updated: 06/12/2005

old-age: I, Claudius

Two of the key women in Claudius’s life were his grandmother Livia (Siân Phillips) and his mother Antonia (Margaret Tyzack) both of whom were portrayed into their old age in this twelve part epic mini-series from 1976. Siân Phillips dominated the first six episodes with her memorable portrayal of the evil matriarch of the family whose family business was to rule the world and who ended her life wishing to be made a god so that she would not be punished in the after-life for her many murders.

Pam Meager was credited as makeup artist; Christopher Tucker designed the special makeups. Images of Siân’s makeup application are on a separate page.

Although this was one of the BBC’s most prestigious period dramas and followed the characters for more than fifty years there was very little pre-production time for the makeup. Christopher Tucker did the initial life-casts while he was still working on Star Wars and when filming started he was simultaneously working on The Hunchback of Notre Dame for a BBC/NBC co-production! The workload was heavy with around five key characters to age in each episode, sometimes visibly ageing during an episode (eg Livia in episode 3). The pace of production was hectic with each episode shot in less two weeks. In the midst of this they were ‘making designs up as they went along’. In the circumstances it is inevitable that the constraints would show (especially with DVD quality images on today’s large screen televisions): the edges of Siân’s prosthetics are clearly visible in some images of Livia; the polo-neck problem is also clearly noticeable when older characters turn their head; and the progressive ageing makeups reveal the make-her-older-than-last-week imperative.

I am not criticising Christopher Tucker’s considerable skills (his achievement was remarkable) but simply pointing out that the end product we see on the screen is a result of many factors including the budget, the preparation time, production constraints, the demands of the director/producers for a particular type of look; sudden changes of plan (‘why don't we do a close-up of that?’); the willingness (or unwillingness) of an actress to look like that or to undergo the discomfort of prosthetics. The skill of the makeup artist is essential to a good makeup but it is not always sufficient.

For those who want to know more about the background – but not enough to want to actually read Suetonius, Dio Cassius or Tacitus – there is the wonderful I, Claudius Project which analyses each episode to determine what is supported by Robert Graves’s novels and/or the ancient evidence.