Classic TV Revisited: Up Pompeii

Written by Talbot Rothwell Up Pompeii starred Frankie Howerd and was a Roman romp in the finest tradition of British bawdiness — a sort of Carry On Up Your Toga.

When was it on?
Following a pilot on BBC1 in 1969, there were two series (one of seven episodes, the other of six) of Up Pompeii! in 1970. There was also a film version in 1971 and two one-off TV specials, both titled Further Up Pompeii!, in 1975 and 1991, the last one being on ITV.

Who were the principal characters?
Everything centred around slave Lurcio whose cushy lifestyle was at risk each week but who always somehow managed to extricate himself in the nick of time. Lurcio’s master was Ludicrus Sextus, a government minister, who had a bosomy wife, Ammonia, and two aptly-named offspring, Nausius and Erotica. The other regular was the wailing soothsayer Senna (as in pod). Among peripheral characters were Ambi Dextrus, Bilius, Hernia, Hidius, James Bondus, Lecherous, Odius, Preshus, Nymphia, Stovus Primus, Twiggia and Virginia.

Who were the star turns?
The show was a vehicle for Frankie Howerd who played Lurcio and brought to the part his trait of sharing confidences with the audience. He would even mock the polystyrene studio set designed to recapture the splendour of ancient Pompeii. Max Adrian (series one) and Wallas Eaton (series two) played Ludicrus with Elizabeth Larner as Ammonia, Kerry Gardner as Nausius, Jeanne Mockford as Senna and Georgina Moon as Erotica. Guests included William Rushton (as Plautus) and Barbara Windsor (as Nymphia). For the 1971 film, Michael Hordern played Ludicrus with Barbara Murray as Ammonia.

Who wrote it?
Talbot Rothwell, who scripted all the best Carry On films. For the second series he was partnered by Sid Colin, another Carry On stalwart.

How did it come about?
One of Frankie Howerd’s many resurgences of popularity — he used to say he had made more comebacks than Lazarus — came with his appearance in the 1960s musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Up Pompeii! carried on with the Roman theme and incorporated jokes which were even older. Francis himself told a different story. He said the idea came from two BBC executives who were in Pompeii and said, ‘Let’s do something about this place — apart from rebuilding it.’

Did Frankie Howard ad-lib alot?
Nay, nay and thrice nay. His rambling speeches may have looked as if he was making them up as he went along but every ‘oooh’, every grimace, every look of mock indignation, every aside to the audience was carefully rehearsed in advance. ‘Up Pompeii! is only an interrupted patter act — that’s the way I see it,’ said Howerd at the time. ‘I give ideas, but I don’t write the scripts. Other writers are so much better than I am. But I plan routines and photograph them mentally, like chapters in a book. The reason I don’t ad-lib often is because I’m not very good at it. You don’t ad-lib a Grieg piano concerto, do you? Or a gourmet meal? You plan them. If I can claim to be an actor at all, it’s because I give the impression of being spontaneous.’

Who watched it?
Over 12 million hung on to his every double entendre.

Any complaints?
Mary Whitehouse (now there’s a surprise) called it ‘sordid and cheap’ while even Howerd professed to be alarmed by the show’s vulgarity. In fact he took the unprecedented step of asking the BBC to cut out some of the innuendoes. ‘Some of the gags did make me blink a bit,’ he said. ‘I almost blushed.’ But the BBC assured him that historical comedies were bawdy rather than vulgar and refused to tone down the humour.

Any catchphrases?
Senna’s ‘Woe, woe, woe…’, plus countless specimens of ‘titter ye not’, ‘don’t mock the afflicted’ and ‘no, listen, missus’ from Lurcio to keep Frankie fans happy.

Any distant cousins?
There have been a fair few historical sit-coms — ‘Blackadder’, The Complete and Utter History of Britain, to name but two — but Chelmsford 123, set in AD 123 and starring Jimmy Mulville and Rory McGrath, was probably the closest in spirit.

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.