Benjamin Svetkey
September 29, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Patricide, fratricide, infanticide, incest, insanity — now that’s entertainment. Since its release last month on DVD, I, Claudius has been almost impossible to find in stores (even review copies have been scarce). Not surprising, since this 13-part miniseries set in ancient Rome — produced by the BBC and first aired in America on PBS in 1977 — may be the most addictive soap opera ever made. Certainly the best acted, with early career-making performances by John Hurt as the deliciously loony Caligula, Patrick Stewart (with hair) as evil henchman Sejanus, and Sian Phillips as the murderous matriarch Livia (a name, not incidentally, shared by the matriarch of another ruthless Italian family — Nancy Marchand’s character on The Sopranos). And, of course, there’s Derek Jacobi’s limping, stuttering Claudius, the seeming half-wit who survives three generations of deadly court intrigues to ultimately become one of Rome’s noblest emperors. There aren’t many extras on this three-disc release — no commentary from cast members or never-before-shown scenes — but it does include The Epic That Never Was, a rarely seen 1965 documentary about an ill-fated 1937 attempt to make a feature film version of I, Claudius (featuring lots of outtakes of Charles Laughton flubbing his lines). Even without many extras, though, this DVD set is divine, the ultimate toga party. Buy it immediately — if you can find it. A

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