If the old adage is anything to go by, then apparently comedy equals tragedy plus time. Not all sitcoms have been based in middle class, suburban domesticity; a great many have gone for far more diverse settings or locales, including a genre of historical sitcoms, providing a rich vein of humour which has on occasion been mined from some of the darker chapters of humanity’s past.
Take the Blackadder saga, for one, which culminated in one of the finest TV finales of all time, with all the horrors of the Great War as its backdrop. However, one popular era in which some comedy writers have based shows is that of the Roman Empire, with one of the most famous examples of this being the Frankie Howerd vehicle Up Pompeii!. More recently, ITV2 has delved into the period with Plebs, and even CBBC cocked a snook at the Romans as part of Horrible Histories.
It even warranted a spin-off film in 2019, Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans. Of course, the big screen’s also found lucre in them thar seven hills with productions such as Carry On Cleo, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Gladiatress, and Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. Yet, with so many illustrious films and TV shows in the pantheon of hysterical historicals, one which has perhaps got a tad lost along the Appian Way is a situation comedy which graced our screens between 1988 and 1990.
Step forward, Chelmsford 123. Devised, written by and also starring Jimmy Mulville and Rory McGrath, it took us back to the time of the Roman occupation of Britain, with the brand new Governor – Aulus Paulinus (Mulville) – being sent over with his weaselly brother-in-law Grasientus (Philip Pope) by Emperor Hadrian to take charge of the particularly damp and miserable Imperial outpost, far from the comforts of domus, after he incurred Hadrian’s displeasure.
Over the course of the two series, we saw the constant power games which went on between Aulus Paulinus and the leader of the local tribe, Badvoc (McGrath). While Chelmsford 123 had a DVD release back in 2011, and is available on both All 4 and BritBox, it still feels as though it has been rather unfairly overlooked. For example, it was the first commission by Hat Trick Productions, the prolific company which was jointly set up by Mulville and McGrath, alongside Denise O’Donoghue – amongst its output are such series as Father Ted, Drop The Dead Donkey, Have I Got News For You, and Derry Girls, to name but a few.
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Now an astonishing archaeological feat of epic proportions has been accomplished, excavating Chelmsford 123, and giving it a completely new lease of life on audio by Hat Trick, in conjunction with Spiteful Puppet. Mulville and McGrath have revisited four of their original TV scripts – ‘Arrivederci Roma’; ‘What’s Your Poison?’; ‘One For The Road’; and ‘Heads You Lose’ – for this revival, which is available as either digital download or a collector’s edition CD set.
Spiteful Puppet have shown themselves to be not only a safe, but also more than capable, set of hands to handle a prestige project such as this, as they have already managed to be the accomplished legacy holders for other television properties on audio, such as Robin Of Sherwood and Up Pompeii!. For them to effectively be handed the keys for a further piece of our TV heritage is another feather in an already impressively festooned cap, and they should feel rightly proud for pulling off such a coup, enhancing their reputation even more.
In addition to Mulville, McGrath and Pope all coming back in their roles, Spiteful Puppet has managed to snag Neil Pearson to return as Badvoc’s second-in-command, Mungo, adding even more kudos and weight to this production. As Howard Lew Lewis is sadly no longer with us, the part of Blag – as the tribe’s resident idiot-in-chief – is more than capably filled by Pope, and you would scarcely believe Lewis was not behind the mic. Barnaby Eaton-Jones does a phenomenal job replacing the redoubtable Geoffrey McGivern as Wolfsbane, the local medicine man.
Adding to an already impressive roster is Paterson Joseph as Functio, the First Officer to the Governor. Alongside his list of dramatic roles, in programmes like Casualty, Survivors, Timeless, and Law & Order: UK, Joseph’s lighter side can be seen in his appearances on That Mitchell And Webb Look, as well as his legendary turn as Alan Johnson in Peep Show. His addition into the mix works wonderfully, and he manages to make the part of Functio his own, his performance pitched so perfectly. In fact, the entire cast – even down to the smallest supporting role – is just spot-on.
For anyone new to the series, these four episodes manage to introduce the audience to the premise of Chelmsford 123, by going back to the very beginning. Fans of the show will have a great deal to enjoy here too, as the episodes are not simply verbatim retreads of what was on TV, but have instead had a polish to make the already hilarious scripts even sharper, as well as making the most of the switch over to being on audio to be playful and deliver something distinctively different, in a medium which lacks the benefit of visual comedy, so it has to play to its many other strengths instead.
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A bit of extra flavour comes from the satirical references that are dotted around the episodes, with sly digs made at Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic, which makes the scripts feel fresh, and shows the care and effort taken in updating them. Add to this a sprinkling of very colourful Anglo-Saxon words, with every single expletive deployed with pinpoint accuracy. You might think that the transfer to audio and the absence of a laughter track might hamper Chelmsford 123, but it not only holds its own in this new format, it works very well and actively thrives.
For Chelmsford 123, the tragedy was its being sidelined over time, but now we have comedy gold in abundance. Spiteful Puppet and Hat Trick jointly deserve to have a real winner on their hands, and we can only hope there will be many more return visits to the Essex of AD 123. They came, they swore, they conquered.
Chelmsford 123 (Series 1) is out now on CD or Digital Download from Spiteful Puppet & Hat Trick Productions.