Ah, yes, I, Claudius. It’s always the one everyone wants to hear about , of course. (Though, personally, I feel my finest moment was that cameo in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but people never do seem to know that was me). It must have been such a privilege, they say, but then, they never worked for the BBC, did they?
Well, it wasn’t all that glamorous, I can tell you. I, Claudius, ha! More like I, Crawldius. I did all my own stunts, and if I shed one skin slithering over those tiles, I must have shed a dozen, and what did I get at the end of it? A few dead mice and not so much as a good morning out of Sir Derek. Oh, no, even though we were the only two to make it through every episode, I might as well not have been there as far as he was concerned. You wouldn’t have caught me putting on such diva-like airs. And, let’s be honest, who was the real star of the show – who was the first character the audience saw each week? Moi, that’s who. I mean, they called it I, Claudius, but I think we all know what it was really about on a deeper level: the unending struggles of one snake against a world of cruel Roman tiles.
They don’t even let you have your own dressing room, not if you happen to be a snake. You have to take your chances curling up in the handiest corner of the set and then guess who gets blamed the moment an extra stumbles over you and runs away shrieking? The indignity of it doesn’t bear thinking about.
And as for working with humans – well, I don’t know how they have the nerve to claim you must never work with children or animals when your average human actor is a complete nightmare. Of course, in studio, it’s all oh, darling, you were wonderful, and then when you’re curled up in Patrick’s dressing room, you hear it all: Herbert’s given all the best scenes to Siân; and Brian’s marvellous, of course, would never say a word against him, but a bit too loud, don’t you think? They only got him because they couldn’t afford Anthony Quayle. And: don’t mention this to anyone else, but don’t you think John’s getting a little too into the part? He calls it method acting, but I don’t know…
If a snake could afford lawyers, the tales I could tell, you wouldn’t believe! And humans have the nerve to label innocent serpents like me as deceitful.
And then there’s the pay, or the lack of it. Of course, that’s the BBC for you. Never were at the front of the queue when it came to handing out money. I don’t know what my handler got, but all I got out of it was a couple of dead rodents. Not exactly inspiring, is it?
What’s more, whatever you heard, the rumours aren’t true: I never bit anyone! I’m the nicest snake you could hope to come across off-screen. It’s like they say about all the great screen villains – I’m just a big softie at heart. Cold-blooded but warm-hearted, that’s how it goes with me. I’m my own worst enemy.
At the end of the day, though, the money’s not what you do it for, is it? The show must go on and all that. And I have to admit that to this day I do get a thrill of nostalgia every time I see a mosaic tile. It’s not every serpent that gets to head up a TV legend. Most of my friends have never got further than providing ten seconds of cheap thrills for the latest horror movie, or just second adder to the left in the snake pit, so you can’t complain, can you?
I just wish dear Derek would call sometimes, or write once in a while. As you get older you like to reminisce about the good old days, but there it is – that’s humans for you. A postcard here and there, even just a tweet – is that too much to ask?