by Allan Fish
(UK 1969-1970 452m) DVD2
What did you expect, wit?
p David Croft, Sydney Lotterby d David Croft w Talbot Rothwell, Sid Colin
Frankie Howerd (Lurcio), Elizabeth Larner (Ammonia), Kerry Gardner (Nausius), Jeanne Mockford (Senna the soothsayer), Max Adrian (Ludicrus Sextus), Wallas Eaton (Ludicrus Sextus), Georgina Moon (Erotica), William Rushton (Plautus), Valerie Leon, John Cater, Lindsay Duncan, Barbara Windsor, Mollie Sugden, George Baker, Jean Kent,
Borne out of many different sources, it’s believed that Up Pompeii was a direct result of Frankie Howerd’s star turn replacing Zero Mostel for the London run of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. There’s Plautus in there, too, the legendary Roman farceur of the 2nd century BC. It’s now forty years since it first aired, in the form of a Comedy Playhouse pilot in late 1969. There were a few changes prior to its first series early the following year, and it was quickly followed by another before the year was out, but with Max Adrian replaced by Wallas Eaton (who’d played a small part in the first series) as Ludicrus Sextus. It’s also easy to forget, in light of the much more frequently seen film version, how much superior the TV series were. Indeed, who would have thought Dad’s Army and Porridge were up to much if judged by their movie spin-offs. The film of Up Pompeii was a shambles, relishing the added opportunities for nudity but completely lacking in humour.
Essentially, Up Pompeii is set in and around the Pompeiian home of the said Ludicrus Sextus, an ageing senator with the first signs of senility, and his over-sexed and frequently unfaithful wife, Ammonia. With them live their son, Nausius, a feeble, camp wimp of a thing, who falls in love like most people fall into slumber, writes terrible odes to each of them with opportunities for filthy final lines which his inability to find a rhyme foregoes, and daughter Erotica, whose name says it all (“sweet child, so frightfully chaste” murmurs her father, “yes, and so easily caught up with” replies Lurcio), and who takes after her mother, with a fondness for gladiators. To the whole family, sage, slave and all-round put-upon, is Lurcio, the Plautean narrator who tries to tell a classical story to the audience in the form of his never-completed prologues, only to be interrupted by a soothsayer with her tales of woe, woe and thrice woe. Then, just as he gets the main plot sorted and settles down to finish the said prologue, Senna comes back to warn of the impending end and Lurcio makes his goodbye and totters off down the forum.
Most of the jokes can be seen coming; indeed, many of them are repeated and done to death. It’s lowbrow stuff as one might expect from the writer of the Carry on films, but ninety percent of the humour comes not from the script, though there are numerous choice titbits, but from Howerd’s mastery of that increasingly rare breed of comedy, audience participation, the lack of which would always doom the film to failure. Not in the stand up sense of the word, but the almost ad-libbing style (most of them were of course painfully rehearsed) of its imperishable star. You can forget everything else of Howerd preserved on screen, the painful movie spin-offs (including two Carry ons), and numerous other reworkings of Pompeii, this remains his magnum opus. A classic of vulgar, guttural, naughty-but-British humour, with everything thrown in but the Roman baths, from assassinations to love potions, apothecaries to orgies, and cameos from stars both old (such as Jean Kent as a local lusty matron) and young (Valerie Leon as a buxom slave and a seriously young Lindsay Duncan as Scrubba in the 1975 reprise Further Up Pompeii). It’s pure corn, but it’s impossible not to smile thinking of Howerd’s delivery of such lines as “that is why they made me majordomo…I said domo…let us have no misunderstandings”, “do not adjust your set, there is a fault in the script”, the priceless tale of the Pubic Wars and his description of Pompeii (“imagine Italy is the shape of a woman’s leg. Well, Pompeii is situated not quite high enough to be interesting”) and, best of all, “there will now be a collection for the tired-out scriptwriters.” True, it’s not Oscar Wilde, but as Lurcio himself would say, “you’d get none of this in your Harold Pinter.” Now where were we? Oh yes, the prologue…