'A sort of Carry On Up The Forum' (Radio Times Magazine)
Up Pompeii combined saucy Carry On style comedy with elements of farce to produce a well-loved vehicle for Frankie Howerd, in the role of Lurcio, to 'tickle the fancy' of the entire British public.
Beginning with a 1969 pilot episode, running through 1970 and culminating in the 1971 film version, Up Pompeii was a runaway success. Fourteen BBC episodes were made, featuring a regular cast and guest stars such as Barbara Windsor, Pat Coombs, Geoffrey Hughes and Mollie Sugden. It is for Frankie Howerd's impeccably smutty delivery that the show is truly remembered, however, proving once again that there's always room on British television for plenty of sexual innuendo and camp capers.
The format of the show was simple but effective. Lurcio was the slave of government senator Ludicrus and his buxom wife, Ammonia. Every episode, despite its innocent beginnings, would expand into a complex, usually life (or at the very least job) threatening mess, from which Lurcio would escape only through the most ingenious wriggling. Howerd toyed with the role mercilessly, dropping in an out of character as he pleased, making mocking asides to the camera, playing along with the audience in his own distinctive way. Even the plot was subject to Howerd's good-natured mockery, as he'd call the viewer's attention to the implausibility of what was going on, questioning the standard of his fellow actors and the ability of the script-writers. Far from detracting from the comedy value, Howerd's presence made the show what it was, and was, in all probability, essential to the BBC being allowed to get away with the cheap polystyrene sets and dodgy-looking costumes. When they're pointed out to you by the star of the show and you're invited to laugh along, it's difficult to find anything to complain about.
The writers of the show, Talbot Rothwell and Sid Colin, were both writers for the Carry On series of films, which explains the smut and innuendo that found its way into Up Pompeii Furthermore, the series itself owes much to the Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To the Forum, in which Frankie Howerd had already taken two roles - that of Prologus and Pseudolus. Radio Times, in fact, accurately described Up Pompeii as 'a sort of Carry On Up The Forum'.
Following the success of Up Pompeii the writers, along with Howerd, retained the format of the show but, in a move similar to that of the later Blackadder series, shifted to a different historical period. The film Up The Chastity Belt, 1971, featured the writing skills of comedy veterans Alan Simpson and Ray Galton in collaboration with Sid Colin, and repositioned Lurcio as Lurkalot, hapless serf in the Crusades. Up The Front, from 1972, pushed Howerd forwards as the under-footman Lurk. Back on the BBC, Whoops Baghdad attempted to set Up Pompeii in an Arabian Nights scenario, whilst a 1975 Up Pompeii special really signified the end of the franchise's success, though not the end of further cashing-in attempts.
There is no doubt, however, that Up Pompeii was, and indeed still is, a classic British comedy. With Howerd's larger than life stage presence, limitless supply of saucy catchphrases and an entire legion of risqué and witty names (Ambi Dextrus, Pussus Galoria, Scrophulus, Scrubba and Tittia are but five which spring to mind...), the show was pretty much bound for success, and well worth half an hour's hilarity out of anyone's busy schedule...
' As Cleopatra said to Marc Antony: if you liked it, tell your friends!' (Lurch)
Sources: BBC Website, IMDb, Beebfun