TV: UP POMPEII!

by Mark McKay (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #20, 1999)

pompeii“Greetings good citizens! The prologue. . . “ With these words Frankie Howerd, alias Lurcio the slave, welcomed television viewers to a bawdy weekly romp set in a world of slaves, senators, pimps, gladiators and orgies. Alas, his prologue was always destined to remain unfinished, as poor Lurcio was suddenly swept up in a convoluted plot liber­ally sprinkled with music-hall jokes and honest vulgarity.

Up Pompeii! was centred around the home of Lurcio’s master and mistress — the doddery, ineffectual Roman sena­tor Ludicrus Sextus, and his sexually hungry wife, Ammonia (in her younger days known to all as ‘Madeira’ , because she was a piece of cake). Their pretty teenage daughter, Erotica was thought by her father to be pure and chaste, but Lurcio was only too aware of her voracious appetite for muscular gladiators. Their son, Nausius was something of a disappointment — an effete, lovesick young poet, unable to translate his passion into action.

Even before the pilot programme was recorded in July 1969, Frankie was no stranger to Ancient Rome. In 1963 he starred in the London production of the Broadway smash hit musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, taking over the role Zero Mostel made famous on the other side of the Atlantic. The book of this star-studded spec-tacle (Kenneth Connor, Jon Pertwee, Robertson Hare and “Monsewer” Eddie Gray were all supporting players) was written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and based on the works of Plautus. Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254 – 184 BC) wrote many plays featuring conniving slaves who manage to extract their grateful masters from sticky situations, adopting various disguises and deceptions to win love or money. Adhering to this convention, Frankie appeared as the slave Pseudolus (from a Plautus play of the same name) who longs for his freedom. Frankie also introduced the show as Prologus, singing the Stephen Sondheim classic Comedy Tonight.

The idea to expand the Plautus stories into a television series came from the BBC TV Head of Comedy, Michael Mills, freshly returned from a holiday in Italy. He commissioned Carry On movie scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell to come up with a sample script. Tolly had recently written for Howerd (in the 1968 feature, Carry On Doctor) and with him specifi­cally in mind, turned out a broad, corny farce exposing the wickedness rife in the ancient city of Pompeii.

Although most of the character names Rothwell chose were Asterix-type comic concoctions, Lurcio actually appears in some translations of Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus, however many scholars believe ‘Lucrio’ is more likely. Also true to the original text was the use of confidential remarks and out-of-story ap­peals directed at the audience. In turn, Howerd was to take these a step further, reproaching audiences for being slow on the uptake, directing the dirtiest of looks in their direction when his ‘innocent’ remarks are misconstrued, and even admonishing cameramen for attempting to follow his amorous activities: “Oh yes! And where do you think you’re going?”

Opting for a pilot rather than launching into an entire se­ries was apparently Howerd’s wish. He was, not unnaturally, worried about the near-the-knuckle dialogue and sexy costumes, and so decided to test the water first. In the event, public and critical reaction was favourable, so the cast embarked on a series of seven episodes the following year. A toga-clad Frankie glared indignantly from the cover of the Radio Times, holding a platter of fruit. The caption summed up his attitude: “Peel your own grape, mate. A slave I may be, but I’ve still got my pride!”

For the series, Willy Rushton took over as the deceased Plautus, making sporadic appearances dictating to his celes­tial secretary: “Hear now the wise words of Plautus …“ Cassandra, the wailing soothsayer became Senna (“a silly old pod”) played by Frankie’s personal friend, Jeanne Mockford. Interrupting the prologue with a cry of “Woe, woe and thrice woe!”, she set the scene for each episode. prophesying doom and gloom upon the house of Ludicrus Sextus. In the fourth programme this concerns a military uprising in Britain: “Let slip the dogs of war. Only the blessed will escape their bloody fangs.” Lurcio: “Well. it’ll he no b1oody fangs to you. mate!” As Frankie would say, “What do you expect — wit?

Hot on the heels of the first series came a follow-up. This time Max Adrian, who had pIayed Ludicrus Sextus in the first eight episodes. was rep1aced by character actor Wallas Eaton (Eaton had already been seen in Up Pompeii! in a couple of minor roles). The senator’s change of appearance was explained away as being due to a face lift. Another new name on the credits was Sid Colin, who helped his long standing partner, Tolly Rothwell with the scripts.

The flippancy of Howerd’s performance is particularly refreshing. Whilst the other actors are seriously committed to the play, Frankie mischievously shows us the lurid floral boxer shorts he is wearing under the toga; or lifts up the foam cover over a bathtub, exposing his mistress’s bubble bath as a fake! He seems put-out by his fellow artistes’ success, registering protests: “She gets all the best lines — its not right!”, or spiteful threats: “That’s right — enjoy your last appearance on this show!” But the spontaneity is merely a clever decep­tion — as the writers divulged “even the ad-libs are rehearsed for days”.

The next venture was a successful film adaptation produced by Ned Sherrin. With an entirely new cast (including Michael Hordern, Patrick Cargill and Lance Percival) and the absence of a studio audience, it boasted more nudity than was permissible on the small screen. The following years brought more Up period pieces to the cinemas. For Up The Chastity Belt Frankie became Saxon serf, Lurkalot, and in Up The Front, World War I soldier, Private Lurk.

Back on television, another series was planned, but regrettably Talbot Rothwell was unavailable. Also, Frankie was worried about becoming typecast as a Roman slave, so instead he embarked on a substandard middle eastern rendition — the 6-part Whoops Baghdad. Howerd starred as the Wazir’s serv­ant, Au Oopla, with scripts by Sid Cohn, David Nobbs, Peter Vincent, Maurice Sellar and others. Characters, plots and dou­ble entendres all harked back to its Ancient Roman antecedent, but the direction was sloppy and the writing weak. Then in 1975, by public demand, Lurcio returned for a special Easter Monday edition of Up Pompeii!. There was even talk of another series in the autumn, dependent upon Rothwell’s commitments, but it did not eventuate.

By 1991, Frankie Howerd had once more been ‘rediscov­ered’ . The previous year he was back in the West End with a one-man show and his acclaimed address to the Oxford Union was televised by LWT. What surer way to consolidate his success than with a revival of his most famous character? Further Up Pompeii was a return to the hoary gags and anach­ronisms of its predecessors, but with one obvious difference:

“It is not now B.C. — it is not now B.B.C!”, referring to the move to London Weekend Television. Amazingly, the special was no more permissive than the original series — even Lurcio’s pitying aside “Poor bar steward!” would not be out of place in an episode from 1970. But sadly it didn’t really come off, mainly because Frankie appears very slow-moving, plump and worn — not surprising since he was concealing his real age of 74 when the show was made. Just before the final credits, for the very last time Lurcio signed off with the familiar two-fingered salute and departing sally “Salute!”

EPISODE GUIDE

Comedy Playhouse: BBC1, Wednesday 17 September 1969 (35mins)
Starring Frankie Howerd (Lurcio), Max Adrian (Ludicrus Sextus), Elizabeth Lamer (Ammonia), Kerry Gardner (Nausius), Georgina Moon (Erotica), John Junkin (Odius)
Script by Talbot Rothwell
Ludicrus Sextus is trying to pass a bill through the senate which will enable slaves to buy their freedom for 500 drach­mas. Lurcio is determined to raise the money. Whilst Captain Bilius, the slave trader, is otherwise engaged with his old flame Ammonia, Lurcio takes charge of his girl captives. One is sold to Nausius and the other three to the ‘madam’ of the Ludi Puerorum (or Playboy) Club. But still 100 drachmas short, Lurcio tricks his mistress into accompanying the girls, decked out in appropriate scrubber attire.

SERIES 1
BBC1, Mondays 30 March to 11 May 1970 (7 x 35 min)
Starring Frankie Howerd (Lurcio), Max Adrian (Ludicrus Sextus), Elizabeth Lamer (Ammonia). Kerry Gardner (Nausius), GeorginaMoon (Erotica)(eps 1 & 7), William Rushton (Plautus), JeanneMockford (Senna)
Scripts by Talbot Rothwell

1/1 Vestal Virgins
with Trisha Noble, Hugh Paddick, Geoffrey Hughes
It is the occasion of the Festival of Vestal Virgins (or VV Day) and it befits the master to choose the winning girl, who must be pure in mind and body. However evil Noxius, fearing for the future of his Playboy club, plans to discredit the senator. With the help of his henchman, Pitius, he substitutes his girls for the sole two contestants. The Gods express their anger and Lurcio is ordered to find a replacement. He realises the master’s daughter, Erotica is obviously unsuitable, but his son, Nausius is a possibility — with the help of a wig, gown and some sticking plaster!

1/2 The Ides of March
with Robert Gillespie. Nicholas Smith, Michael Knowles, Wendy Richard, Colin Bean
Three senators secretly meet at the home of Ludicrus Sextus to arrange the assassination of Caesar, who is visiting Pompeii. Lurcio distributes the straws to decide who will plunge the dagger, and finds himself holding the longest straw! But Caesar (another role for Frankie, as patiently explained to the audience) receives a warning visit from Ammonia which turns into an amorous encounter. Meanwhile Lurcio has been ar­rested, but when his resemblance to the great Caesar is detected, he is groomed to impersonate the Roman ruler, resulting in an exhausting series of costume changes for Frankie.

1/3 The Senator
with Derek Francis, Valerie Leon, James Ottaway
Ammonia informs Lurcio of the impending visit of the wicked Senator Lecherus, and orders the slave to finish him off with a poisonous Egyptian asp. At the same time Ludicrus learns that he is to entertain Caesar’s friend, Senator Primus Stovus. Needless to say, a mix-up ensues — Primus Stovus is locked in the cellar with the asp, and Ammonia returns home to find Lecherus in her bedroom with Nausius’ girlfriend.

1/4 Brittanicus
with Wallas Eaton, Robin Hunter, Peter Needham
When a proclamation is decreed insisting that every able-bod­ied man must report to his nearest army depot to quash the British uprising, Ludicrus is eager to go into battle. Lurcio does not share his enthusiasm, since long ago he was forced to flee Brittanicus when he refused to marry the girl from the next cave. Against his wishes, he finds himself posted overseas and serving in a Roman encampment. Foolishly he accepts a gift of a wooden ‘Jersean Cow’ from the Britons, enabling them to gain the upper hand. Lurcio awaits the arrival of Queen Boadicea.

1/5 The Actors
with Olwen Griffiths, Audrey Nicholson, Bill Maynard
Lurcio is sent to the Hippodrome Theatre to deliver a note to Cuspidor from his former acquaintance, Ammonia, and another to Hermione from her former acquaintance, Ludicrus. By the time he arrives. Cuspidor has done a bunk so, much to his delight, Lurcio is given an audition for a masked play. But he is soon interrupted by Nausius, who has come looking for his beloved Hernia, and the confusion begins.

1/6 Spartacus
with Shaun Curry, Wallas Eaton, Vic Taylor, Larry Martyn
Spartacus is organising a revolt and even Nausius has joined his ‘free the slaves’ campaign. Although attempting to steer clear of this rebellion, hapless Lurcio is arrested by centurions and incarcerated in a dungeon. Here he is happy to be away from the bloody battle raging outside but there seems to be no shortage of people trying to rescue him. Eventually Spartacus enters victorious and Lurcio assumes his place as master in the home of Ludicrus Sextus.

1/7 The Love Potion
with Trisha Noble. Mollie Sugden, Lynda Baron, David Kernan
Everyone in the household is lining up a bit of hanky-panky tonight, and Lurcio is being paid off to stay away. But when he hears the beautiful Lusha will be arriving, Lurcio decides to get in on the action by impersonating his master. Adorned with a laurel wreath and dressed in the finest toga, our hero ensures a successful evening by emptying an apothecary’s love filter into the wine. The effect of the potion is to cause the imbiber to immediately fall in love with the first person he sees. But when the others arrive home with their partners and partake of the wine, the result is pandemonium.

SPECIAL
A Royal Television Gala Performance: BBC1. Sunday 24 May 1970
This 100-minute benefit show contained an Up Pompeii! segment starring Frankie Howerd, Elizabeth Lamer, Kerry Gardner and Jeanne Mockford
Script by Talbot Rothwell

SERIES 2
BBC1, Mondays, 14 September to 26 October 1970 (not 5October) (6 x 30 min)
Starring Frankie Howerd (Lurcio), Wallas Eaton (Ludicrus Sextus), Elizabeth Lamer (Ammonia), Kerry Gardner (Nausius), GeorginaMoon (Erotica)(eps 1, 2, 4 & 6), Jeanne Mockford (Senna)
Scripts by Talbot Rothwell and Sid Colin

2/1 The Legacy
with Pat Coombs, Anita Richardson, Bunny May, William Corderoy
Ludicrus learns that his rich uncle, ‘filthy’ Lucre has died and left his nephew 10,000 drachmas provided he has a child to be named after his benefactor. With his master and mistress both doubting each other’s capabilities, Lurcio seeks out Tarta the sorceress to provide them with a rejuvenation potion. Unfor­tunately, Ludicrus takes both his and Ammonia’s dose and reverts to his childhood. All looks lost, until Lurcio realises they already have a son…

2/2 Roman Holiday
with Kenneth J. Warren, Grazma Frame, Penelope Charteris
Ludicrus arrives home unexpectedly, having just left for the weekend, only to discover two young women in the bath. When Lurcio explains that they have been rescued from a galley slave trader, the fierce Captain Felonius, Ludicrus insists that they be removed from the house. Meantime Ammonia and Erotica return home and are mistakenly carried off by the trader, leaving the two slave girls, much to the delight of Lurcio and his master.

2/3 James Bondus
with George Baker, Patricia Haines, Larry Martyn
The plans for a secret weapon capable of hurling coconuts 25feet have been stolen from Ludicrus, minister of defence. Sud­denly a mysterious cloaked figure from military intelligence returns the blueprints to Lurcio, but is stabbed before he can name the traitor. Soon the slave, with the documents safely tucked under his toga, is visited by spies — the charismatic Jamus Bondus and the wicked seductress Pussus Galoria.

2/4 The Peace Treaty
with Alan Curtis, David Anderson
The men of Pompeii are once more preparing for war. Even Lurcio has received his call-up tablets instructing him to join Capt. Bumshus’ ENSA regiment — the East Naples Suicide Army, that is. But Nausius’ story of Lysistrata gives Lurcio an idea; he decides to adopt the same method to avoid conscription. Appearing in drag as the busty Titicata, he urges the womenfolk of Pompeii to withhold their favours until the men refuse to go to war (‘No Piece Without Peace’). Ludicrus decides that this Titicata must have a woman’s weaknesses, and Bumshus is commissioned to expose them.

2/5Nymphia
with Barbara Windsor, Michael Brennan, Roy Stewart
Nausius has met an innocent young girl, whom he proposes to wed. The family are pleased for him, but soon change their minds when they meet his intended, Nymphia, a ‘commoner than muck’ strip club dancer. Lurcio is ordered to prevent the marriage, so he poses as a wealthy eastern potentate and attempts to lure her away from the boy. Whilst ‘the Caliph of Khazi’ is flirting with the girl, Nausius is summoned to catch them in flagrante delicto. However, who should turn up instead, but Nymphia’s father!

2/6 Exodus
with Jean Kent, Paul Whitsun-Jones, Bunny May, Larry Martyn
Having lost his seat in the senate, the master is selling his house and moving to Rome. To face expenses, Lurcio is sent to be sold at the Nefarius Slave Boutique, where he waits in chains, marked down from 195 drachmas. Soon he is taken on approval for a try-out by the sex-mad Aphrodite. Luckily, Nausius and Erotica witness his plight and save up to buy him back again at the auction.

SPECIALS

Further Up Pompeii!: BBC1, Monday 31 March 1975 (45 min)
Starring Frankie Howerd (Lurcio), Mark Dignam (Ludicrus Sextus), Elizabeth Lamer (Ammonia), Kerry Gardner (Nausius), John Cater (Pollux), Jeanne Mockford (Senna)
Script by Talbot Rothwell

Further Up Pompeii: LWT, Saturday 14 December 1991 (45mins)
Starring Frankie Howerd (Lurcio), Joanna Dickens (Colossa), Eliza­beth Anson (Petunia), John Bardon (Villainus Brutus), Russell Gold (Noxius), Ben Aris (Flatus), Peter Geeves (Ambiguous)
Script by Paul Minett and Brian Leveson
Lurcio is now a freeman with his own slaves, and running the Bacchus wine bar. Today two of his customers are gladiators from the Colosseum — the mighty Gluteus Maximus and the puny Umbilicus. Lurcio’s boss, the wicked Villainus, tries to fix the fight by ordering his employee to drug Gluteus’ wine. But when Lurcio poisons Umbilicus instead, our hero is forced to fill the breach.

FILM

Up Pompeii!
Anglo-EMI (released April 1971)
Starring Frankie Howerd (Lurcio), Michael Hordern (Ludicrus Sextus), Barbara Murray (Ammonia), Patrick Cargill (Nero), Lance Percival (Bilius), Julie Ege (Voluptua), Bill Fraser (Prosperus Maximus), Rita Webb (Cassandra), Bernard Bresslaw (Gorgo), Adrienne Posta (Scrubba), Madeline Smith (Erotica), Hugh Paddick (priest), Roy Hudd (M. C.)
Screenplay: Sid Colin (based on idea by Talbot Rothwell)
Lurcio finds himself in possession of a damning scroll containing the names of the conspirators who plan to assassinate the Emperor Nero when he arrives in Pompeii. Discovering it substituted for his speech to the Senate, Ludicrus sets off to denounce the ringleader, Prosperus, but is instead seduced by his wife, Voluptua. He is rescued by Lurcio disguised as a Nubian eunuch, who is captured and forced to wrestle Nero’s champion, Gorgo. To everyone’s amazement he is declared the winner and ordered to kill Prosperus. But after a wild chase in the steam baths, rumblings are heard from Vesuvius…

BOOK

Up Pompeii!
by William Rand (from the film screenplay) Sphere paperback (1972)

 

 

RECORD

Up Pompeii/Salute
Columbia DB 8757 (7” single)
sung by Frankie Howerd

VIDEOS

Up Pompeii! — Vestal Virgins
(BBCV 4458)(1991)
Vestal Virgins
The Love Potion
James Bondus

Up Pompeii! The Legacy
(BBCV 4465) (1991)
The Legacy
Roman Holiday
Exodus

Up Pompeii! (1971 movie version) 
Warner PES 38107, Weintraub/Braveworld WTB 38107

Further Up Pompeii (1991 LWT special)

 

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