1 9 6 9 – 1 9 7 0 (UK)
13 x 30 minute episodes
Ooo-er, missus! Despite his many successes as a stand-up comic, both in his own series and as a guest in variety shows, it is with this relatively short-running comedy that Frankie Howerd made his greatest impact upon the British public, a sitcom in which he was cast as a Roman slave serving in Pompeii.
The series owed a huge debt to the Burt Shevelove/Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, in which Frankie Howerd had played two roles (Prologus and Pseudolus) during its highly successful London stage run from October 1963.
Up Pompeii! – very loosely based on the 2000-year-old writings of Plautus, and featuring jokes far older – was written by Talbot Rothwell, a veteran of the industry who had scripted for Norman Wisdom, Terry-Thomas (How Do You View?), Arthur Askey and Ted Ray, but who, more tellingly, was one of the major writers of the Carry On film series.
Radio Times, indeed, correctly labelled the Up Pompeii! pilot as ‘A sort of “Carry On Up The Forum.”’
Lurcio was the slave for Ludicrus Sextus, a government senator, and his busty wife Ammonia, and every episode embroiled him as the innocent pawn in a complex plot that threatened his easy-going lifestyle, his job or even his life, although all would be happily resolved at the end of each story, with Lurcio usually escaping his fate by the skin of his teeth.
Unlike virtually every other sitcom ever made, however, the storylines were never the essence of this series – Up Pompeii! was a purpose-built vehicle for Frankie Howerd’s distinctive stage-honed comedic style, giving him every opportunity to share confidences with the audience (both in the studio and at home) via constant asides, usually commenting on the improbability of the plot and the standard of the acting or writing.
In so doing, Howerd constantly stepped in and out of both his character and the time-frame – this, of course, made a mockery of the premise, but viewers did not care a jot, since this was what they wanted and expected from him.
Similarly, there was no elaborate location filming – the architectural glories of Pompeii were reproduced as a single polystyrene set in the BBC’s studio in Shepherd’s Bush, a fact that Lurcio was more than happy to point out!
The scripts were laden down with Carry On-style double entendres, awful puns and generally broad humour. In addition to the regulars, Up Pompeii! gloried in a visiting cast that changed with every episode, and these character names reveal all about the series’ level and focus of wit – Ambi Dextrus, Bilius, Bumshus, Caushus, Daili, Felonius, Filfia, Hernia, Hidius, James Bondus, Pussus Galoria, Lecherous, Preshus, Lititia, Lusha, Mucas, Nefarius, Nubian, Nymphia, Odius, Oilus, Pitius, Ponderous, Scrophulus, Soppia, Spurios, Stovus Primus, Tarta, Tittia, Twiggia, Verminus and Virginia.
Despite or perhaps because of this ‘subtlety’, and Howerd’s unique style, the series worked a treat and became a huge hit, once again demonstrating Britons’ unending love for sexual innuendo and smut.
Celebrities of the day queued up to appear on the show. Barbara Windsor made a fleshy appearance as Nymphia and George Baker popped up as the slick James Bondus.
Following the 1969 pilot episode, both the resulting TV series were made in 1970 (the second was written by Rothwell with his regular collaborator Sid Colin, another Carry On alumni), and a feature film version, Up Pompeii (written by Sid Colin, directed by Bob Kellett), was released in 1971 with Michael Hordern in the role of Ludicrus and Barbara Murray as Ammonia.
Two further movies starring Howerd were inspired by the series but took the format into different periods of history (a similar style was employed years later with the Blackadder TV series): Up The Chastity Belt (director Bob Kellett, 1971, written by Sid Colin/Ray Galton/Alan Simpson), set during the crusades, with Howerd as the gormless serf Lurkalot; and Up The Front (Bob Kellett, 1972, written by Sid Colin/Eddie Braben), based in the First World War, with Howerd as gormless under-footman Lurk.
In 1973, back on the BBC, Howerd appeared in Whoops Baghdad, an Arabian Nights-style variation on Up Pompeii!, and – following a one-off Further Up Pompeii! special aired in 1975 – he tried to revive the formula again with the ITV programme A Touch Of The Casanovas.
The following year a four-part Australian TV series Up The Convicts (written by Hugh Stuckey) featured Howerd as ex-convict Jeremiah Shirk, who becomes the household help to Sir Montague and Lady Fitzgibbon in yet another twist on the original theme, and he also starred in a Canadian series, Oh Canada.
Max Adrian (1)
Wallas Eaton (2)
Senna the Soothsayer
Walter Horsbrugh (1)
William Rushton (2)
Vestal Virgins | The Ides of March | The Senator and the Asp | Britaniccus | The Actors | Spartacus | The Love Potion | The Legacy | Roman Holiday | James Bondus | The Peace Treaty | Nymphia | Exodus