Zeus, by Jove!
Caligula’s short 4-year reign is often cited for the very worst excesses of the Roman emperors: rampant acts of murder, rape, incest, gluttony, and more. That reputation was strengthened for recent generations, thanks to the 1979 Tinto Brass-directed film, Caligula. Though filming began in early-August of 1976 (a month before I, Claudius premiered on the BBC), the salacious biopic suffered a much-delayed release. It certainly was not for lack of ’70s British film star power, with Malcolm McDowell as Caligula, Helen Mirren as his wife Caesonia, Peter O’Toole as Tiberius, and John Gielgud as Nerva. Yet, this infamous film is most remembered for its gratuitous gore (a giant mowing machine beheading a buried prisoner), nudity (dozens cavorting within Tiberius’ opulent sex grotto on Capri), and explicit sex — including acts that made the original cinematic cut (lesbian scenes shot and spliced in by producer Bob Guccione without the knowledge of his stars), and those which did not (Caligula successivly raping a wife and husband in front of their wedding party).
Three years earlier, I, Claudius writer Jack Pulman took a “less is more” approach with his deployment of nudity and gore, as described in a New York Times article about the series, published the day of its PBS premiere (November 6th 1977):
Wherever possible, Mr. Pulman noted, he has tried to give dramatic purpose to the necessary scenes of sex or violence — often to develop character — so that they would not be gratuitous. For example, a scene that shows how the mad Caligula has turned the palace into a brothel is turned into a device to underscore the humanity of Claudius. The orgy itself, the adapter points out, falls into the background of a situation in which Claudius helps the terrified young wife of a senator escape from being forced into prostitution.
Of the various orgies, Mr. Pulman said: “You’ve got to deal with them somehow or other in portraying life in ancient Rome. Here and there you see a naked breast, but in fact I think you see nothing that to a reasonably intelligent adult is offensive. You see people lying around and holding each other, people playing, and there is an atmosphere, an orgiastic atmosphere. But in fact you don’t see a detail. We let the viewer supply his imagination, which is quite right and proper, because in the end that’s not what’s important about the scene.”
Pulman further argued for the indispensability of sex and violence in dramatic television storytelling:
“It’s part of our lives, part of our drama for four hundred years. The problem is to deal with it not in a gratuitous way but in a dramatic way, in terms of the story. In many ways, it’s actually an advantage to try to get around an offensive scene, because if you are able to show it whole you don’t push your mind—your creative sense…. hard enough. When you use your Ingenuity to avoid showing what you have to, you can usually find dramatic bonuses in it.”
The dramatic bonuses Mr. Pulman speaks of may make the difference between a program that upsets and infuriates public television viewers around the country or one that, as the British say, goes down easily.
Even without going to the infamous lengths of 1979’s cinematic Caligula, depicting the notorious emperor’s various cruelties and perversions in a fashion that would “go down easily” on 1976 British television posed a challenge for both Pulman and the actor he was writing for. In the documentary, I, Claudius: A Television Epic, John Hurt recalls having to get approval from director Herbert Wise for his idea to play Caligula’s farewell dialogue with Livia while in bed together, rather than standing beside her:
Herbie was not at all sure about this, because this was at the time when it was almost not allowed to get into bed with your own wife. You know, you could sit on the bed, or sit by the bed, but you couldn’t be in bed. I think it was just post that, but it was still you had to be very careful on television.
That puritanical approach to showing intimacy didn’t extend to showing blood and gore — and Zeus, by Jove! is definitely the bloodiest and goriest I, Claudius episode. Yet, that stems from only two scenes.
The first involves the fate of Caligula’s young co-emperor, his cousin Gemellus. Plagued by a persistent cough, in part due to his gluttonous diet of pastries, the boy’s throat-clearing intensely annoys his increasingly insane relative — until Macro (who has already smothered Tiberius to death) is sent to relieve the youth of both his cough and his life. Soon after, Claudius is speaking with Caligula, when the Praetorian Guard commander appears in the throne room, holding high the bloody head of Gemellus for all to see.
The fact that Caligula gets away with this murder is partly due to the idiot-proof Praetorian-backed ruling apparatus that Sejanus put in place before his downfall. His successor, Macro, ensures that the new unhinged emperor gets full cooperation from the senate on even the most nonsensical orders — which Caligula immediately puts to the test by declaring himself the king of the gods, Zeus, and Drusilla as queen of the gods, Hera. This allowed the creative performer in Hurt to play up the dark comedy of a mad emperor who gets anything he wants… while the actor’s non-thespian mind warily observed the ramifications of unchecked royal power:
At the same time as being extremely funny as a concept, it’s extremely dangerous, too.
Watching Derek [Jacobi] try and deal with this as Claudius, and trying to be diplomatic, and know which way to go — because he had no idea which way Caligula could turn. Was he to like it? Was he to say, “This is ridiculous”? Was he to say, “This is a little over the top”? But, as always, Claudius chose to virtually worship him. So therefore, he got away with it.
Others suffer a very painful death. The amenable Drusilla goes along with her new divine title out of a worship-level love of Caligula (and hedonism in general), but doesn’t count on her husband believing so fully in their immortal transformation. When she becomes pregnant by him, a Zeus-costumed Caligula (reenacting a Greek myth that Claudius unintentionally inspires him with) disembowels Drusilla to extract their child (whom he views as a threat to his godly throne), and makes to consume it (in hopes of an Athena-like new child erupting from his head). Needless to say, series director Herbert Wise had to handle blocking for this scene very, very carefully:
When you consider now what you can get away with, I mean the way I shot all this was shot from behind. She was kind of strung up on a bed. She was naked. But I shot it all from behind, so you didn’t actually see what was happening.
You saw some blood on the face of Caligula, and then when Claudius opens the door, I never actually showed what he saw. Because the suggestion of what he saw was more powerful than the thing itself. But I’m afraid, it got (again, I use the word) butchered by some people who ought to have known better, and the scene now is somewhat attenuated.
In fact, more than a year before I, Claudius made its U.S. debut on PBS in 1977, the final moments of Zeus, by Jove! had already been edited — a fact addressed by series writer Pulman to The New York Times:
Mr. Pulman took exception to the BBC’s cutting his script for the scene’s finale, which was to have been a long shot showing the butchered woman hanging on a chariot after the “abortion.”
“I think that was a mistake,” he said, “because it left us with the horror of Caligula with blood on his beard and deprived us of the pity for that silly girl, his sister, who knew he was mad and played up to him without realizing until the end what he was going to do to her.” Mr. Pulman contended that the absence of pity diminished the meaning and import of the scene.
Instead, viewers are left with the sight of Claudius’ shocked expression telegraphing his realization of the larger danger posed by the madman whom Livia correctly dubbed “monster.” That danger will only grow in the next episode, as Caligula turns his sights on expanding his empire… and “battling” sea god, Neptune.