Skip to main content

Historic Dialog About HBO's 'I Claudius' Remake

Is “new” better? Or even worth the effort? On his Web videocast The TV News this week, Jeff Grimshaw harangued Home Box Office for daring (with BBC as co-producer) to remake I, Claudius, the ancient Rome toga/politics tale.

To Jeff, the 1976 BBC/Public Broadcasting Service 1976 version was ideal, and he “beseeches” HBO not to tinker with perfection.

Grimshaw’s screed unleashed a Facebook torrent of opinions (including mine), which spotlight social media at its best. Comments came from friends of friends who piped into the extended conversation. Jeff insists that the original cast (Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, Patrick Stewart, Siân Phillips, to name a few) could not be beat. Others point out that a new production could be a career launcher (as was the 1976 miniseries) for a next generation of stars.Moreover, today’s high-definition production techniques will make the story of villainy amongst the Roman ruling families even more visually compelling.

Of course, HBO standards and 21st-century mores will likely allow even more skin and scandals in the new production, akin to the top premium service’s Rome or Starz’ Spartacus. The executive producers of the new I, Claudius will be BBC creatives who performed similar roles for Rome.

As the fascinating online discussion revved up, Jeff defined his “no remake” argument by insisting that “we should try to develop new ideas instead of regurgitating those that have already been successfully developed.” As the chatter continued, participants dredged up commentary from British TV critics  and Roman history devotees . My friend Laura Weinstein, a former TV documentary filmmaker who now runs “Welcome to Rome” tourist service piped in that while there are “tons of great stories to tell” about historical Rome, the I Claudius remake could succeed on many levels.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” she asked, and then offered options. “1) the new version is good and gets more people, especially young people, interested in history and literature. 2) It sucks and all the reviews say ‘the original was better,’ in which case it drives people to the original.”

Weinstein pointed out that shows such as Spartacus did not generate more visitors for her Rome tours, but rather that the people who came to Rome seemed “more ‘engaged.’ They had an anchor.” She adds thoughtfully, “Pop culture can provide access to history.”

My own comments to Jeff supported the belief that each generation can and should re-imagine and create its own entertainment, not so much as “remakes” but rather as a new approach to a classic story. Often such versions flop, but many times the subsequent productions offer valuable views of the times in which they are made. Among my favorites in that litany is The Front Page, which was told so differently in 1931 (starring Pat O’Brien and Adolphe Menjou), in 1940 as His Girl Friday (with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell) and even in the 1974 version with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

Good for BBC and HBO for returning to the great story, based on Robert Graves’ novels. And good for social networks that encourage discussion - some might call it word-of-mouth promotion - about creative works in progress.

“Semper aliquid novi.”

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, MD, and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at