Puritanical belief in predestination has fallen somewhat out of fashion in modern times, although some might argue that true free will is an illusion, even without an asshole God casting people into the fiery pits of hell without regard to their actual behaviour. Social media’s algorithms serve an infinite scroll of content trailing content into more content, sponsored by tailored ads that advise us that beautiful, intelligent, successful people who liked this shit also bought this crap; further you’re ugly and broken, and buying said crap will make you whole again. Even Government nudge units joined the act, encouraging dudes to pee on decals of flies and loftily sneering that everyone else had set up a direct debit for their Council Tax apart from you, so maybe you ought to sort it out.

And so with these inescapable influences that suggest, cajole and outright push us, there persists a school of thought that none of our choices are made independently. And if this is true, did I really choose I, Claudius from the iPlayer on a pure whim, or did the universe plan for me to return to this beloved teenage favourite by seeding piecemeal background hints for some years or even decades? 

I first heard about the show from a friend, who had watched a few episodes as part of a high school Roman Civ module. My interest was piqued when I discovered it featured one of my objets d’crush; namely, Patrick “Captain Picard” Stewart. And because I attended a Catholic high school where there was absolutely zero chance of watching anything that included nudity, even if they were historical knockers, I had to check out the video cassettes from the library. It undoubtedly made an impact on me back in the day, cementing a number of abiding teenage memories. It also fostered in me a great envy towards anyone with easy access to BBC dramas, since based on the star-studded cast, I assumed they mostly featured Royal Shakespeare Company stalwarts (I also wanted to believe that, although it was unlikely they all lived in the same house like the Beatles in Help!, it was possible they were all good friends).

It took me a few months to complete the series, because I was only allowed to borrow two video cassettes at a time and was dependent on parental lifts to the library. Years later, when devouring as much of Arrested Development as possible via the LoveFilm DVD rental system, I looked back smugly at the Stone Age of 1990s library media rental; truly these are the halcyon days, I thought, impressed by The Future’s convenience, particularly the ability to pause my groaning off-brand laptop to take in all the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it background jokes. 

Renting discs is positively quaint now that I have instant access to several subscription streaming services, as well as the iPlayer and terrestrial TV’s offerings. It’s convenient but not without its own problems – a plethora of content spread over various platforms and behind various paywalls, which can vanish overnight. Even though I am satisfied being a dilettante fan who doesn’t get every reference or deep-cut character (maybe it’s the geeky foundation Mystery Science Theatre 3000 instilled in me) and as such don’t even attempt to keep up with e.g. Star Wars or the MCU, I am having everything fatigue. When faced with this enormous selection, I will often pivot away from the new and have taken a lot of comfort in revisiting the known but hazily remembered quantity. I’ve always reread favourite books and make sure to spend some time every year in the Discworld to catch up with beloved characters and rediscover vaguely remembered plots, but lately I feel even more inclined to return to old material rather than try to pick something new. 

So why Claudius; why now? What influences signposted me to selecting it instead of an old Doctor Who story or Interior Design Masters with Alan Carr? Was it because during the first lockdown, I made the somewhat ill-advised decision to rewatch all 6 seasons of The Sopranos in a fairly short time frame (which I highly don’t recommend)? With hindsight (and Wikipedia), it’s obvious that Livia Soprano’s character was clearly influenced by, if not modelled on, Livia Drusilla, despite David Chase maintaining he created the character based on his actual mother, with some of her dialogue being allegedly verbatim quotes.

Was I further influenced by my somewhat reluctant obsession with Succession, a show that initially brought me in for the comedy, but by the final season I was actively dreading (and yet still watched)? The skullduggery inherent in bequeathing a corporate empire proved no less of a ballache than Julio-Claudian succession politics. Did it, in fact, go all the way back to watching the Roy’s exact same storyline played out by the hapless Bluth family over a decade ago? Or was it just as simple as the last Sleaford Mods album featuring a track called – you guessed it – “I Claudius”? (sample lyric: looks trustworthy / but when the guard’s down / it will sing / what’s fucking wrong with loving ya country / everything!)

But more importantly, would I, Claudius continue to enthral as it did during my initial teenage slow-burn binge, and were my Abiding Teenage Memories correct? Or would I misremember crucial scenes, like the wholly invented final scene of The Sopranos I apparently concocted? (No, the last scene is not Meadow sitting down and saying, “So what did I miss?” but this false memory was incredibly stubborn right up to the end, and I somewhat deludedly still kind of think that I saw a different episode and am therefore right). Further, would it stand the test of time? I, Claudius first aired four months after my own entrance into the world and in some ways has actually aged better than I, namely my tell-tale hands, which already qualify for the Basic State pension.

The answer is, somewhat predictably, both yes and no. Here we have a rare example of something being exactly as lousy as it is brilliant, for a host of reasons. 

It’s not entirely fair to judge a 1970s production on today’s technology or the values embedded in it from a text written in the 1930s. But I will. And because I badly need distraction from the planned political hellscape of 2024, I invite you to join me on this hokey-ass rediscovery of a classic TV series. I’ll be dissecting, over-analysing and making tenuous connections with all 13 episodes, starting with A Touch of Murder (nice).  Ab antiquis ad absurdum!