Monday 14 October 2019

Up Pompeii; A 50th Anniversary Audio Revival - Review


Adapted from the stage play by Miles Tredinnick that was based on the original characters and BBC TV scripts devised by Talbot Rothwell
Audio adaptation written by Barnaby Eaton-Jones, with Daniel McGachy and Iain McLaughlin
Directed by Barnaby Eaton-Jones

David Benson (in toga) with the cast of Up Pompeii

Titter ye not, and especially not amongst today’s woke folk, but a 1960s comedy classic centred around a captive slave has just been revived for the 21st century with a double CD due for release next month, just in time for Christmas.

Up Pompeii was a popular BBC TV comedy that went on to spawn two feature films in the mid Seventies, and which featured the comedy genius of Frankie Howerd as Lurcio, a slave in  Ancient Rome. The series revolved around Lurcio who would guide the show's viewers through the salacious activities going on within the household of his patrician owner Ludicrus Sextus. Much of the success of the original was down to Howerd, his camp, saucy, and titillatingly sexist gags, puns and irreverent comments that were often delivered straight to camera gave the show its energy, with his surrounding characters inevitably falling to be the butt of his seaside-postcard humour, laden with risque puns and double-entendres.

Working from the original scripts and more recent play adaptation, Barnaby Eaton-Jones has done well to capture the essence of the brilliant original, but the strength of this recording is provided by David Benson’s Lurcio. Benson’s mimicry of Howerd is uncanny and as one closes one’s eyes to listen, the transformation could be complete.

While the style of this politically incorrect curiosity has been maintained by Eaton-Jones, the recording's plotline is as creaky as a dilapidated Roman handcart. The (good) gags come aplenty early on in the piece, but as the story plays out - a yarn to do with runaway slaves and love potions, all mixed in with the day to day lechery of Ludicrus’ villa - the narrative wears dangerously thin. And while some aspects of the script have been updated to reflect 2019 - Ludicrus’ daughter Erotica “slates” (rather than “texts”) to her friend in a nod to modern day social media, complete with aubergine emojis - there is a disappointing hint of pulled-punch hypocrisy in the writing: Up Pompeii's comedy ultimately rests upon Rome’s barbaric slavery. That Eaton-Jones' script displays a complete absence of any comment whatsoever upon the various and august institutions that today are hand-wringingly addressing their guilt at having been built on slave trade wealth, seems to suggests that the slavery imposed by the Romans BCE is more acceptable than that imposed by the English speaking nations, on both sides of the Atlantic, many centuries later. 

Benson is well supported by a talented company whose highlights include a blustering Fraser Hines as Ludicrus alongside the always delightful Madeleine Smith - whose career saw her appear in the original movie alongside Howerd - who sparkles as his wife Ammonia. Cleo Rocos plays Suspenda, the nymphomaniac object of Ludicrus’ lust, while Tim Brooke-Taylor pops up as the evil slave trader Captain Treacherus.

For sure, much of the corny humour of Up Pompeii demands to be as dated as it has been written - this was the Carry On era of the 1960s/70s after all - but this script really needed to have been sharper to have truly stood the test of time. Nonetheless this CD of David Benson and his brilliant cast will offer a nostalgic stocking-filler of a gift for most of the nation’s over-50s.

To order the 2-CD recording, visit this link:

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