The Prologue: It came to pass that, in the late 1960s, a series was to appear on the BBC, and take its place in the annals (ooh, now stop that, missus: I said annals) of TV sitcom history. Lewd, bawdy, and full of seaside postcard humour, it helped to cement Frankie Howerd’s place as a firm fixture on our screens, during his career resurgence.
Howerd had been appearing on stage in the West End production of comedy play A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and the BBC hit upon the notion of getting him to play a similar role in a sitcom set in the same era, during the reign of the Roman Empire. Writer Talbot Rothwell was approached to write a one-off for the BBC Comedy Playhouse series, with the possibility of being picked up for a full series if well-received.
Rothwell was an established writer, and he’d penned several Carry On films; one in particular – Carry On Cleo – showed he had prior experience doing comedy in the required period setting. The pilot episode – titled Up Pompeii! – aired in September 1969, and was a hit with viewers. A first series was transmitted early in 1970, and a second followed later that year. Up to 12 million people followed the exploits of the slave Lurcio (as played by Howerd) every week before the series came to an end.
A special – Further Up Pompeii! – hit the airwaves in 1975, with another bearing the same name made by LWT in 1991, moving Lurcio’s story on two decades or so. The format seems to have turned out to be a winning formula for Howerd, as a film version of Up Pompeii! was released in 1971, with an unseen pilot for a US TV version – The Pompeii Way – being made the same year. It seems that things were almost toga’d to be true for Howerd (oh, please yerselves).
This was followed by two movie sequels (of sorts) – Up The Chastity Belt, and Up The Front. There also came to pass some similarly-formatted TV historical sitcoms – Whoops Baghdad, and Then Churchill Said To Me, as well as a very short-lived Australian show, Up The Convicts. All of these series shared very similar traits to Up Pompeii! – Howerd regularly doing fourth-wall breaking, plus a penchant for innuendos, with the writers regularly slipping one in, or whipping one out in front of your very eyes.
Howerd never managed to escape from Pompeii, and in 1988 he asked one of his writers – Miles Tredinnick – to work on a script for a theatrical version of the show, so he could reprise the role of Lurcio. The Fates, however, intervened in events, and Howerd ended up returning to the stage in a revival of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, in the part of Pseudolus, which is what had originally got him the gig in Up Pompeii! in the first place. As a result, Howerd was never to tread the boards as Lurcio, as he passed away in 1992, before the show could be staged.
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The play did eventually emerge in 2011, in an updated and revised version, and did a UK tour. However, with 2019 marking the 50th anniversary of the sitcom’s arrival, Tredinnick’s play script has been adapted for audio, by Barnaby Eaton-Jones, with Daniel McGachy and Iain McLaughlin, in a star-studded production by the company Spiteful Puppet, who’ve previously done an audio version of ITV drama Robin Of Sherwood, featuring the original TV cast (including Robins in both the Praed and Connery varieties).
Eaton-Jones also spearheaded the audio revival of The Goodies – which is itself 50 next year – for Audible, so there’s plenty of experience in handling some classic TV properties behind the scenes of this new Up Pompeii! production. Taking up the mantle of Lurcio is David Benson, who’s renowned for his one-man show about Kenneth Williams, as well as two separate performance pieces in which he played one Francis Howerd Esq., so he was the natural choice to don the toga (if not the ill-fitting wig) for this audio, thanks to his uncanny vocal impersonation.
The plot is your actual basic farce, with all manner of bedroom (and also bathroom in this case) related toings and froings, as well as froings and toings. As head slave of the household of the Senator Ludicrus Sextus (Frazer Hines) and wife Ammonia (Madeline Smith), he has to try and keep things under control as Ludicrus plans to have a dirty weekend with well-known nymphomaniac Suspenda (Cleo Rocos), while contriving to get Ammonia and daughter Erotica (Rosa Coduri) out of the way, as well as wet poet son Nausius (Jack Lane).
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However, an escaped slave girl, Voluptua (Camille Coduri), gets thrown into the mix here, as she seeks sanctuary at the Sextus household, with Lurcio trying to keep her away not only from the family as well as houseguest Suspenda, but also out of the clutches of wicked slave master Captain Treacherus (Tim Brooke-Taylor) and his incompetent henchman Kretinus (Eaton-Jones). Add to this portents of doom from soothsayer Senna (Jilly Breeze), as well as rivalry from fellow slave Corneous (Ben Perkins), and Lurcio certainly hasn’t got time to rest on his laurels.
The ensemble certainly works very well together, and they have enormous fun throughout – not only do they manage to throw themselves into their parts with great gusto, but you could see how well they all gel when they’re waiting for the next scenes featuring them, as they all have a laugh and keep each other very buoyant throughout, plus relishing the occasional slip-ups, mostly down to the script having some terribly tricky tongue-twisters to contend with, along with the odd miscued sound effect.
The cast for the most part certainly have the chops for doing this – both Hines and Camille Coduri have done audio work for the Big Finish Doctor Who range, and Madeline Smith worked with Howerd on the films of Up Pompeii! (as Erotica) and Up The Front. Brooke-Taylor has done a lot of radio work, most famously being a regular panellist on the long-running Radio 4 “antidote to panel games”, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, and Benson and Lane have worked together on a touring production, entitled Dad’s Army Radio Show.
All the anticipated smut is both present and (politically in)correct, with some of the jokes on show not just being merely near-the-knuckle, but more halfway up the forearm. Sophisticated comedy it is not, but if you’ve paid your filthy lucre, you know what you’re letting yourself in for. Benson holds things together here beautifully, and an unexpected treat for those present at the recording (but sadly lost on those buying the audio) was his reappearance after the interval in full Lurcio garb, ill-fitting wig included.
I’m not sure exactly how you manage to break the fourth wall on audio, but it’s something Benson does with aplomb. It’s nice to see the essentials of Up Pompeii! remain intact, with some concessions for our modern times in terms of references to MP3 players (in an aside made to the audience) and ‘slating’ (i.e. the Roman version of texting) being all the rage with young Pompeiians. It’s certainly a more welcome contemporary production of Up Pompeii! than the thankfully abortive TV version starring Miranda Hart as Lurcio would have likely been back in 2016.
It looks like it’ll be well worth listening to the finished version when it gets released later this month, so do yourself a favour and keep an eye out for this. You’re pretty much guaranteed an Appian ending.
Up Pompeii will be released on CD and download via Amazon, iTunes and spitefulpuppet.com on 29th November.