Brilliant is often a misused word, but the splendid performances of Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Sian Phillips as Livia -- as deft with flattery and blackmail as with her vials of poison -- are flawless.
A fiendishly sophisticated concoction of Roman history, political intrigues, murderous ambitions and consuming passions. In this BBC/London Film Productions venture, they add up to fascinating spectacle and perhaps, with fitting perversity, great fun.
Those sets, those costumes -- they all scream "TV budget." But you'd be surprised how immediate those studio cameras make these performances feel, as if they were being beamed live straight into your living room.
No crowds are visible, which makes everything feel a bit like a school play. But that claustrophobia sometimes creates amazing intensity, with richly textured drama expressed through dialogue and subtle performance alone.
Though it may actually defy basic properties and capabilities of the medium, this latest import to march under the Masterpiece Theater banner proves immensely, compulsively watchable. It's so good it's a little embarrassing.
The highbrows can enjoy the history and the literati can feast on Jack Pulman's witty dialogue, while there's more than enough treachery, bloodshed, and bare nipples to please those of more earthy tastes.
The show appeals (and continues to appeal) to us on many levels: the lust for power, the grandeur of Rome, and the mystery of who would or would not survive. It was an ancient Melrose Place and Desperate Housewives rolled into one.