bit worried about the implication that stammering equates to a lack of intelligence, which obviously isn't true!

  3. Great recap Juliette. I have not heard this version yet. I must track it down!

    @DemetriosX - speak for yourself! Stammering, whether in narrative or not should never make it easier to agree with people who mock others' impediments.

    Kind Regards

  4. @H Niyazi - I'm not saying it's right. It's just that having narrative Claudius stammer just as much as much as dialogue Claudius detracts from the realization that Clau-clau-claudius isn't who he really is. In fact, later on during the end of Tiberius' reign and especially during Caligula's becomes vitally important to the story, as he uses "poor old Clau-clau" as a way to present himself as harmless. You lose a lot of that if the listeners can't distinguish between the two personae.

  5. I hear what you are saying DemetriosX!

    Would you believe the day after I wrote the above comment I attended a conference where one of the presenters had a mild-moderate stammer.

    I'm a health professional, and the room was full of colleagues used to working with people with various difficulties, but I must admit as the stammer became more prominent, the presenter seemed to be talking faster and delivering his points less clearly.

    I can see how it would be challenging for any writer, dramatist or actor to deliver a staccato-interrupted speech in a manner that does not disrupt the fluidity of the meaning being delivered alongside it


  6. I remember seeing the television series for the first time many years ago, and being mesmerised by it. Especially the sex! (Well, implied sex, and bared breasts! On television! Woohoo! Ah, simpler days...)


    Have just downloaded the first chapter of the radio series from the BBC iPlayer, and will be giving it a listen. I don't know how anyone can improve on the original cast -- especially the deliciously evil Siân Philips as Livia, and John Hurt as Caligula -- but, hey, if Derek Jacobi's in it, I'm listening.

    One of the more interesting things I learned -- having been inspired by the series to read both Graves and Suetonius, as well as a bit of period history -- was that Brian Blessed, blessed though he may be, was completely miscast as Augustus, who was, I gather, a rather scrawny little twerp, much more like Roddy McDowell in Cleopatra than the big, blustery Blessed.

    The advantage of radio, of course, being that I can try to visualise them any way I like -- but I'm afraid I'm very likely to only be able to see the television cast in my head....

  7. Blessed may be a bit bigger than Augustus was, but I thought he was perfect casting - his performance is fantastic! And he can create that big personality that really gets across how much he is holding everything together and how compeltely it all starts to fall apart after he's gone.

  8. In an audio play version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the narrator (Raoul Duke) was played by Harry Dean Stanton while the dramatic Raoul Duke was played by Jim fine effect.

  9. Oh, I agree that Blessed was awesome -- I only meant he was miscast physically. Well, he may well have been miscast personality-wise as well, who knows? But I completely agree -- Brian Blessed is always fantastic, regardless. (Though the most recent episode of The Now Show did take the mickey over his role in Flash Gordon. But he was probably still awesome, even when being ridiculous.)

  10. Yeah, that's true. What baffled me in Rome was that they had a really good Octavian who was fairly slim and physically right as well as brilliant, and replaced him with someone much less Octavian-like - that was so annoying! (It may have been to do with the sort of material he had to perform, but they'd already had incest in series 1, and they could have used the Taxi Driver trick of having an older double for certain scenes - anyway, more on that when I get that far in Rome!)


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