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Up Pompeii! (1970)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Up Pompeii! (1970)
BBC, 30/3 - 19/10/1970
13 x 35 minutes episodes in two series, plus two specials
Producers includeDavid Croft
 Sydney Lotterby
ScriptTalbot Rothwell
 Sid Colin

Cast: Frankie Howerd (Lurcio); Max Adrian, Wallas Eaton, Mark Dignam (Ludicrus Sextus); Ruth Harrison (Cassandra); Georgina Moon, Jennifer Lonsdale (Erotica); Elizabeth Larner (Ammonia); Jeanne Mockford (Senna); Kerry Gardner (Nausius); Walter Horsbrugh, William Rushton (Plautus)

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In ancient Rome, Lurcio, downtrodden slave of Ludicrus Sextus, attempts to relate the tales of the oversexed members of his master's household, while dealing with all manner of interruptions.

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The historical comedy show Up Pompeii! (BBC, 1970) was created by Carry On stalwart Talbot Rothwell, and its lineage is unmistakable. The series, about the daily life of Roman slave Lurcio (Frankie Howerd), was very loosely based on the US musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in which Howerd had starred on the London stage in 1963, but Rothwell's jokes and characters clearly owed more to his cinema work.

Each episode started with Howerd giving 'The Prologue', a rambling digression delivered to camera about some highly unlikely events taking place in Rome, complete with plenty of 'oohs' and 'aahs' in order to emphasise any particularly salacious revelations. The week's plot was then partially revealed in a spectacularly obscure prophecy by Senna the soothsayer (Jeanne Mockford), before she was ushered off stage by an increasingly irate Howerd.

It would be hard to describe Howerd's performance as acting in the traditional sense; his portrayal of Lurcio was little more than an extension of his own media persona. The fact that he also spent a good deal of each episode directly talking to the audience further blurred the line between performer and performance.

Regular characters included Lurcio's master, the senator Ludicrous Sextus (Max Adrian, later Wallas Eaton), his wife Ammonia (Elizabeth Larner) and their children Nausius (Kerry Gardner) and Erotica (Georgina Moon), all of whom were obsessed by sex. Their bawdy exploits were commented on by Howerd during asides, complete with awful puns, in a pastiche of the traditional Greek chorus.

Episodes ended where they started, with Howerd mugging shamelessly at the audience while urging them not to titter every time they laughed. 'Titter ye not', with the emphasis firmly on the 'tit', quickly became the programme's catchphrase. Up Pompeii! rarely aspired to subtlety, and its humour never strayed outside the bounds of tempered innuendo.

The series was a huge hit, despite only managing two seasons, and transferred in 1971 to the big screen (d. Bob Kellett), in which Lurcio helps foil an attempt on the life of Emperor Nero (Patrick Cargill). There was also a 45-minute Easter special, Further Up Pompeii (BBC, tx. 31/3/1975) and an attempt to revive the show in 1991 by ITV, also entitled Further Up Pompeii (tx. 14/12/1991). Unfortunately, this failed to recapture the original's ribald charms and the proposed series never entered production.

Anthony Clark

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Video Clips
1. Ammonia's entrance (2:32)
2. 'Family reunion' (3:18)
Howerd, Frankie (1917-1992)
Rothwell, Talbot (1916-1981)
Rushton, William (1937-1996)